David Smith, Behavioral Therapist
We discovered David Smith through our #PeerCnnekt Campaign and although he was not randomly selected as our winner, he still blew our socks off with his heart, soul and life mission. David is a certified Behavioral Therapist and a main companion of Circle of Friends, who spends his days working ''to bring more inclusivity and joy to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder''- described by our very own Lauren Blodgett. His work has even been featured on the feel good A&E show, Born This Way. David took time out of his busy schedule of travel and volunteering to talk to thecnnekt about his strides on making the world a better, more accepting place. Grab your tissues and read along.
David, before becoming a behavioral therapist, what were you up to?
This is a very interesting question for me to consider, especially looking back from where I am now. It also makes me think of my favorite quote and a commonly used phrase, ‘everything happens for a reason’. Like many teenagers do, I grew up with big dreams of being rich and famous. I didn’t have a clear path as to what I would exactly become rich and famous for - I just knew that was what I wanted, or so I thought.
After college, I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. Upon applying to several traditional, 9-5 jobs, even as early on as the application process - I knew it wasn't for me. Mainly because I knew I wasn't physically capable of sitting down for a few minutes, let alone eight hours a day. So instead, I decided to pick up bartending as a means of paying off my student loans as quickly as possible. I figured if I wasn't going to use my degree, I might as well get rid of the loans before the interest got too high.
I spent a year or so bartending in Boston before getting restless and realizing this fish needed a bigger pond. I saved up some money and decided to move to Los Angeles, with my goal of ‘becoming something,’ closely attached to my hip. I got off the plane with three suitcases, a dream, and a whole lot of drive. I found an apartment that first day, and the next day walked down the street and landed a great bartending gig. Everything was falling into place exactly as I had hoped.
I spent the next few years bartending, saving money, and exploring different avenues in the entertainment industry. I made music video parodies, wrote movie and television scripts, took acting classes, tried stand up comedy, and don't laugh - I even attempted to become a rapper. I was dedicated to my ego-fueled dream of ‘making it’.
However, all of that changed when the very first friend I made upon moving to LA, Kim, suggested I watch a show that she had just finished co-producing, titled, ‘Born This Way’. Hence where, ‘everything happens for a reason,’ comes into play. That night I watched on with tears streaming down my face, covered in goosebumps and knowing that I had to be involved someway. The show followed the lives of seven friends who happen to have Down Syndrome, as they navigated all of life's problems and triumphs.
After finishing the episode, I did research and discovered the center where these amazingly gifted individuals with Down Syndrome were located, was right down the street from my apartment. That night I crafted an email to the center, exclaiming my excitement and my strong desire to volunteer in any way. The next morning I woke up to an email suggesting that instead of volunteering I should apply for a position as a behavioral therapist at the Center, and the rest was history.
Can you tell the community about that inspiring moment where you decided to switch gears?
I was sitting at my computer, soaked with tears, covered in goosebumps, watching these incredible individuals inspire people simply by being themselves. The message of ‘Born This Way,’ is simple: be proud of who you are, find power in acknowledging that you were born this way for a reason, and it is nothing to be ashamed about. One of the main quotes from the series often said by cast members is, ‘don't limit me’. I was inspired into action, to say the very least.
By the next week I was in the office of the company I had just watched on TV, learning exactly what it would take for me to help. I was to become a certified Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapist by taking courses online as well as passing exams amongst other necessary training. Overall the process was pretty straight forward and I was more than willing to do whatever I needed to do in order to help.
A month or so later, after completing training and shadowing a supervisor - I was finally on my way to my first client as a certified Behavioral Therapist. Due to privacy reasons I can not tell you his name, but what I can tell you is that his first name is my middle name, and also my Grandfather’s name. So you can imagine right off the bat I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
I walked into my clients house and stood there anxiously as I watched a nervous 14-year-old boy coyly round the corner to greet me. My new friend was a tall, bright eyed, non-verbal teenager, who just happened to have autism. The next few hours were not easy, but by the end of it we were dancing to Michael Jackson on Wii and playing basketball together.
I was filled with so many emotions after this first encounter, but mainly gratitude. I left my new friend’s house, got into my car and cried for the entire 45-minute ride home. I cried not because I was sad, but because I knew that as much as I had to offer this young boy, he had just as much, if not more to offer me. My entire life changed from that moment on. My perspective on life, my goals, and also my intentions.
Suddenly, without even realizing it - I shed this notion of wanting to ‘make it’ and moved into a state of wanting to ‘make a change.’
I was moved beyond recognition and I knew this feeling in my heart was what it was all about. I felt as if every decision and path I had taken was supposed to lead me right into this living room, to truly make a difference.
The role you’ve taken on requires a lot of patience. What are some of the hardships you deal with and what are your best practices to turn them into positives?
I’ve been asked this question before and it never fails to make me chuckle. Mainly because if someone told my Mom that I have a job that requires patience, she would have laughed in your face and never believed you. I have struggled my whole life with patience, and it wasn't until starting this career that I truly learned what patience was and how to practice it daily.
It is incredibly easy to feel this shift when you are dealing with an individual who faces more challenges and adversity on a daily basis than you probably ever will have to in your entire life. And that is not an exaggeration.
One of the most difficult situations that I have ever been involved in, was having to witness one of my clients consistently engage in ‘self injurious behavior.’ Simply put, as a result of being frustrated and not being able to communicate with words, one of the ways this particular individual would get his point across, would be to punch himself in the chin. He did this up to ten times an hour and due to his non-verbal existence, the cause was not always known. In fact in most cases, it was unknown to myself and the family.
Part of the training I received was to planned ignore this behavior as a means to stop it from producing the desired result. This was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. Watching someone who I cared about, in which whom I was supposed to be helping, engage in such a way because that was all they knew was disheartening.
However, it showed me that with care, patience, kindness and genuine concern for the well-being of another individual anything is possible.
I am proud to say that after two years, this problem behavior has severely decreased to almost never. Together we implemented new resources, including focusing on sign language and other identification cues to express discomfort or frustration instead of violence. We even decided to take out our frustrations together at the gym, once a week after school and sweat it out. I am very proud of this individual for working with me and having the patience to work hard and continue to grow despite how difficult it may seem.
This role also requires a lot of empathy and I’m sure you wind up “taking work home” with you, especially after you build such close relationships. Does it ever affect your mental health when you lay your head down and process?
While it is very true that this work requires empathy, and more often than not you end up taking the work home with you - I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. Taking this work home has helped me better almost every facet of my life, from relationships with family members, friends, and even complete strangers.
The empathy gained from helping individuals who not only need our help, but deserve it, is priceless. So to answer your question, yes it does affect my mental health when I lay my head down and process it all, but only positively and for the benefit of everyone around me including myself. After dealing with this population, I was able to see things with a wider perspective and a much clearer lens. I am now better able to help people close to me who are struggling, as well as see where my own shortcomings could use some adjustments. I am better because of this work and I wish everyone could be fortunate enough to venture into it to some capacity.
I believe there is so much to learn from adversity and why not do some good while you’re learning? It is a win/win situation for all involved by engaging in these relationships, despite the difficulty level or the challenge. In fact, it is because of the challenge that this is all the more reason to do so.
You mentioned that your goal is to make the world a more accepting place. We think that your talent show that featured folks both with and without disabilities did just that. What do you think the media and the world can learn from such inclusivity?
I think inclusivity is not only important, but imperative to the future success of the World. I I believe the inclusion of individuals with disabilities into every facet of life would change the perspective of an entire society overnight. This is true for the classroom, the labor force, mainstream media, sports, entertainment and every arena imaginable.
Allowing inclusion will highlight that it is not our differences that divide us, but it is in fact what connects us. Whether you’re missing an arm, a leg, eye-sight, the ability to hear, the ability to communicate, your sense of taste, if you have an excess of hair, or none at all, whether you are taller than what is considered normal, or shorter, whatever it is; all of these things are what can make us special and should be celebrated, integrated and accepted as opposed to feared, seen as less than or pushed to the side. At the end of the day, put simply - it is our differences that make us all the same.
Encouraging others to see the importance of not only accepting their own differences and those of others, but to embrace them, will truly make a world of difference and also a difference in the world. To better answer your question, I think one specific thing that everyone could learn from inclusion is a better sense of gratitude and perspective for all that you are fortunate enough to have and the problems you don't have to face on a daily basis. I often say that all the problems in the World would be solved overnight if everyone had a best friend or a family member with a disability. Because once that perspective enters your life, it is impossible to live your life any other way than inclusive, kind and grateful for all that you have.
Now that the talent show was a success, what can we expect to see next from you?
The ‘Gonna Make A Change’ talent show was indeed the biggest success and accomplishment in my life thus far. Thank you for acknowledging that. After completing the show, and working very closely as a one-on-one behavioral therapist with my client, who quickly became my best friend - I couldn't help but feel there was more for me to do. With the blessing of my client’s family, I made the decision to travel the World, while volunteering for different families who have children with disabilities. After falling into this line of work, I was curious as to how other countries and societies dealt with individuals with disabilities. Was it better or worse? Could I be doing things differently? Did I have something to share with others or even more to learn? All of these questions made it almost impossible for me to remain where I was and after getting the okay from the most important people in my life - I was ready to travel, see the world and bring back what I’ve learned to hopefully continue helping people.
As I write this, I am currently in Australia awaiting to stay with my second family who happens to have a child on the Autism Spectrum. I just finished my stay with a family in New Zealand, who have a brilliant 11 year old son on the Spectrum. It was completely life-changing and I know I still have many more moments to experience. I am not sure where this journey will take me, but for now I am soaking it all in, writing down all my experiences, and keeping the faith that hopefully everything I learn will aid in my goal to continue helping others and trying my best to make this world a better, more accepting place for all.
As far as what else you have to expect from me - my list is long. I hope to one day be the founder of a non-profit that allows for an open and accepting space where those with and without disabilities can go and grow, listen, support and most importantly connect with one another. My vision is to have volunteers who are dedicated to inclusion in all facets of life, the arts, education, fitness, hobbies, etc. helping out and nurturing these undeniably imperative relationships.
I also see myself becoming a published author. Sharing my personal stories with the World, in hopes to inspire and educate others on the importance of being your true authentic self and helping others to do just the same. In my experience, life is so much more enjoyable when everyone is included and when we work together in reaching each other’s personal goals. I know I will put in all the work to make my dreams a reality, and I can’t wait to look back and see all of my hard work pay off in the form of love, happiness, and inclusion for all.
Interviewed by Emily