I am a founding director of Embrace Autism Singapore, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering families with loved ones on the autism spectrum. As a result of this work, I have been labeled an entrepreneur on more than one occasion. However, I’ve never thought to describe myself as such. I am an improviser with a degree in dance. Despite the fact that I don’t approach my work with a business mind, I, like many artists, embody a range of entrepreneurial characteristics. My passion for autism work emerged from my ongoing collaborative dance practice with Emily Climer, beginning with our work with Susan Sgorbati’s Emergent Improvisation Project at Bennington College, and my subsequent correspondence with neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni. Iacoboni’s research on mirror neurons, coupled with our conversations about dance and the brain, has been instrumental in shaping my ongoing work and research projects. My interests lie in understanding how shared movement practices and modes of improvisational mirroring can be used for tuning into and fostering empathy and interaction among people both in and outside the realms of dance, and particularly in therapeutic practices for children with autism or related developmental difficulties.
After graduating from Bennington, I began volunteering at The Autism Treatment Center of America™, home of The Son-Rise Program®. I was drawn to their program because of its similarities to my work in dance. Their program focuses on connecting and building relationships with children through “joining,” a technique that is similar to the same forms of shared movement that I utilize while improvising in the dance studio. I was also intrigued by their pedagogy. They do not use the traditional curriculums associated with autism therapy. Instead, the creators of The Son-Rise Program have designed a curriculum called the “social developmental model.” Their curriculum outlines goals and provides guidelines for targeting challenges related to socialization. However, the content for that curriculum is unique to each individual child they work with. Like an improvisational dance unfolding among an ensemble, the content emerges from and is shaped by the interests and motivations of the child. This is where my work and research in dance and autism converge. For me improvising in the dance studio is no different from working with a child in their playroom. Both practices are about cultivating connections, building relationships, and creating together.
In 2011 I moved to Singapore with my now-husband, Nick, when he received a job offer there. Shortly after, quite serendipitously, I met a Singaporean family who had come to The Autism Treatment Center of America for an intensive with their daughter. They welcomed my help and I began working with their daughter in their home. After working in Singapore for a couple of years, I noticed there was a lack of resources for families and their children, especially when it came to The Son-Rise Program. At that time training in The Son-Rise Program was not offered in Singapore or any other part of South East Asia. There were also no other therapies or programs that prioritized training and empowering parents to work directly with their children in a home-based setting.
I began to meet other families interested in the program who wanted me to help them and work with their children. While I wanted to help, I knew that I couldn’t support all of these families on my own. This awakened the improviser and creator in me, and I began asking myself what I could do to assist more families and their children. I teamed up with two incredibly passionate moms, both of whom were running Son-Rise Programs for their children. Together, we began to brainstorm about how we might help other families. We began by holding meetings where we could share our experiences and tips with other families seeking help. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to be enough and we decided to reach out to The Autism Treatment Center of America. I emailed Raun K. Kaufman, Director of Global Education and the first Son-Rise child, to ask if they would consider traveling to Singapore to teach The Son-Rise Program. After several email exchanges, they finally agreed to come. I was beyond ecstatic, but way out of my league! I had no idea how to run a large training program or a non-profit organization, and in a foreign country no less. However, I felt confident that this was what I was meant to do. I had stepped into something larger than myself and now I had the resources and responsibility to make a difference for the families of this community. Despite the fact that I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off, I knew that I could improvise, and the skills that came with that knowledge would prove to be invaluable as I set out to create what is now known as Embrace Autism.
As an improviser, you are always composing with the unknown. Sifting through emerging content, observing patterns, adapting to changes, and attempting to create order out of chaos. Because of this, I was right in my element when it came to endeavoring to create something new, something that had never been attempted in this part of the world. However, I grossly underestimated the complexities of starting a new organization in a foreign country. No matter what stage of the process we were in there was always something that I didn’t know. I had to get really comfortable with not knowing. I also had to accept that there were not always creative solutions to be had for the challenges that I was facing. Sometimes it was simply a matter of legality and red tape. For instance, who knew there were so many international fundraising laws and that they require permits? Withholding tax, what’s that? Why didn’t my pro bono lawyer mention this at inception?
Over time, and despite feeling like I would forever be treading water in uncharted territory, I learned to trust my intuition again. I continued to remind myself to lean into my skills as an improviser, even if the problems couldn’t be met with creative solutions. Ultimately, despite my lack of knowledge of business affairs, my ability to translate and apply my skills as an improviser in this context is what contributed to my success in building a sustainable organization. My dance colleagues and I talk a lot about the broader applications of our work in improvisation, and it’s always exciting to experience that first hand. Building Embrace Autism played a pivotal role in helping me understand who I am and what I have to offer, not only to the autism and arts communities but to the world. The techniques encompassed in these improvisational practices are infinitely applicable and offer frameworks that can help engage creative problem-solving strategies across any number of fields. Improvisation is more than just an approach to work, it’s an approach to life.
The moms that co-founded and directed Embrace Autism with me are also seasoned improvisers. They are not professional dancers, but they are skilled in The Son-Rise Program, which as I mentioned requires a certain level of creative thinking. Working with a child in The Son-Rise Program is like an improvisational duet. As the child’s facilitator you are tuning into and observing their interests, following the emerging threads, and spontaneously initiating and developing activities that are tethered to their current motivations. In this way, we share in and value the skills of improvisational thinking. This not only brought us together but solidified us as teammates and collaborators. Still, our success would not have been possible without the phenomenal team of parent volunteers that showed up to help us along the way. Some of these amazing people not only showed up to help, but later became integral members of the team. From web designing, to running tech, they proved themselves to be invaluable and I would be remiss not to acknowledge their contributions. We embraced the unknown together, we trusted each other’s strengths, and relied on one another to navigate the challenges.
Our ability to cultivate a collaborative work environment is not only a testament to our strengths as directors and leaders but to the organization's long-term sustainability. We struck a balance between pushing ourselves to take on new roles and maintaining a sense of humility about recognizing and naming if and when we no longer had the capacities necessary to accomplish a given task. Some people have a knack for wearing many different hats at the same time. I don’t have a desire to be one of them and, as directors, we saw more value in building a strong team. We surrounded ourselves with people whose knowledge and expertise would not simply fill in the gasps but strengthen and work in concert with our mission.
Embrace Autism was created through investment of our personal funds and we budgeted the project in order to simply break even. The goal was to bring one training course in The Son-Rise Program to Singapore, and we intended for it to be a singular event after which we would dissolve the organization. Yet here we are, five years later, still going strong! We did more than simply break even, we made a small profit and were able to use it to continue offering training courses. Together with The Autism Treatment Center of America, we’ve held programs not only in Singapore but throughout South East Asia. We’ve partnered with other international non-profit groups and even expanded our organization to create teams in the Philippines and Malaysia. We also provide a variety of other in-home support services to our local families.
While I never would have intentionally signed up to run a non-profit organization, it’s been an incredibly rewarding and powerful experience. When I reflect on how many families we’ve been able to help, I am overcome with emotion. I am in awe of what we, three small but fiercely passionate and enthusiastic women, were able to accomplish. I had no idea it would have such a significant impact, or that it would have the capacity to reshape the landscape of this community so profoundly. While I am no longer one of the organization’s acting directors, I work closely with the team and have recently been writing a step-by-step guide on how to run The Son-Rise Program abroad for other international groups or folks hoping to bring the program to their hometown. Today, as Embrace Autism continues to grow under new leadership, it's nothing short of spectacular to stand back as the organization that I created thrives and takes on a life of its own.