Virginia Beach, VA

Theresa Zano-McMillan is an accomplished Environmental Engineer, an invaluable member of the Autism Society Tidewater Affiliate Executive Board, and a dedicated Virginia Medicaid Mentor. She is the devoted mother of three, with her youngest child facing an array of complex diagnoses. These diagnoses include non-verbal autism, pica, a 15q duplication in the critical region of Prader Willi syndrome (PWSCR), severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and aortic arch compression affecting her esophagus. Her story is one of unwavering resilience and commitment, shaped by her determination to meet and provide for her daughter’s needs despite the obstacles, earning her a well-deserved place in FTF’s Spotlight.

Here is Theresa’s story:

Amid the profound challenges of raising a child with severe autism and complex medical needs, our family often found itself in survival mode. Our daily life was consumed by the constant need for safety and injury prevention. We constantly navigated through frequent and intense rough patches, leaving us with little time to recover. Severe problem behavior reached an all-time high, including physical aggression, self-injurious behavior (SIB), obsessive rummaging, and food-related issues like pica. This took a toll on us, both emotionally and financially. Our home became a place where we walked on eggshells, always anticipating the next episode of challenging behavior. Our world had shrunk to the confines of our home, car, and school, and our daughter was not thriving.

Recognizing that something had to change, we turned to intensive behavioral intervention with a glimmer of hope for a miracle. Our BCBA introduced us to the Practical Functional Assessment (PFA) and Skill-Based Treatment (SBT) through FTF Behavioral Consulting. After just ten hours of watching an on-demand PFA-SBT course, we gradually became convinced that we could not only address our daughter’s severe problem behavior but also rebuild our relationship with her. FTF Behavioral Consulting became rays of hope in our lives, and we sought consultation from Dr. Hanley and Dr. Fiani.

Following our initial consultation meeting with FTF, we embarked on three concurrent tracks: establishing a reinforcement context that left our daughter happy, relaxed, and engaged (HRE); designing a PFA and SBT plan; and implementing a Food Happens protocol (PWSCR).

By just the second day of implementing these protocols, our daughter was happy, relaxed, and engaged, and she started asking for “My way.” We introduced the Food Happens Protocol – a protocol that ultimately required a lot of sacrifice and substantial environmental changes to our home. It was hard work that demanded consistent follow-through, but it changed our lives forever. Not long after that, our daughter began cooperating and enduring tasks that had once seemed unattainable. Her skills expanded, and several positive outcomes emerged. For the first time, we saw a decrease in her severe problem behavior, and pica occurrences decreased significantly. Most notably, our interactions with her became lighter and more joyful, with her smiling—all the time. Her communication skills saw a sustained burst, and she began taking an active role in monitoring and managing her own behavior. She acquired a wide range of appropriate skills, such as food preparation, and now enjoys various leisure activities and exercise. These critical skills paved the way for further enhancements, significantly improving her quality of life and that of our family.

Since then, we are delighted to share that as a family, we have taken short vacations, including an overnight sleeper train ride to Chicago where we explored the city. Every Friday, we dine out at restaurants as a family. She goes shopping and attends large gatherings where food is present. Our family is whole, our daughter’s future is bright, and the freedom to venture beyond our home, car, and her school has been liberating.

We are eternally grateful to Dr. Hanley, Dr. Fiani, and our dedicated ABA Team for the successful implementation of PFA and SBT. With their support, they’ve allowed us to dream once more, including opening a small Filipino Bakery dedicated to our daughter where we look forward to empowering her to expand her cooking and baking skills.

Having observed the meaningful progress and the enhanced quality of life brought about by implementing PFA-SBT, Theresa made the decision to pursue her Masters in Behavior Analysis and is scheduled to graduate this coming May.

Theresa’s extraordinary dedication to her family, her tireless efforts to promote compassionate care, and her aptitude at managing multiple responsibilities are truly commendable. We feel privileged to have Theresa as a member of our community and hope that her story has served as a source of inspiration and empowerment for you.

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