Helping children on the autism spectrum

CSD student interns at MGH during three consecutive summers


By: Shannon Shevlin
Creative Services Student Writer

Maci Letsky

It is often said that the expert in something was once a beginner. For students, internships are an important way to build valuable expertise and skills beyond the classroom. Senior communication sciences and disorders (CSD) major Maci Letsky completed immersive internships during two consecutive summers with Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Aspire, a pediatric specialty program for children on the autism spectrum. Although she plans to return for her third internship in summer 2019, Letsky’s impact on the field has only begun.  

The original teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, MGH has trained 13 Nobel laureates and ranks as the fourth best hospital in the country, earning additional recognition for pediatric specialties. MGH operates Aspire Summer Adventures, a six-week program for individuals ages 5-14 with high cognitive autism spectrum disorder or a related profile. Letsky feels connected to Aspire’s mission of empowering youth to develop skills they need to reach their full potential and thrive in diverse settings.

Originally from Andover, Massachusetts, Letsky came to JMU on a pre-occupational therapy (OT) track as she is passionate about helping children with developmental disabilities realize their strengths, build social connections and feel successful. However, her internship with Aspire illustrated how valuable communication is to behavior management and social skills, inspiring her to change majors. Letsky decided that studying CSD will prepare her to make a difference as a speech and language pathologist (SLP) while doing what she loves. She said, “During my first training at Aspire, I was first introduced to declarative language, so, instead of asking questions or making demands, we are trained to speak to the kids in a way that invites a response and encourages problem-solving.” She added, “Understanding and helping individuals who have a disability starts with communication.”

Letsky began working at Aspire as an assistant group leader in 2017 and transitioned to her role as group leader in 2018. In these positions, she facilitated activities ranging from swimming and boating to cooking and hiking for small, structured groups of children on the autism spectrum. She integrated a therapeutic “3S” model to improve self-awareness, social competence and stress and anxiety management among participants. She said, “These kids do well in a structured environment, but I like having the opportunity to create individual freedom and autonomy within it to show them how they can be themselves while growing and improving.”

This summer she will serve as Aspire’s music specialist where she will be responsible for creating a music curriculum that incorporates movement and expression therapy. Outside of the classroom, Letsky is a talented musician and singer for the JMU Overtones, a coed a cappella group on campus. She is excited about integrating two of her passions in this new role and expressed, “CSD is all about speech and hearing, and music is one of the best ways to facilitate that. Something about music is so powerful and therapeutic for individuals with speech disorders and I’m looking forward to bringing these two worlds together this summer.”

For Letsky, these internships are about more than academic requirements or summer work. Rather, the experience is about learning from others, building relationships and fostering personal and professional growth. Letsky reflected on the past two summers, emphasizing how field experience is highly immersive and rewarding. She articulated, “Its shown me how to problem-solve in the moment and made me feel more confident in my decisions as a practitioner. The experience has definitely made me a stronger, more effective professional.” She added, “Working for Aspire was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s truly shaped the person and clinician I’m becoming.”

To future students and interns in her program, Letsky advised, “It’s important to put yourself out there and be vulnerable to new and scary things.” She explained, “I applied to Aspire on a whim and have learned a lot. I wouldn’t have had these incredible experiences if I didn’t take the leap.”

Next steps for Letsky are not set in stone, but she plans to graduate in December 2019 and continue her education with a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. Although she is excited to earn an SLP degree, she mentioned how her work will not stop there. She noted, “There so much to do in the field in terms of research and having a deeper impact. I want to help kids with communication disorders find and use their voice, and realize why it matters.”

Published: Friday, April 19, 2019

Last Updated: Tuesday, July 2, 2019

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