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Tomorrow's Voices deserve to be heard

New challenge: Kim Mills executive director of Tomorrow?s Voices.
Through a career spanning more than 16 years, American Kim Mills, 37, has helped young people, particularly those with learning disabilities, in a variety of capacities, from helping young boys build their own cabin as an alternative to incarceration, to helping to implement an award-winning programme in the Georgia court system to uncovering hidden learning disabilities of young people caught up in the legal system.Dr Mills revently became executive director of Tomorrow's Voices, Bermuda's only autism early intervention centre. There are currently seven students at Tomorrow's Voices with an eighth starting in January. Dr Mills said she was attracted to Bermuda to work in the programme, by the high level of therapies offered by Tomorrow's Voices. She also has family here.Jessie Moniz<I> </I>sat down with Dr Mills to chat about her work, and Tomorrow's Voices.

Question:How did you come to hear about Tomorrow’s Voices?Answer: I was looking on a professional website for my field which is applied behavioural analysis (ABA). I was looking for ways to become more involved with my colleagues in this field. I was scanning the website and saw this amazing opportunity in Bermuda. I have worked in this field for a long time, and I knew that the National Autism Centre had just come out with a review of all the empirical research related to kids with autism. That was important, because, in the past, a lot of people were using therapies that they thought were beneficial without any research to back them up. You can’t say something is beneficial until you test measure it and do a rigorous study. The methodology by Tomorrow’s Voices were all the ones cited as best practices. I knew I was going into an organisation that was using cutting edge methods, in terms of global best practices for kids with autism and developmental disabilities.Q: What were you doing before you came to Bermuda?A: I was working with children with autism in Hawaii. I graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in 1995. I have been serving kids with special needs with various capacities for 16 years.Q: How did you start out in this field?A: I worked at a wilderness school for kids with emotional disturbances and behavioural problems. The programme was an alternative to incarceration. It was experiential education. Learning was incorporated into all of the activities. They learned ecology in terms of knowing what trees to cut down. They learned personal safety. They learned about forest management and things like that. There was math, in terms of the logistics of measuring the different poles. There was team work activities. In that setting there was a cabin building component, a ropes course, a ten-day back packing trip and a river trip.Q: Would you like to see Bermudian children doing something like that?A: I think those activities would be beneficial for all kids. I think that is a lot of what Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme tries to facilitate. We are actually with Duke of Edinburgh’s Award as an approved provider. Young people in the programme can do their volunteer hours with Tomorrow’s Voices.Q: What’s new at Tomorrow’s Voices?A: We just completed our fourth training in our year-long training institute. That was about social skills. It went really well and we are happy with the continued interest in professional development by different Bermuda educators. We put on a training session for the Ministry of Education on data collection techniques, as it relates to working with people with disabilities. We were really excited about that because we are a very data-based organisation. We have been doing a lot of private training for different schools and organisations on autism and ABA and how to deal with problem behaviour. I wanted to clear up some misconceptions about Tomorrow’s Voices. Some have said we only do ABA and verbal behaviour (VB) therapy. That is not the case. We do those therapies because the research supports them as being a best practice, but we also do natural environmental teaching which is also a recommended best practice. We do antecedent modifications which are also research based best practice. It is a type of manipulation where you manipulate elements in the environment to avoid problem behaviour or to make learning more accessible. We do a range of therapies as long as the research supports them.Q: What about the social skills group you are starting?A: We are starting that soon. It is something that parents have been asking for and we are happy that we can finally deliver social skill training for kids with disabilities. It is for all kids with disabilities, not just autism from ages six to 16. It is the type of thing we need volunteers for. Some of our parents have said they want to participate because they want to know how to work with their kids in the community. It is also an opportunity for the parents to have some respite. As you can imagine that having a child with a disability there is little down time. You are never off. We also offer a summer camp for kids with autism. That is very successful. I think it is important for the public to know, we are hardly ever closed. There are limited options for kids with autism and other disabilities in terms of summer camps. We are pretty much open all the time so that parents don’t have to take off work.Q: Are the parents you talk to desperate for this kind of intervention in Bermuda?A: I think the reason Tomorrow’s Voices was formed was because there were no offerings here. Parents were having to send their children overseas for services. There just wasn’t anything here. Now you have a global model of excellence.Q: Have you seen parents bringing back children who were being educated overseas?A: We have a family bringing their child back from overseas. We are so happy about that. That is the thing that makes me so happy. The parents don’t have to be separated from their child. It is a really big deal.Q: Have you seen many changes with the children that are there?A: Yes, we have seen many changes. We had one child who had self-injurious behaviour. Their problem in terms of duration was reduced by 76 percent compared to what the child had before starting with us. The child is actually able to be places now. The child’s parents had so much trouble because the child was so wild. People just didn’t understand. Sometimes when you have a child that looks like a typically developing peer, it is difficult for people to understand that there is something else going on. All of our kids are making progress. We keep data related to academic and social and different routines. Of course, we keep data related to frequency of problem behaviour, duration and words. We had kids coming in who didn’t know how to sign or speak when they started and now they are using language. I also want to make a strong point that while service of children with autism was why we were formed, we have kids at the centre that have other developmental delays.Q: What other developmental delays are there?A: Developmental delays (DD) is a term usually given when the child is between zero and four-years-old, when the professionals are not really sure what is going on and they don’t want to give it a label. At Tomorrow’s Voices, the kids who can be ready for school, we are getting them ready. That is why early intervention is key. Our youngest is two-years-old. That is the ideal age we can really start kids. You can really make a meaningful difference in terms of whether they can be in a regular classroom at six, seven or eight-years-old and whether they can be in a regular classroom. We have several children that we are transitioning out of Tomorrow’s Voices into a regular classroom. We are not at the point where at least four of our kids are being mainstreamed into Ministry of Education schools. That is very exciting. Our hope is that maybe they will get to the point where they don’t even need a paraprofessional. Our goal is always normalcy.Q: Previously you did some advocacy work?A: I previously worked in Fulton County, Georgia at the largest juvenile court in the southeastern United States. I ran a programme for kids with disabilities involved in the juvenile court system. They were mostly hidden disabilities. Like my students with autism, they looked like they were typically developing, but sometimes there were other things impacting what was going on. The programme did very well. It went from something that was just a grant and someone’s idea and made it a permanent part of Fulton County. It was ranked by Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation as one of the top 100 programmes in the nation. That was in 2006. That was endorsed by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education as a model state initiative. There were a lot of good parts. It was named the best court programme in Georgia in 2005. The programme had a statistically significant impact on identifying kids with disabilities who were not being identified by the schools.Q: When you hear about all the violence in the community, do you think unaddressed disabilities or unaddressed childhood issues could be involved?A: I wouldn’t say disabilities, but I would hazard a guess to say definite learning challenges. We know for sure that the more engaged with school, the less they are to be involved with delinquent behaviour. Part of school engagement is the academic piece and the social piece. It is not only about dealing with the learning challenges so they can grasp the academics, but the social piece, that mentor. The research suggests how powerful it is to have a mentor. Mentorship and literacy are the biggest protective factors in terms of keeping kids on the right track.