Dr. Serena Wieder, Co-Creator of the DIR Model, Joins Us in NJ

June 5, 2024
Natalie Kitts, OTR/L
Every story of how a Positive Development staff member came to us — and to the mission of expanding access to the Development Care model — is a personal journey. Here's my story.
–Natalie Kitts, Clinical Director, New Jersey

My journey began with my son, who has significant individual differences that contributed to developmental gaps. As my family was navigating the challenges of providing him the support he needed, I read The Child With Special Needs by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Serena Wieder. This book outlines the developmental approach to autism therapy that Dr. Greenspan and Dr. Wieder developed, which focuses on individual strengths and fostering connection through relationships. 

The book validated my belief that if we pursued competence while identifying my son’s challenges, we would see a big change — we would see a happy child emerge. Unfortunately at that time, and for many families today still, it was difficult to obtain and afford the necessary therapy services to make this happen. We felt alone in trying to convince the world there was a better way. But this book helped us not feel quite as alone.

I found a small community-based DIR program and a mentor, Monica Osgood, who enabled my son to attend their summer program in exchange for my volunteer services. This was the spark that ignited a flame within me. I was already an occupational therapist, but I pursued further education in the DIRFloortime® model. Ready to put my passion and work into practice, I joined the Positive Development team, which was working on expanding access to the developmental care model in New Jersey after it was approved for Medicaid coverage in 2020.

Connecting with Dr. Wieder

This past May, our New Jersey team hosted a community connection dinner and invited Dr. Wieder to honor her work and recognize how it has laid the foundation for what we do at Positive Development. At the dinner, we shared how Positive Development has been able to bring DIR to even more families. Historically, DIR was limited to licensed providers with advanced training, a lengthy and expensive process that limited access to DIR. These experts would then train parents to become "attuned play partners" (a practice we continue through coaching).

However, with service delivery only available via highly trained experts, DIR could be cost-prohibitive and difficult to obtain. At Positive Development, we shifted the delivery model to train paraprofessionals to take the role of "attuned play partner," as well as by training and mentoring licensed therapists who were new to the discipline — all overseen by an interdisciplinary team of clinicians.

As I shared this new delivery approach with Dr. Wieder over dinner, she excitedly wanted to hear more about how we brought the DIR model from the 1970s into the 21st century to meet the needs of more families.

An In-Office Visit

To show Dr. Wieder how Positive Development handles this approach in our daily work, we invited her to visit our New Jersey location and meet our amazing team of therapists and paraprofessionals. She truly got a hero's welcome and was particularly surprised when she saw that we named our team collaboration space "Serena's Spark" based on her book sparking my passion for the DIR model so many years ago and showing how she continues to inspire a new generation of therapists and paraprofessionals.

Dr. Wieder kindly observed sessions, provided feedback, shared stories about her work, and signed books for the staff. I asked a few of our therapists for their memories of this special day:

"My favorite part was collaborating with her after observing a parent session and listening to her insights on the development of the DIR approach. We had a thought-provoking discussion about the impact on a child's sense of self and explored different personality types like people pleasers, the angry, and scripters to understand their influence on interactions and independent thinking. Her calm and humble demeanor throughout the conversation stood out the most, making the experience exceptionally valuable and enriching."
– Katy Herridge, speech therapist
"My Serena moment: hearing her voice and knowing it from workshops and videos. Feeling her presence and the anticipation and then actually sitting with her and talking naturally at our table in the ‘Serena’s Spark’ office made it one of the most magical and momentous moments in my life. Then when she joined our sessions, it was also an honor and I learned many tidbits that will stay with me forever."
– Rachael Singer, case manager
"I loved hearing Serena share her perspective on scripting and how it can really show a child’s ability to think in more abstract ways than we realize. I also loved hearing her outlook on IQ testing and how it doesn’t truly show an individual's intelligence. I love her open-mindedness to understanding an individual's differences!"
– Charmaine DelRosario, case manager
"It was an amazing opportunity to learn about the work she's done before our company came to be and hear about the wonderful feedback she had with our clients in the center, as well as have the opportunity to share how our model has been making incredible progress among our clients! Sitting with her and enjoying personal conversations was my favorite part, as we all got the chance to learn about her work but also about her as an individual. Having Serena visit was such an extraordinary experience, strengthening my passion and confidence for our work!"
- Danielle Sklarski, DCC and program coordinator
"Dr. Wieder was kind, joyful, and open to spending time with each and every one of us. I was lucky enough to have her observe a part of my session and later receive her reflections, which was a big highlight of her visit for me. Serena shared that she could see and felt so much joy and enthusiasm from each and every one of our therapists and more importantly she saw the joy in kids and families as she watched us interact. That observation warmed my heart as our biggest goal is always focused around building relationships and joy." – Lacey Cardillo, occupational therapist

Our day with Dr. Wieder is one we'll never forget and we encourage any parent, family member, or other interested individual to read her book.

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