by James Macon, a member of the SkillCorps® Czech Republic February 2019 team

What is it like to sign up for Global Autism Project and commit to traveling abroad to a foreign country for 2 weeks while lending your behavior analytic skills to a burgeoning clinic?   In one word, incredible. 

The Global Autism Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding evidence based treatments for people diagnosed with autism around the world.  

Estimates indicate that there are 70 million people living with autism, with 85% of them living outside of the United States (where most of the BCBA live).  I recently completed a 2 week tour with them in Prague, in the Czech Republic.

Here are a few of my experiences and perhaps a few things to keep in mind.

Team dynamics

We had an incredible team, encompassing nearly 50 years of ABA experience.  There were 5 of us total, and everyone brought a unique skillset to the table, increasing our effectiveness as a team. . Our Team Leader, Kelly, was responsible for delegating tasks and prioritizing the mission with our local partner site. 

Kelly has worked in the field for 19 years, and I personally found it incredibly rewarding to work and talk shop with another BCBA whose been in the field for so long.  Jessica and Christiana both work as RBTs back in their respective homes, and brought an enthusiasm and energy to our daily grind. 

They were invaluable in working with the staff and collecting data.  Katy was our other BCBA, and has worked in the field for 8 years. With 2 Masters degrees and experience applying behavior analysis in both school and clinical settings, her pragmatism was invaluable.

As we embarked on our mission, we each found ourselves lending different skills to help the team function better as a unit.  We each earned different “patches”.

Kelly:  The Oracle, Team Leader.  Kelly made decisions and judgment calls precisely when they were needed most, earning her the patch “The Oracle.”  

James:  Key Master, The Muscle, Evoker of decision making.  I was delegated to be in charge of keys, earning me the “Key Master” patch.  Our apartment was a 10 minute walk from the grocery store, and I often was utilized to carry heaving stuff back and forth. In a group of people not wanting to offend each other, I often helped to evoke firm decisions when necessary.

Katie:  Line Whisperer.  Word Choice.  Katie is  sweet and sometimes naïve, and would often say things that had hilarious, double meanings.  To the delight of the group, she was more or less, always unaware of this, earning her “Word Choice.”  She also had a seemingly natural ability to get us to the front of any line (Line Whisperer).

Jessica:  The Orator.  Jess had a natural affinity for language.  She could hear a Czech word once and recall and pronounce it perfectly. She also brought the entire team to tears countless times by blending her translation skills with humor.

Christiana:  The Navigator. The Chef. The Yogi.  Christiana had the most reliable cell service, and was responsible for all GPS navigation.  She was also the house Chef (she had some professional culinary training), although we rotated cooking duties daily. 

The cost

Volunteering for Global Autism is not free.  It requires fundraising $5000 for the trip, plus airfare.  If you don’t have experience fundraising, don’t fret.  Global Autism will teach you how to do it. Leveraging your social network, friends, family, and colleagues makes it much easier (arguably, this is the easiest part of the trip).  Your employer can also be a tremendous help.  For example, Centria Healthcare provides a scholarship that pays for $2500 + free airfare.   

Comfort with the unknown

As a precursor, be prepared to go outside of your comfort zone.  There’s a high probability that things that are scary, strange, or unfamiliar will happen to you, so it’s important to be flexible.  Global Autism Project will mention this to you in orientation and training, but it might not be real until you’re on the ground.   

Gender

There’s no escaping the subject of gender on this trip.  Working as a BCBA in a predominantly female staffed industry is something I’m very used to, but living with 4 girls for an extended period of time was a whole new element.  I have tremendous respect for women, and the antiquated idea that women are somehow less capable workers is absolutely absurd.  There are nonetheless gender differences that only I was aware of, as the girls aren’t accustomed to working with men. 

For example, the car ride to the airport started with the girls discussing what their favorite movie to cry to was.  The merit and aesthetics of lumberjacks were brought up several times, and were a reoccurring theme throughout the trip.  There were more Spice Girl conversations than I’ve ever had in my life, and discussing periods became a normal part of everyday.  We also went through toilet paper at an unprecedented rate (for what guys would be used to).

How the girls said hi in a group was also different (generalizing here for ease, of course).  We were often greeting a group of 5 or more women from our partner site at once, and we were a group of 5.  The intonation and pitch of the greetings was something like the roll of an ocean wave, raising in level, volume, and speed before coming down.  The collective sound of 10 women saying hi at once was something personally I had never experienced.  When I pointed this out, we all had a good laugh. 

I’m highlighting these gender differences only out of hilarity, meaning that there are often no direct male activity comparison (e.g., men don’t discuss favorite movies to cry to, etc).  Similarly, there are often no direct women activity comparisons for.  Neither is “right” or “wrong,” but rather simply a subtle difference that adds value to the human experience.

Language barrier

The language barrier was one of the most difficult aspects of the trip.  The owner of our partner site, Katrin, only spoke Czech.  She was 1 of 2 people who were responsible for BCBA supervision and training staff.  

Katerina was the other BCBA, and fortunately spoke Czech and English.  Many of the technicians also spoke English, but sessions were of course, run in Czech.  Complicating things even further, at least 1 staff was Russian, and didn’t speak English or Czech. 

Others were Ukrainian.  This often required several layers of translation.  We would explain in English to Katerina, who would translate to Katrin in Czech, who would translate in Russian. 

Downtime

I travel a lot for work, and am accustomed to having hours of downtime without the comforts of home.  If you’re not used to this though, it can be a challenge.  How do you spend an evening after work if you don’t have television or WIFI?   

Small spaces

Our team shared a small but comfortable 2 bedroom apartment, rented through Airbnb.  Other sites likely had different lodging accommodations, but our team loved the apartment experience.

It was the perfect setup, as it allowed us to all hangout, collaborate, cook, and relax together. The girls each shared a room, and rotated roommates, while I took the couch. 

Having such a small apartment with 5 people nonetheless has its challenges.  There is little to no privacy in the house.  If you have a bad day, it’s on public display for the group.  Private phone calls are impossible. 

If you have a personal routine, expect it be interrupted or potentially impossible.  And you’ll be sharing a small bathroom with a group.  None of these things are an actual barrier, but you should be aware of it ahead of time.

Site priorities

Each partner site with the Global Autism Project has it’s own strengths and needs.  As such, each site has their own priorities.  Depending on your expectations and professional skillset, you may not be doing the work that you thought you signed up for.  In Prague for example, they had a highly educated team of Supervisors and technicians.  They needed support in systems and processes (OBM), and in creating more robust training and feedback loops for their staff.  Other sites may need more direct care workers or BCBAs for supervision.  Some likely need a combination of all of the above. 

Summary

Having the opportunity to travel to another country and help  lend my skillset to disseminate ABA around the world was an incredible experience, and I highly encourage you consider doing it.  You will come back motivated and inspired, and for all practical purposes, a changed person.  You will also meet the most incredible people along the way