ABINGTON, Pa. — Tommy Helkowski's internship took him to Bucks County every day this summer to work with children on the autism spectrum. The 600-hour experience rewarded the rehabilitation and human services (RHS) major at Penn State Abington beyond what he could have imagined.
“My internship showed me that my mind and my heart made the right choice,” he said.
Helkowski's supervisor at Potential Inc., which serves people on the spectrum, said his skills and passion were evident. His eyes lit up as he talked with a young client. He was completely focused, crouching down, holding the boy’s hand, encouraging him through an obstacle course. At the same time, Helkowski remained aware of the other staff and children around them.
“The work experience is priceless," Helkowski said. "The culmination of the RHS classes led to my success in the field. Now, I have a leg up on other graduates when I look for a job."
“The work experience is priceless. The culmination of the RHS classes led to my success in the field. Now, I have a leg up on other graduates when I look for a job."
-- Tommy Helkowski
Helkowski and Tiara Sierra, another RHS senior, both wrapped up their degrees with the required 15-credit internship at Potential. As behavior technician interns there, they carried out research-based treatment plans developed through applied behavior analysis. The goal is to help children on the spectrum resolve problem behaviors, increase skill acquisition, and, ultimately, inclusion.
"The training and support from the staff at Potential was imperative," Sierra said. "I've learned how to protect the clients and myself and to help them reach their potential educationally and socially."
Penn State Abington senior Tiara Sierra quizzes a student at Potential Inc. She interned at the the firm, which works with people living with autism.
Helkowski and Sierra blended in easily with the professional staff at Potential. They were assigned one-on-one with a child in the summer program, shaping positive or replacement behaviors. With their clients, they worked on art projects, calendar time, exercise, and play. The children counted, put cards in order, categorized, and answered questions, with Abington students using the individual treatment plans as guides.
Sierra worked easily with a young girl and explained modeling physically and emotionally is key. After a lesson at a table in a quiet room, Sierra said the little girl knows the information perfectly, but managing her environment is critical because the child is distracted easily.
"I wondered what it would be like working with children on the autism spectrum," Sierra said. "I realize now how much the experience has caused me to grow mentally and spiritually."
"The training and support from the staff at my internship was imperative. I've learned how to protect the clients and myself and to help them reach their potential."
-- Tiara Sierra
Deb Gualtieri, clinical manager at Potential, praised the Abington duo’s skills, especially in natural environment teaching (NET). NET can be challenging because the behavior technician works with children in less controlled, real-world situations.
“Tommy and Tiara excel at NET. They transition so easily from working at the table to NET,” she said.
Kathleen Fadigan, associate professor of education at Abington and RHS program chair, works closely with students and praised their tremendous professional growth. This is the first cohort of RHS graduates.
“For example, after a meeting with the interns, I noticed a big shift in their language. They were using technical terminology unique to working with people on the autism spectrum,” Fadigan said, adding that several students are considering graduate school.
Helkowski and Sierra, among the first RHS graduates from Abington, agreed that the required internship confirmed their career choices.
"It was so fulfilling, and it didn't seem like work. It was emotionally rewarding," Sierra said.
About the rehabilitation and human services (RHS) major