Meet Rachel Kittenbrink, our first ever parent participating in our Humans of ACEing Autism feature. Rachel’s son Jeffrey, who is 5 years old, participates in the ACEing Autism Pittsburgh program. But you won’t want to miss reading about Rachel and her family’s story.
Rachel has a PHD in Special Education, she is a BCBA and the founder of Pittsburgh Behavioral Services, a non-profit service agency providing direct ABA services and consultation to programs for individuals with autism and learning differences in the western PA region. “I found this passion really young and I have pursued it since High School,” the mother of two said. “Because of my profession, I thought I knew everything there was to know about supporting children with special needs, but I realized no amount of professional experience will adequately prepare someone to know how to handle all the situations that come up with a child on the spectrum,” Rachel laughed. “I didn’t understand the needs of having a child with special needs every day and supporting them on zero sleep.”
But let’s go back in time to understand her incredible story. Rachel and her husband are an open adoption family so both Jeffrey and her daughter Lily are adopted. “We were also trying to adopt Lily’s sibling while I was still working for the Pennsylvania Department of Education but that ended up not happening. Around the same time, I quit my job to start my own organization to get better services for my children.” A year after starting her organization, Jeffrey was diagnosed with autism, at 2½ years old. “He hit all his milestones early and then all of a sudden he hit a wall. Thanks to my job, I was able to get a diagnosis early,” the energetic mother explained. “Soon after that, I had my daughter tested as I knew she had delays, and she was diagnosed as well.”
Because of this, she decided to shift her role in her organization and reached out to her network. “We’re really lucky to have the support that we have. Originally, this organization was because of my kids, but now we get to help other kids.”We just opened a preschool and kindergarten in August,” she proudly announced.
As Rachel went through her own autism journey with her children, she admits that her daughter’s need drove her to start the pre-school as there was no educational placement in the area. “We have a family focused approach and that’s very important to us. We provide services in the community, in a clinic setting and at homes and our school provides these services as well. The pandemic made us realize all the help these families needed.” For example, she realized that Jeffrey had a harder time making connections or was having more difficulties in the school setting due to the pandemic, so she enrolled him in the ACEing Autism program. “I heard about it through an agency but no kids I knew were old enough, however I always had it in the back of my mind. I wanted him to have more social interactions, build friendships through a different setting.”
Jeffrey started in the summer and Rachel has been excited to see some great improvements already. “Seeing that he can respond to people who are outside of his circle and being able to have a good time, that’s huge because we haven’t been able to see that before,” she said enthusiastically. “My daughter Lily is 4 years old so she is too young but I would love for her to participate soon.”
Through her own experience as a professional and a mom with children on the autism spectrum, when asked what thoughts she wanted to leave people with, Rachel quickly responded: “Once you live it everyday, it’s totally different, it gives you a lot more compassion for these families,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “I gave up a lot of what I thought or what my plans were but they’re my heroes. We are still figuring it out everyday but I lived 2 sides of this and by the time my kids will be adults, I will have morphed into a whole new person.”