Developmental therapist Dr. Jennie Trocchio shares how DRBI therapy can help autistic individuals thrive and build great connections.
Dr. Jennie Trocchio is an autism educator, speaker, Developmental Therapist, and Vice President of Clinical Operations at Positive Development. Positive Development’s mission is to “…help people with autism and other developmental differences build connections and shape their futures.” Positive Development follows the Developmental Relationship-Based Intervention (DRBI) model.
Jennie is a Maryland native located in sunny South Florida. With a Bachelor’s from University of Miami in Special Education and Creative Writing and a Master’s in Exceptional Student Education and Reading, Jennie worked in special education in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. During this time she developed a focus on autism and was introduced to DIR/Floortime approach. This model was put into practice at CasaBlanca Academy, a non-profit school for students with autism, where Jennie became the lead teacher, Director of Education and later the President of the Board of Directors.
In 2013, Jennie graduated with a Ph.D. from Barry University in Special Education and Leadership with a focus in Autism. Her research included a collaboration with Dr. Rick Solomon, the Medical Director of the P.L.A.Y Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 2014, Jennie left her role at the school, and is currently teaching the autism courses at Barry University and Lynn University. She is certified in DIR/Floortime, PLAY Project and Teaching PLAY.
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DR HACKIE REITMAN (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. And today we have returning to us after a long, long time away, the Vice President of Operations for Positive Development, none other than Jennie Trocchio. Jennie, welcome, again to different brains.
DR JENNIE TROCCHIO (JT): Oh, thanks so much Hackie, I really always enjoy my time with you,
HR: Well vice versa too. And I learned so much, you know, you’re in so many different roles. I mean, that’s just one role that I introduced you with, but also with floortime, also, with Barry University, also, so many things. Tell us about everything you’re doing now.
JT: Gotcha. So, there’s quite a lot going on. A lot of my work has transitioned to Positive Development. And one of the many reasons that has happened is because Positive Development is sort of this incredible organization that came in right as the world was shutting down. And they talked to me about, you know, we want to take DIR floortime and developmental approaches, and we want to find a way to get them covered by insurance. So that way, it can be an option for all families, and we want to spread this around the country. Are you interested? And I said: why yes, I’m incredibly interested. That has been my passion, my dream for so long. So to have that sort of just happen was incredible. And I still do other projects. So I still am adjunct at Barry University and at Lynn University and try to be heavily involved in the local autistic community as much as possible. But a lot of my energy has focused towards Positive Development, which I’m really excited to be a part of, and excited to share with you today.
HR: And is it a fair statement to say that your main focus is autism?
JT: Oh, yes. Sorry. That should have been? In my mind, that’s a given Yes. ISM in their families? Yeah.
HR: How did you get into all that?
JT: Into autism in general? So that’s a really good question. I always sort of felt, well, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and then shifted towards really wanting to be a special education teacher, because I knew that there was so much potential in kids with all sorts of special needs. And then it was my first year teaching in a public school setting where I met the first child I ever knew with autism. And I just, I mean, there were like fireworks going off all around my head. And it’s actually a kind of fun story. I can tell it really quickly if you want. Absolutely. Awesome. So we were in class, and I was teaching, I think it was third grade math at the time. And boy, jumped up out of his seat started flapping and said, “CHANNEL SEVEN, CHANNEL SEVEN, CHANNEL SEVEN!” You know, the first year teacher, I sort of said, you know, sit down, we’re in the middle of a lesson. And a few minutes after that, I heard a helicopter. A few minutes after that, I saw a helicopter go by, and it was a channel seven helicopter. And I thought: What? And a few minutes after that, he started showing me up and down again flapping saying “CHANNEL TEN, CHANNEL TEN!” Said, What are you doing, you know, this point, I’m sort of sensing something else is going on. And and a few minutes after that, I heard a helicopter a few minutes after that I saw channel 10 Helicopter go by. And it turns out, there was some incident in the area. But it was just fascinating to me that not only could he hear a helicopter before I could, but he could differentiate them by the channels by the news channels. And that’s really what introduced me to this super sensory, the super powers of the autistic brain. And I also simultaneously got very frustrated when we were in, you know, team meetings and other teachers would talk about all the deficits and all the areas where someone were, you know, this child was struggling and I just thought, but there’s so many incredible talents here that we need to be tapping into. So that really sent me on a quite a deep dive into autism. I signed up for a doctorate and pretty much any training program, I could find that that really focused on the strengths and really focused on understanding the whole child and not just you know, the behaviors because you know, someone could write that off his child jumped up and was flapping. That’s not the point, right? The point is, what was actually going on in his mind and what he could experience that I couldn’t.
HR: I love the way you think, which is to focus on the strengths as opposed to the weaknesses, how can we harness the strengths and go forward and a positive way.
JT: Yes. And it’s incredible that when we do that the weaknesses catch up. But when we don’t focus on the strengths, I mean, I think that’s true for all of us. If someone you know, if this interview had started with telling me about all the things you’re bad at, it would have taken a dive really quickly.
HR: Now you talk about and you practice floortime, explain floor time to our audience, please. Sure. So,
JT: floor time is sort of the technique and the larger piece of the model is DIR. So what that stands for is developmental individual differences and relationship based approach. So we meet each child where they are developmentally, we consider their individual profile, which is the unique way they’re taking in the world around them. And then we connect with them, we build that relationship, and, and through effective interactions, we help move them up. And then floortime is the specific interaction. So that’s really where the magic happens. And it’s called floortime, but it can obviously be done on the floor, on a table on, you know, a chair where wherever. And actually, for that reason, we’re starting to move away from the term floortime, because so many people think it’s just sitting on the floor, which is, you know, not correct doing flashcards or drills on the floor would not be considered floortime at all.
HR: Um, those of us in the audience who might be interested in following a similar career path, such as our wonderful interns, tell us about your educational pathway to where you are now, because I know you have many different degrees. And I hope I have not offended you by not calling you Doctor, Doctor.
JT: Never Hackie. You could never, ever have been me. Not at all, but I do. You know, my path is sort of been finding the little nuggets along the way I, to be honest, when I started off, I thought I was going to be a classroom teacher forever. And I was absolutely happy with that. And then, through teaching in the public schools, personally, at the time, I just found that there were just so many needs that weren’t being met. And, and a little frustrated with the system to be totally honest. So started looking for private opportunities that just focused on autism. And I found two incredible parents who wanted to start a school for kids on the spectrum and needed someone to lead up to the educational program. And I said, I am in. And that really at the school is where I was introduced to developmental approaches to dir floortime. And we used an entirely developmental approach, and was at the school and ran it for seven years. And it was just amazing what kids could do. When you really tuned into each individual and focused on the strengths and connecting with them. As people. We saw magic happen. And so then from there, I went into individual therapy and into homes, and then to trainings and just try to really spread this approach to anyone and anywhere I could find. But a lot of my career path has been just, you know, oh, I’m interested in that. Let’s dig deeper into that. So, I think for all interns, my path is sort of hard to follow. It’s a little squiggly, but I think as long as people find what interests them, and what really sparks them, I think that’s really the best way to go.
HR: And you follow the basic principle upon which different brains was founded that guess what each of our brains is different, you can’t have have one size fits all. Everybody’s different. And use all your skills, whether it’s getting on the floor or sitting at a desk, use them flashcards, ones, it wouldn’t make much sense would it? To have a blind student and write on the blackboard. Wouldn’t, wouldn’t work.
JT: Exactly. Even if that’s in the lesson plan? You know, you gotta you gotta stray from it from time to time.
HR: What do you feel is the biggest misunderstanding about what is?
JT: Oh, that’s a good question. There are so many Hackie, there are so many misunderstandings. I think one of the biggest is that there’s so many okay, I’ve got a top two in mind.
HR: I think your top three I’ll make it easier for you.
JT: Okay, fantastic. Okay, so, I think number one is that You know, autism is all about these individual behaviors that we need to quote unquote, fix. So actually that sort of two in one, but you know, kids with autism are, are humans. And they’re not just these behaviors. So just focusing on this behavior and this behavior, that that doesn’t work, we really need to connect with the whole individual. And then the second one that I sort of ended up combining with that. One is that anyone needs to be fixed or cured, no one needs to be fixed or cured, everyone needs support, and everyone needs strategies that they can be successful in. But, you know, for a long time, there was this, this mantra that kids need to be cured of this horrible autism. And the majority of kids I know with autism, love their autism and embrace it and say, there is nothing wrong with me, and I don’t need to be cured. And just love me for me. And I think that that’s a pretty important message to share. And I think the third would be, we have to presume competence, so many of our kids are so, so smart, but because they can’t maybe communicate or control their bodies as well as others can. There’s an assumption for some reason that if you can’t speak, you’re not intelligent. And those two just aren’t connected. So I think if we could presume competence in more kids and individuals, I’m saying kids, but of all ages, we could learn so much by just pausing and listening and noticing what’s going on with other people.
HR: Well, I tell our interns here at different brains who are all smarter than me. So yeah, you’re all smarter than me. But that’s nothing to be proud of. God gave you high octane brains material a little bit different. But how you use that and how you harness your strengths, the hard work, that’s what’s to be proud of, and choose what you want to go into. Pick something you like, because if you can find something you like doing, that you’re good at, or want to be good at, and you can make a living doing it, then you never have to work a day in your life. You work hard, but you’re not really work and you’re playing, you’re having fun, you got a smile on your face.
JT: Always, always you have to have fun with it. If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point? You know. And of course, that does balance with hard work. There’s some things you know, the, you know, emails and things that no one likes, but the majority of it has to be stuff that really sparks your fire.
HR: Tell us about your different publications and how our audience can learn more about you and what you do.
JT: Sure, so publications, I don’t have a lot of formal ones, I have a dissertation that’s been published. I think that’s a little too long and boring for most people to read. And I sort of guessed right for different places. But really, a lot of the material can be found at Positive Development, all of the newer stuff. So they are all over social media @positivedevelopmenttherapy. So that’s a good place to look. Also, I have my own prior life, private, or I guess, personal, personal, social media as well, where people can find anything @drjennietrocchio. But yeah, I really like to just try to share it everywhere I can. I also have another I have a full day training available through Summit, professional education.
HR: You have such a great approach. And your results have been fantastic. And I’ve run into some of the families of people you’ve helped. Do you work do any work with adults?
JT: Yes, so right now through Positive Development, we will work with anyone based on what insurance covers honestly. And for a lot of kids, that doesn’t end when they stopped being a kid that goes up until you know they are 28, 29, 30 — however old. For a lot of families, it’s it is expensive to pay out of pocket, but if insurance will cover it we are in because I think the adult population really needs a lot of support that they’re not getting from anywhere else.
HR: And what is the website for Positive Development?
JT: It’s positivedevelopment.com. Keeping it simple.
HR: That was easy. Is there anything else you’d like to cover today that we haven’t covered?
JT: Um, maybe just touching a little bit on Positive Development as a whole. So I sort of shared with you I got involved at the very beginning. Um, which was really exciting. And one of the main reasons they wanted to start opening a clinic in Florida was because we got our first contract with an insurance company. And that was huge, because to date before Positive Development, developmental approaches have never been covered by insurance. So it was really exciting to hear that we could start in Florida. And then from there, we quickly started getting contracts throughout the country. So now we’re actually in 11, different locations. We have three locations in California, we have three in Illinois, we have three in New Jersey, one in the DMV area, which is, which I always thought that that meant, and even I’m from the DMV area, DC, Virginia, Maryland. But when I say it out loud, it does sound like driving school a little bit. But so we’re growing really fast, which I just think is super exciting to give this model to make it a possibility for all families who haven’t previously had a choice. And I think the other exciting thing is that we offer a true multidisciplinary team. And so we offer speech, occupational therapy, mental health supports, parents support, and individual play partner supports for the child. And all of that is covered where the whole team actually talks to each other, and consults and collaborates and make sure that the effective strategies that one person’s using is carried over throughout all sessions and into the home. So I think that’s a pretty, pretty cool offering.
HR: And Positive Development, how old does the child have to be to be enrolled?
JT: There’s no age limit. Although there is we do require, for insurance — I wish we didn’t have this actually, I really wish this was a requirement. But insurance does require an autism diagnosis.
HR: Gotcha. Which sometimes is hard to come by.
JT: Absolutely. And there’s a lot of kids in a lot of different places in the country, unfortunately, we’re getting a diagnosis is you know, a six month waiting list. And to have to wait that long to get services that you know, that you need, I think is a little frustrating. But, you know, that’ll be the next next problem.
HR: Talk to us about how COVID has affected things. And parenthetically, also the zoom call, like we’re doing instead of being in person, how that has come into play.
JT: Absolutely. So you know, so many pros and cons that COVID has brought us, I have to say, I miss being with you in person at the studio, because it’s a pretty fantastic studio and environment. But I do think that it’s pretty awesome that we do have these other tools now where pretty much every family is able to access virtual sessions if they need them. And you know that that’s big, that wasn’t really a thing before. So to be able to get on a meeting, just you know, you can literally be playing one moment, and then literally in front of the computer at the next moment getting supports or different therapy needs met. At the same time, I think, really, especially with the hands on work, there’s nothing like being in person. So we really tried to come back to in person as soon as possible with all the precautions, you know, of course masks, and all the things and masks have their own set of challenges, right? A lot of kids need your whole aspect. They need your whole face to really understand what’s going on. But still the connection that you can make in person, I think you just can’t replace that. But we do have supplements, if needed. And I think that that’s that’s a good thing, too.
HR: That’s a good way to look at it as supplement available and they’re not mutually exclusive. See people think it’s one or the other. And it’s not, you know.
JT: No, we can certainly find ways to accommodate whatever makes someone feel more comfortable. And for some families that that remains to be on Zoom calls. And that’s fine. Because you know, if you’re not comfortable with the situation, the learning is not going to happen anyway. So, so we really try to accommodate and listen to everyone and figure out what works best for them.
HR: What are some of the other co-diagnoses if you will, that accompany us some of your autistic students that you run into?
JT: Oh, gosh, I have seen the full gamut. And I think some other diagnoses are appropriate and you know, this is not my realm. I don’t diagnose but you know, we have a lot of kids for example with autism diagnosis and sensory processing disorder. And typically, you know, for kids with autism sensory processing disorder is part of their diagnosis. But the other ways and true there’s some kids with sensory processing disorder who don’t have autism. But also ADHD we see a lot, ADD we see a lot. I’ve seen oppositional defiant disorder. And seizures, is something else that we see quite a bit.
HR: See what I’ve, I’ve come to stress myself, and I’m not a professional like you in this realm. I mean, I’m an MD, but that’s just orthopedic surgery. I just kind of got into this. Well, it’s, it’s rain. But my hypothesis is that none of these things occur in isolation. You know, there’s so much overlap with what I call traits, traits of autism, traits of dyslexia, traits of ADHD. And has that been your experience?
JT: Yes. And I like the way you explain that I’m almost visualizing all of these, you know, Venn diagrams going around and overlapping. And I think that, you know, as a society, it’s a lot of people are really happy to just put on different labels for all the traits, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s always warranted. And I also think that sometimes our educational system to be honest, man, I’m just share going honest today. But I think we’re good. Um, but you know, I think our education system in general isn’t really set up for supporting any sort of differences. You know, we have kids in kindergarten, who are supposed to sit down and be quiet and hold a pencil and copy from the board. And developmentally, that’s not what kids should be doing kid should be running and moving and playing and, and exploring things and figuring out how to learn and how to play. And, you know, I think if we spent a little more time doing that, when kids were younger, I don’t know, maybe we wouldn’t have so many different labels for every time someone’s a little bit different than the norm.
HR: Jenn, what is one thing that you think everyone should know about building connections with neurodivergent loved ones?
JT: Building connections with neurodivergent loved ones is so much easier than so many people think people think it has to be hard or structured. But really, I think if you take a moment and watch and see what an individual is interested in, and join them in it, I think that’s really the best place to start. You don’t have to overthink it. You don’t have to buy things. Just watch, wait, and join.
HR: Well, Dr. Jennie Trocchio of Positive Development. Thank you so much. Keep up the great work you do. And we hope you’ll come back and be with us at different brains again, real soon. Thank you.
JT: Absolutely. Thank you. Hackie What an honor to be here