Our inspiring parent this month is Katie Saint, a local author and lead therapist at Fox Valley Autism. April is Autism Awareness Month, so it was especially important to us to choose Katie as our spotlight this month.
We’re meeting together in a cozy office space downtown that Katie uses for counseling sessions, and her warm, outgoing personality makes me feel instantly welcome. I can instantly see that Katie is highly passionate about her work and the lives of the families she is involved with. She just lights up when she speaks.
VERONIKA: What moved you to work with people with autism?
KATIE: I started with autism in 2005. I’ve always wanted to be a counselor and work with people with disabilities or just anyone struggling really. My whole life
I’ve wanted to do this.
When I moved to Wisconsin, I was looking for a job and I had actually never heard about in-home autism therapy. One of my husband’s friends was working at Fox Valley Autism Treatment Program and was all excited about the job, she loved it so much, so then I really wanted to do it too cause it sounded awesome!
So, I got in as a line therapist and it was super rewarding; teaching kids how to talk, helping kids work through behaviors, and learning basic skills they’re going to need to be functional in life. I just kind of fell in love with it and I’ve been doing it ever since. I added degrees so I could stay in the field long term.
I truly love my work. I joke that I’m the person who doesn’t dread going to work on Monday. I truly, truly love my job.
V: What is your favorite part of your work?
K: That’s so hard! I guess I’ll pick a few – when a child goes from nonverbal to fully verbal, that feels so good. That’s a big deal. If a kid once couldn’t talk and now they are telling you stories, I can’t tell you how many moms I’ve sat with who are emotional and voicing their heart saying, “It would be so nice if I could ask my child how their day was and I could get an answer.”
I also really like working with really violent kids. Just because from the families’ perspective, that is so hard and so stressful. So if we can get that behavior under control and bring peace to that family, that feels really good too.
It’s also super rewarding to help kids develop social skills to the point of the developing friendships. It always breaks my heart to see these kids with
great personalities and interests and abilities; I just fall in love with them. And sometimes they have a hard time making friends. It breaks my heart to see this really loveable kid who’s going to school and no one wants to talk to them. They aren’t making friends and they aren’t invited to birthday parties and I’m like, “No! You guys don’t know how loveable this kid is!”
So it’s really rewarding to see these kids develop and maintain friendships and they’re no longer the outcasts. We’re helping these kids get to a point where other people can see how loveable they are too.
V: How does your work influence your parenting, and in return, how does your parenting influence your work?
K: So, I have two boys now, ages eight and ten, but I was really lucky that I was actually a line therapist before I had kids. So that was super helpful to me just in teaching me some basic parenting strategies, like the value of following through, for example. Being a therapist has really helped me in parenting strategies and to figure out ways for my husband and me to be on the same page and the communication needed for that.
Even if I think I have the best plan in the world, but he doesn’t agree with it – a plan like that isn’t really going to work well if we aren’t in agreement. Sometimes we compromise, sometimes we do a trial run and track behavior to see if the behavior is getting better or worse. We will actually track data on our kids and see what methods are working and are effective.
After having kids, it made me a better therapist in some ways as well. When you study ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), it teaches you that all behavior is lawful. Meaning, if we can control all the variables, it will turn out the same way every time. So you really have this absolute belief in how things should work. So then when we are working on a family with a behavior plan and we really need the parents to follow through – sometimes life gets crazy and they don’t. Before I had kids, that was harder for me to understand, but then I had kids of my own and I thought, “Oh! I get it now” you come home from work or school, you’re tired from the day, and your child has a behavior. You know that if you confront it, it might escalate and add more stress. Versus, if you just let them have that piece of candy, you can continue with what you’re doing. So, having kids helped me to understand and be more compassionate.
Parents would share their stories and wish they could experience certain things. If I didn’t experience that thing with my own kids, or if I did and I really valued it, I just wanted them to experience it too, or then I understand why they were so upset because I want that experience too.
Parenting is hard. And you can try to do everything by the book, you can try to do everything right, but sometimes you can’t control all the variables. And I think people don’t seek help enough. There’s depression rate, anxiety rates, suicide rates, all sky high. I think people are afraid to seek help. They don’t know where to go, or
who to go to. Even if you aren’t sure, if you’re thinking, “Well, it may just be a phase,” it doesn’t hurt to just ask a professional, you know?
And then, say it’s no big deal, having a professional tell you it’s no big deal will give you peace of mind! There’s so much help out there and so many caring people out there who want to help.
Parenting is hard and there is more support out there than people utilize.
V: You recently published a book called, “Awkward: The Social Do’s and Don’ts of Being a Young Adult”, can you explain what that book is about and how it came to be?
K: So the book Awkward, it’s tailored towards our teenage to twenty age group, and it’s a list of do’s and don’ts for social situations. We try to come up with every situation that we could think of that they would be exposed to and the social norms in those settings. It has an example script, discussion questions, and a self-assessment, so that kids or young adults can use it as a guide and keep themselves in check.
I have quite a few young adults and even older adults on the spectrum that come see me for mental health counseling and they’re high enough functioning that they might recognize they may have some awkward social skills, but they’re not sure how to fix it or they don’t really know what they’re doing that’s awkward. They just see that people aren’t responding to them the way that they had hoped.
So this book is targeting toward those people and we have sections of the book they can refer to- so if they were going to go out to eat or something, they could look at this page and quick review it and it will kind of help them keep in mind what to do and what not to do- that kind of stuff.
In the back of the book, we have a resource section which has things like example wardrobes, facial expression examples, and then we have an activity where we have a whole bunch of phrases and emotions and what we want people to do with that activity is practice using those phrases and different emotions to help people understand that you can say a lot of things, but if you say it with the wrong tone, that’s going to send a different message.
So that’s kind of the overview of the book. It will be for sale in August. Carlos Torres came up with the idea a year ago and he has just a real big heart for these kids and he pitched this idea to me one day and I was really excited about his idea. He’s a really creative guy so I trusted that if we were to write a book together, he would have some really great ideas.
We started writing the book, we’d meet once a week and just brainstorm. We got an illustrator from Minnesota to help with pictures for the dos and don’ts pages. She was really, really talented. We started researching different publishers and we picked Future Horizons to apply to first because, from what we understood, they were the leading publishers in books related to autism. We applied to them and they told us they would take approximately three to six months to respond. They wanted one-third of the book and then they would make their decision based on that.
Well they responded in three weeks that they approved it, they wanted to publish it, but they needed everything in thirty days! We had about 95% of the words done, but the pictures were only about 15% done. So we called our illustrator, right over Christmas, and we asked her if she could finish 105 images in only thirty days. She’s a work from home mom who homeschools her kids, she’s a busy lady! But she said yes, she worked like crazy her family was super supportive, her husband even took time off work and she got it done.
Now we’re in the waiting period, but the book is up for preorder on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
V: What is some advice you have for parents navigating their children through puberty?
K: Puberty is a topic that I care very deeply about because it doesn’t get talked about enough. Many of our kiddos are at risk of being on one side or the other of being victims or being someone who accidentally does something that could get them in trouble with the law, or offend people. So, a lot of parents and therapists are uncomfortable with the topic. There’s a lot of awkward things to talk about and sometimes
the kids are really uncomfortable.
But, if we’re not the ones to talk to them, their peers are going to be the ones to talk to them about it. Or, maybe no one will. Then say, a girl, for example, has her period and she is suddenly terrified and confused. So I just really believe really strongly that we need to be talking about these things early, really early.
I recommend that starting at age three, we start to talk about physical boundaries and who you can hug, or who you can kiss, and is it okay to say “no” and who owns your body? All of those conversations. Starting super young. Then as the child gets older, the conversations mature. Then by age seven, I recommend starting to talk about how their bodies will change.
The conversation can be pretty casual because puberty probably won’t start for a couple more years, but they probably know someone in their life who’s starting to go through this now. And if they happen to start early, then at least they have a heads up. As they get closer and closer to puberty, then you start talking about the more logistical things – hygiene and all of that kind
Once a child goes through puberty, then I really like to start talking about relationship kind of stuff and boundaries around that. And now, with kids having so much exposure to social media and the internet, there’s so much safety risk there. Kids, in general, these days, not understanding internet safety, like if you send a picture, who knows where that’s going to end up?
Especially since, if a child starts going down a path that’s unhealthy in a relationship or a sexual sort of way, that’s a lot harder to undo. If we beat them to it, we’re going to protect them from so much more.
We have had a lot of older kids who have had a lot of confusion about sexual stuff in general. They were exposed to porn and different things like that and they thought that you could just do what they saw in the videos. So, they went on and tried it, and they were innocent from the perspective that they truly didn’t know – they saw it in a movie so they thought it was okay, but some of them got in trouble with the law, and so that’s why I feel so strongly that we have to have these conversations and make sure our kids know what’s okay and what’s not okay.
As a result of that, we started a class through Fox Valley Autism called, “Healthy Relationships”, and it’s for our older kiddos. We talk about everything related to relationships, sex, dating, bodies. We want it to be a safe place where kids can go and ask questions on all these different topics.
V: What’s your biggest success as a parent? Biggest challenge?
K: Hmmm … my biggest success as a parent. That’s so hard. One of my biggest goals was that my kids would never question that I loved them. And, I’m a busy mom. Right now I’m working on my PHD. When I’m not working, I’m doing homework. Most of their lives, I’ve been very busy. So I’ve always really tried to figure out, what is the right amount of quality time? And struggling with mom guilt: is it okay that I work? When I’m not working, do they get enough quality time with me?
I check in with them a lot and make sure their needs are being met. I’m really passionate about my job, and I love it, but my kids are my number one. My promise to myself was that I would never let my job become so important to me that my kids would pay a price.
So I guess I feel really good about that- they don’t question that I love them. But, some days I’m just really proud that I kept them alive!
My biggest struggle…parenting, in general, is hard. When you’re emotionally exhausted and they’re fighting over something so pointless, trying to have the patience, it’s all so hard. I try really hard to stay patient, but some days it’s just really hard. I joke that I want my co-workers to come in and give me feedback on my own parenting!
There’s a lot of hard parts about parenting, but there’s a lot of really, really great parts
Katie’s Parent Talks on YouTube can be accessed by clicking here:
Purchase or Pre-order Katie’s books here:
Other Resources for Families: