Autism Support Touches The Entire Family
Barb Yavorcik’s story is fairly typical and at the same time anything but. Being a woman with an electrical engineering degree 30 years ago is unique enough. But moving from a career in the hard sciences to a career in human services is nearly unheard of. Like most people who choose to work for advocacy organizations, however, Barb’s life changed because someone close to her was diagnosed. In this case, her 3-year-old son’s autism diagnosis.
Her son is now 23 years old, but his diagnoses 20 years ago started her on a career path culminating with a position as Executive Director of the Autism Society of the State of Ohio. When she first started working with the Autism Society, autism was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is now. Her path toward the executive director’s chair didn’t begin with career ambitions. It began with a simple question: “Where can I get help?”
After another parent referred her, Yavorcik began working with the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio. She began just working with the group, but quickly became a member of the board before moving on to become the secretary of the board and later the president. “I realized we needed to have an impact at the state level, not just our little corner of Ohio,” she says. Armed with her vision for broader advocacy throughout the Buckeye State, Yavorcik repeated the process of working her way up the ranks for the Autism Society of Ohio. Finally, the board placed so much trust in her that they hired her as the executive director — a part time, paid position working for the society.
Education and the Passion
As stated above, Yavorcik did not have any specifically relevant training for her current position. She does, however, credit some of her success to what she learned in college. Not so much the engineering courses, but the overall experience of being involved at her college and in her sorority. “I also went to an all-female Catholic high school where I took on a lot of leadership roles,” says Yavorcik. This gave her necessary communication and people skills required for a leadership role in an advocacy organization. What she didn’t have, however, were fundraising skills. While she took online courses, most of what she learned was learned on the job. “Networking with other state-level executive directors really helped me hone my fundraising skills,” she adds.
Yavorcik is quick to point out that no one goes into advocacy for the money: “It’s abut the passion,” she begins, adding, “when my son was three we needed to figure out where he was going to go to school. I didn’t want my son shipped off to another school, so it became about advocating.” Later she decided there was more to advocacy than just her son and her family. She considers herself fortunate to have a college education and to be married to a lawyer. “I’m able to stand up and advocate for myself, but there are a lot of other people who can’t.”
There are many other ways people can get involved. Volunteers are always needed at the Autism Society and there are frequently awareness programs. One program providing support to parents of children with autism is the neighbors program. “When other parents call us needing help, we hook them up with a parent,” she says, “Parents learn best from other parents who have been there and done that.” She also notes that employers should consider hiring someone with autism, “People with autism can be very good employees with little accommodation.” Talk to the local branch of the Autism Society where you live. They can provide you with a number of options for getting involved.
Those looking to get involved professionally have a lot of options. Yavorcik points out that while there is an exponentially increasing demand for professionals trained to work with people with autism, there is very little education available for professionals, whether they be special education teachers, doctors or social workers. “We’re always trying to get more information about autism into the curriculum,” she says. There’s a constant struggle to get people not only educated about the reality of autism, but also interested in working in the field.
Barb’s daughter also worked for the Autism Society as a communications director, making advocacy a family affair. While she acknowledges the work is difficult and often thankless, there’s more to it than that. It is also a deeply rewarding field, even if the pay isn’t as high as one might like it to be. Most days can be very trying for advocates, special education teachers, counselors and medical professionals alike. Yavorcik is quick to add, however, “there are those days when something happens and it’s just magic. It all becomes worth it.” It’s hard to think of any higher praise one could give to their own job.