Extraordinary individuals like Maria Papageorgiou (M.S., CCC-SLP), remind us that unparalleled excellence, passion, ingenuity, and benevolence do exist; and they should be sought after, emulated, and celebrated. Maria is a Senior Speech Language Pathologist at the prestigious, pioneering, and world-renowned Kennedy Krieger Institute in Mary
land, where she has helped transform and enrich the lives of those on the autism spectrum and their families. In this interview, Maria shares with us the invaluable insights, experiences, and shared triumphs she has garnered while transforming the lives of those in her care from infancy to adulthood; and raising up the next generation of professionals in her field. For Maria, her work isn’t merely a career – it’s a calling
HM: What inspired you to become an SLP?
MP: From a young age I loved working with children. I found true inner satisfaction by doing volunteer work at children’s hospitals, clinics, summer camps, musical/theater groups, tutoring foreign language, and mentoring youth. I knew I wanted to pursue a field where I could make a difference in children’s lives. After graduating from the University of Maryland, I wanted to pursue graduate studies in Neuropsychology, as I've always been fascinated with language and the brain. While working at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), I participated in a study involving a new (at that time) diagnostic imaging technique called Positron Emission Tomography (PET), and also conducted research and co-authored Attentional Capacities in Children with Autism (Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Dec. 1998, Vol. 28, Issue 6, pp 467-478). During that time, I discovered a genuine connection with the children, and I knew my destiny was to help individuals communicate and live fulfilled lives. I changed my professional journey to start focusing in speech-language pathology. As I worked in the field, I started to see how unique and amazing each child was. Early on in my studies, I learned that what we read in text books, although important to know, doesn’t always match what we see in the real world. It is our experiences and interactions with others that teach us how things truly are. To this day, I teach my graduate interns, clinical fellows, and certified SLPs this same thing. No one individual with autism is alike. We are all unique with differences. The individuals I work with are special in their own ways with tremendous skills. I believe it is my job, and by extension a mission, as a clinician to help discover those skills, fine tune, and teach the students to put them to use. When my graduate studies were complete and I was a speech language pathologist, I remembered feeling proud, but also realized a sense of duty. I knew that I had an important role to play in the lives of individuals with special needs, and I was ready to begin the amazing and uniquely rewarding journey. Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland was my first choice for employment. I knew its high standards, and the impeccable reputation the Institute carried worldwide, and that they were one of the best in the country for autism spectrum disorders. While I got some great offers, I set out to be a part of the Kennedy Krieger team, and to this day, 16 years later, I am still here changing and improving lives with the incredible teams I worked with at the Fairmount campus in Baltimore, Maryland; and currently at the Kennedy Krieger School at the Montgomery County Maryland campus.
HM: How have your perceptions, strategies, and expectations regarding your work, changed over the years?
MP: I try to stay abreast of the latest innovations in the field. It is very important to be up to date. I typically incorporate music or drama in my therapy sessions, as it appears to be beneficial for some. I also enjoy using art and cooking, as a way to explore communication with my students. Autism has changed over the years. I tend to be a strong advocate for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, because I was around during a time when myths about autism existed, like they are not affectionate, they don't feel, they don't engage, which is so far from the truth. My students have a plethora of feelings; they are affectionate, grateful, caring, and the list goes on. I quickly learned that once taught, those skills were indeed there. It was just a different way of viewing the world. I tried to understand how my students see the world, and I believe that it has contributed to my successful clinician journey. It is essential for a clinician and teacher to peel all the layers to discover the wonderful qualities that exit. It’s such an amazing and rewarding feeling when discoveries are made about the individual's strengths and potential for the future. Early on, I was focused on early intervention, and now I have changed to focus more on adulthood and functioning in the real world.
HM: How has your field, in general, changed over the years?
MP: There is a better understanding and use of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC); a better understanding of the role of an SLP in the school setting; and more of a focus on social skills training. That is an area of interest for me. My colleagues and I, are in the process of developing a social skills curriculum for our Kennedy Krieger students.
HM: Are there any particular victories that you have witnessed which stand out to you personally?
MP: Each individual case is a victory for me. I’ve worked with the infant population through adulthood. Seeing how hard my students work on a daily basis, their dedication, perseverance, and family support, is inspiring and uplifting. The families I have come to know are sensational! I have a high regard and respect for them because they fight for their children’s rights. It's heartwarming to see it. I do recall a toddler years ago who did not use verbal speech, and after eight months of intensive therapy and a collaborative team approach, he spoke his first words to his mom. It’s rewarding when my clients tell me, “Ms. Maria I did it!" or “thank you," “Are you proud of me?” “I feel angry, I need a break” or “I work hard in speech." Also getting through behavior challenges is huge. I recall a time when a child would not enter the building due to a high level of anxiety; and with a collaborative team approach that included a behavior reinforcement plan, a sensory plan, and communication supports, she eventually came in and joined a classroom. For years to come and to this day, she is a successful student. The teams I work with are rare and special because they really care about the kids, and will do whatever is needed to assist the student in succeeding. Another victory is watching a nonverbal student master the use of a voice output device or use typing to communicate.
HM: What are some general insights that you share with parents and caregivers of children and adults with autism?
MP: Consistency is key - keep up with all the therapies and appointments, be an active member of the team because you are the most crucial team member. Ask all your questions and advocate for your child always. I like to point out the child's strengths, in addition to the needs. I tell them to remember everyone is unique. Find their strength and build on it. Small steps start in isolation, move it to a dyad, then push into a small group, and eventually go out in the community. Watch them take off! I also advise the parents to make time for themselves. Take a break. Finally, I tell them how lucky they are to have such a special person in their life. They are indeed special!
HM: What are some important things for your fellow professionals to keep in mind as they work with children and adults with autism?
MP: Everyone has something they are good at - find it, and perfect it. Autism is a spectrum with varying degrees, and I truly believe each individual is special and unique in his or her own way. As clinicians, specialists, and educators we need to tap into those skills. I believe it is our task, along with the family, to guide our students' passions. I always say, if my student is not making progress, what am I doing wrong, what can I do better? That is one of the first things I teach my graduate interns, to self-reflect; and if things are not going so well, look at what you are doing as a clinician first. How can you make it better? Sometimes others are judgmental and shed blame on the student by stating it is (the student’s) noncompliance, when in reality, it is a difference. Yes, of course there will be non-compliant moments in life, as we all have them from time-to-time, but we need to find out the "why.” My students need to be taught how to do something. In all my years of doing therapy, I have found that the desire is there, but it takes a creative, dedicated, patient, and passionate clinician who will persevere and keep them going.
HM: How can schools better serve those with autism and their families?
MP: Prepare kids for the future. We need adult programs. Teach about the expected and unexpected. Teach how to be flexible and how to have plans if things don't go our way. I find this lessens some of the anxiety. Keep the student involved in the process when possible and get their input; and ALWAYS listen!
HM: How can communities better serve those with autism and their families?
MP: There has been a focus on early intervention which is imperative. I am a firm believer of early intervention, as that is how I was trained in my younger professional years. However, there also needs to be more options available for families after school life. There needs to be opportunities for adults with autism. We need to get involved and help adults with autism be an active part of society. Communities need to come together and give our students a chance because they are detail-oriented with great skills.
HM: It’s extremely important for parents and siblings of those with autism to have a strong support system. And it’s equally important for autism professionals to have a support system as well. What does your support system look like?
MP: Taking time out for me. I like to be active. I hike with my husband, do yoga, and meditation; martial arts/dance class now and then; and singing - I love to sing! When I am at work my mind is all work; and when I am at home, I am all home and focused on my family. That keeps a nice balance for me. In addition, my colleagues and my family are my support system.
HM: Any other information or insights that you want to share?
MP: Yes, never give up on your passions and dreams. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. If you are an educator or a therapist, provide guidance for realistic achievable goals. You may not become a train engineer, but you may hold another responsible job at a train station collecting tickets. Strive to find out what your students are interested in and passionate about early on and build on those skills. We all have talents - it's just a matter of finding them and shaping them. Teach, practice, practice, and more practice; keep going and encourage dreams because they can and do come true. I am so proud of the students and the teams who teach and prep them for the workforce! Seeing my students progress and make accomplishments makes what I do incredible. I like to help make dreams happen! I tell my students dream big and work hard. You may fall down and yes, you may feel upset and disappointed, but that is okay. We'll get right back up and keep going!