With many children suffering from intellectual disabilities such as Autism, Dr. Tonia Crane recognizes the need for these children and works diligently through different organizations and internationally to address it.
By MEGAN DILL
And they’re off! Headed toward the finish line, bodies moving furiously through the water, arms flopping, legs flailing. The children rush to make it to the finish line at the YMCA Special Needs Triathlon. People stand on the bleachers cheering on their daughters, sons, family members or friends.
Who knew that none of this would have taken place if it weren’t for Dr. Tonia Crane.
The event at the YMCA in Shawnee, Oklahoma, was put on as an outreach program to offer special needs athletes an opportunity to bond through competition.
Dr. Crane, associate professor of education at Missouri Baptist University, has many stories to tell. Any student on campus who has had her for a class could tell you that.
And if you listen long enough, you will realize how big her heart is for children with intellectual disabilities.
It all started back in Nashville, Tennessee, where Crane graduated from Tennessee Technological University and then started the Meridian Circle of Success in 2008.
This was a facility for families with children who had intellectual disabilities to come and feel welcome. Families with children between the ages of 3 and 16 would come to her for therapy sessions and it wasn’t too long before Crane noticed that most of the students she saw had autism.
“I saw the prevalence and need in the area,” she said. Families were coming to her because their children were diagnosed and they didn’t know where to turn or how to help them.
Autism is a complex disorder of brain development that affects social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.
Crane, who holds a Ph.D. in special education, added to this program by including brochures and even offering seven therapists who were ABA (applied behavior analysis) trained to look at the kids. They performed occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy to children depending on their needs.
Families and teachers would receive training and support, there were summer programs, development of goals for behaviors, evaluations and screenings, and even Behavior Support Plans for home and school.
“I called it the one-stop shop,” Crane said. The children and their families would meet two to three days a week until parents started begging for an all-day program.
Six weeks later, one was created, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., one-on-one or two-on-one with Dr. Crane. Soon, however, Crane noticed the parents were not able to afford these services in Nashville.
She soon moved to Oklahoma to start another program there through Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma, creating the HOPE house, or, Help Others Prepare Excellence.
“I named it this because I didn’t want the parents to feel like I was threatening them,” she said. She believed that if she named it something else dealing with their disabilities, the parents would feel embarrassed or uncomfortable bringing their kids. She wanted to seem inviting and welcoming.
She even got her students from the university to help out, playing with the kids and participating in programs with her like the triathlon.
The triathlon took part through the fifth grade swimming program with the YMCA in Shawnee. Her students from the university would come in and interact with the students by teaching them how to swim or playing games with them in the water.
“Seeing that interaction was phenomenal,” she said.
Soon after, Crane made a trip from the U.S. Southwest to the Middle East, Beirut, Lebanon, and it really opened her eyes to the need even there.
“The need for autism and behavior needs is worldwide,” she said.
She came to Missouri Baptist University in 2014 and is still doing big things to carry out her dream, like traveling back to Beirut to lead ABA classes through Haigazian University in Beirut.
She is also partnering with organizations in Nashville and Beirut and in November 2015 created a website called Global Behavior Education Alliance where she can Skype with families and their children diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, autism or any social/emotional behavior disability to see how she can help.
“It’s a lot easier to see them face-to-face in their home environment because they act differently in public than they do at home,” she said.
If you would like to get involved in any way you can contact Dr. Crane through her university email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can also visit the Global Behavior Education Alliance to see more about how she is making a difference.
“My vision is huge, but I’m taking baby steps,” she said, adding she is willing to do all she can to expand her dream of helping families with children who have behavior disabilities succeed.