Nuturing the mind from the heart

By Gus Bode

Ashley McMurry is sitting opposite 5-year-old Elizabeth, a frustrated young girl that she knows has a world of potential.

She is reading out of a children’s book and quizzing Elizabeth and the other children about it, knowing she will not always get the response that she’s looking for.

But with each seemingly trivial question and reply comes progress, and for Ashley, that means her efforts are more than worthwhile.

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When they’re done, the goal is for them to function in the community as any other individual would, Ashley said. Because they’re certainly bright, and an absolute joy to work with.

Ashley, who grew up near New Orleans and earned a bachelors degree in psychology from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., is a second year graduate student at SIUC in the Behavior Analysis and Therapy Program in the Rehabilitation Institute. Her work with autistic children coupled with her participation in Project 12-Ways has made her one of the Daily Egyptian’s Students Who Make a Difference.

Both of Ashley’s major involvements highlight her proficiency at working with children who have special problems. She is a graduate assistant with Project 12-Ways, a program that facilitates helping families that have some type of dysfunction commonly abuse and neglect issues attempt to repair what has gone awry.

But it is her work with autistic children that introduced Ashley to Elizabeth. Ashley attends school with Elizabeth once a week all three of the children in the program attend regular school in addition to participating in the Laboratory to Support Full Inclusion, also known as the Childhood Autism Project.

Twice a week, Ashley and two other graduate students work with the small group of children in the language laboratory, seeking to nurture their language and social skills.

Carla Bunselmeyer, Elizabeth’s mother, has seen her daughter make enormous strides under the tutelage of Ashley. Elizabeth talks about Ashley frequently, and is now showing signs of self-confidence for the first time in her life.

I think the kids pick up on Ashley’s sincere interest, she’s very loving, Bunselmeyer said. Elizabeth is also very loving, so there’s a connection there.

Ashley, 25, is the oldest of six siblings between her biological parents’ two marriages. She often played the role of a second mom while growing up, which may have imprinted her passion for dealing with children. Ashley learned of SIUC’s program for behavior analysis and therapy at a convention she attended, and has been more than satisfied with her decision to head north to Carbondale.

It’s actually one of the best programs in the world for what we do. I have learned so much in the past year and a half … the professors we study under are just phenomenal.

One of those professors is Anthony Cuvo, who has been a professor in the behavior analysis and therapy program at SIU for 28 years. Cuvo places Ashley in the top tier of students he has worked with.

Sometimes you have students good in the classroom but don’t have the interpersonal skills to work well with people. But the thing about Ashley is, she’s excellent at both, Cuvo said. She understands the theories and concepts, and then she can take that and apply them very effectively with the kids.

Autism, a biological brain disorder that impairs communication and social skills, can come in many forms. Severe cases may include a child engaging in self-injurious behavior or being unable to speak. There is relatively little information about the causes of the disease, as it is a developing field of study.

Rebecca Trammel, clinic coordinator for Communication Disorders and Sciences, works with Ashley on the autism project through a partnership between CDS and Ashley’s behavior therapy program. She said she will never forget Ashley.

She’s on a really high level of professionalism as far as caring about the client as opposed to caring about herself or caring about her grade, Trammel said. She gives these kids everything she’s got, and they are making progress.

This is the second semester of Ashley’s internship with the Childhood Autism Project, while she has been a graduate assistant with Project 12-Ways for a year and a half. Subjects are referred to Project 12-Ways through the Department of Children and Family Services, sometimes the result of court orders for families to receive treatment.

Two staff members travel to a family’s home, which serves troubled families throughout Southern Illinois. Ashley works with families in the Harrisburg area, and typically spends time with a client once or twice a week.

After conducting initial observation to pinpoint what type of problems a family is having which could range anywhere from a house being unsanitary to difficulty getting a child to go to bed at night Ashley attempts to teach methods for the family to develop more effective daily routines.

Once a client identifies goals, Project 12-Ways offers training to steer family members toward a more orderly lifestyle. Staff members then report back to the courts in instances where the court is involved in the family’s welfare. Ultimately, Ashley’s objective is to teach people how to be better parents so that families can remain intact.

Most cases span several months, and some last more than a year. Collecting the massive amount of data needed for the program can be arduous, since nearly every aspect of a family’s life is scrutinized.

I’m not going to walk into these peoples’ house and start ordering them to do things before I see what is really going on, Ashley said. And if you try to work on the huge things first, well, what if all the little things are leading up to that?

It’s through crunching data that Ashley can tell how much headway is being made.

Internal thoughts, I can’t really measure, Ashley said. They can tell me all they want that they want to change, but the way I see that is through behavior.

One of the crucial challenges for Ashley is to build trust with her clients. Sitting in a family’s kitchen as they eat dinner can be an awkward situation for a stranger to step into, but that must be overcome.

You’re in their life, you’re in their homes it’s pretty intrusive, Ashley said. It’s really a personal thing, so there’s a trust that has to be established there.

Separating the issues she sees with Project 12-Ways from the rest of her life is not easy. But Ashley tries not to dwell on the problems she deals with when she is on her own time.

Instead of dreaming about it or thinking about it all night … the time that you’re there is when you can make the biggest effect, Ashley said.

Iris Duffy and Rosalia Fulia, both clinical supervisors with Project 12-Ways, have grown to admire Ashley’s poise. Being around tumultuous family situations and sometimes verbally aggressive parents can be distressing, but Ashley manages to maintain her cool.

This can get people down, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard her get down, Duffy said. I have seen Ashley seem really calm in really stressful situations with families.

Sometimes, a child’s parents may seem loathsome when Ashley first reads about a case on paper. But generally once she establishes contact with a family, her feelings soften.

Maybe they were never trained to be a parent, maybe their parents weren’t really parents, Ashley said.

Conversely, Ashley’s parents have played an overwhelmingly positive role in her development. Ashley refers to herself as a daddy’s girl, and her father, Mark McMurry, marvels at the way Ashley has progressed from being labeled a social butterfly by teachers in grade school to the mature woman she is today.

Ashley’s mother, Jan McAlister, is a clinical social worker specializing in cognitive psychology. She recalls some heated discussions with Ashley when her daughter decided to pursue behavioral psychology rather than cognitive.

She always kind of had her own style, and she’s developed that on her own, McAlister said. She’s kind of particular she knows what she wants and she’ll go after it until she gets it.

Ashley will be finishing up her graduate studies in August, and plans to open her own practice post-graduation. Now that Ashley a straight-A student has completed most of her coursework she has turned her attention to her thesis on creating a curriculum for preschool age children with autism.

In the meantime, not all of Ashley’s time will be spent on work. Dancing is among Ashley’s favorite stress-attacking hobbies, and she is ribbed occasionally by those who know her for being a princess when it comes to her personal life.

She’s very independent professionally, but she still likes to be doted over, her father explained. And she gets plenty of that.

Ashley loves what she does, and that drives her to channel her talent into bolstering the futures of the children and parents she works with.

The differences I’ve seen in the kids I’ve worked with from the very beginning to the end is just absolutely amazing, she said. It’s what keeps me going.

Working with kids just fills a space in my heart that nothing else ever has.

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