One Dad’s Story: Giving Back Helped My Family Heal

Steve Olson’s day once started with an hour-long commute through the traffic-laden corridors of Silicon Valley, followed by long, intense hours at a high-stress job he did not even like.

Today, however, Steve lives an altogether different life. He’s a single father to his teenage daughters, Madeline and Addison; a volunteer with local nonprofits serving people with disabilities and special needs; and a community liaison for LEARN Behavioral, where he builds and fosters partnerships to help kids with autism.

In a recent interview in honor of Father’s Day, Steve shares how his family overcame heartache and sorrow caused by tragic losses—and their journey to a new start in Arizona.

Q: Let’s start with your story, Steve. Your family has experienced significant loss. Tell us about that.

A: We certainly have.

On March 2, 2012, I held the hand of my wife and best friend, Sandra, as she took her last breath. When Sandra lost her short, six-month battle to brain cancer, I knew at that moment that my world would forever change. I never thought I’d find true happiness again.

At the time, I was living in San Jose, California, with my two daughters, Madeline and Addison. We were still recovering from the tragic loss of my first wife, my daughters’ biological mother, Erika, who passed away in 2009 from a car accident.

Life was not turning out how I had envisioned. My daughters had lost both their biological mother and step-mom in the timespan of a few years.

Q: That is a lot for anyone, let alone two young girls. After your wife’s death, how were you able to cope?

A: Initially, I was blessed to have my parents help taking care of the girls. However, both my parents eventually passed away, too—my mom from breast cancer and my dad from a strange and tragic fall into a swimming pool. The timing of it all was terrible, not that the timing of any death is ever good. While this was happening, I did my best to hold things together at home and on the work front. I could somewhat distract myself at work, as I attempted to maintain a successful career in business development, but in all honesty, when I look back on that time period, I know I wasn’t the nicest person in the office or fully present at home for my daughters. I was in a severe grief-induced depression, simply going through the motions but not fully present for anyone.

Internally, I felt like I was failing on all fronts.

Q: What happened next?

A: Something needed to change. My girls and I needed a new start, so we decided, as a family, to relocate to Tempe, Arizona, in June 2018. That decision to leave behind our friends, and my high-paying, Silicon Valley job to take a self-imposed, year-long sabbatical—that decision was based entirely on putting our family first. The decision didn’t come easily, but looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to us.

Q: What, in particular, made it the right choice?

A: In San Jose, the long hours and continuous stress were affecting all aspects of my life negatively. My girls knew I was still unhappy and welcomed the new start themselves. We didn’t know anyone in Arizona, but Tempe is home to the main campus of Arizona State University (ASU), a school both girls were open to attending. Plus, close to Tempe is Mesa, Arizona, the spring training home of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. As an avid fan, I’d visited Mesa several times over the years, including with the girls, to attend baseball games. We loved the area.

A few months after arriving in our new home, we found the Miracle League of Arizona, a local nonprofit that provides baseball programming to individuals with special needs and disabilities. As a family, we started volunteering our time, helping individuals with physical and cognitive challenges get a chance to play baseball.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Miracle League of Arizona, and how it helped your family?

Miracle League of ArizonaA: The Miracle League of Arizona combined several of my life’s passions: time with my daughters, baseball, and helping others. I later accepted a fulltime position at that nonprofit, making a significant financial sacrifice but finding myself far better off in terms of my happiness.

Over time, we realized how much the act of giving back helped us heal from the tragedies we’d experienced. By giving up only a couple of hours of our time per week, we started to feel joy again as a family, while joining an amazing community in the process.

Another thing I discovered, as I worked with and learned more about individuals with special needs, is that I’m the one with the disability. I’m the one worrying about the future or stuck in the past. Individuals with developmental disabilities, including autism, tend to live more in the present. They tend to have a more positive mindset and be fundamentally happy, especially when someone shows them love.

Q: That’s a great insight, which, I imagine, influenced your choice to keep working with the special needs community. How else have you stayed involved?

A: I was asked to join the Board of Directors for two nonprofits, Mikey’s League and Pawsitive Friendships. Mikey’s League is an inclusive sports league, with sports like flag football and basketball designed for children with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities to, simply, play together. Pawsitive Friendships provides animal assisted therapy to children with special needs, allowing them to build animal-human friendships, while simultaneously working on individual therapy goals. Both of these organizations, in addition to the Miracle League, give me a chance to raise awareness of the same, underserved population—individuals with disabilities and special needs.

My daughters have also thrived in this environment. My oldest, Madeline, is a now a sophomore at ASU, studying elementary education. While Madeline has always loved children, her time at the Miracle League (she is also a staff member) reaffirmed her plan to teach one day. My younger daughter, Addison, was awarded “Most Valuable Volunteer” last year at the Miracle League for logging the most volunteer hours. She’ll be a high school senior in this fall and hopes to attend ASU in 2022, with interests in social work or, perhaps, becoming a therapist one day.

Q: How did you end up at LEARN Behavioral?

A: The pandemic affected my professional role with the Miracle League, as baseball services essentially shut down completely for more than a year. Lucky for me, when I was fully ready to resume my career—this time with the intent of doing something to help others—I discovered opportunities with LEARN’s new community liaison team. The timing turned out just right. And timing really is everything.

Q: What do you do as a community liaison associate?

A: The community liaison role is the human link between LEARN and the organizations and people we serve within our local communities.

I work with an amazing internal team focused on developing strong relationships with key influencers— physicians, other healthcare providers, school leaders—who can potentially serve as new referral sources to solidify LEARN’s nationwide presence within the industry. Together, we work closely with local clinical teams to coordinate our community outreach and networking efforts.

Before he passed away, my Pops used to say, “Love what you do, and never work another day in your life.” Today, I know what he meant.

Q: Your story is inspirational. Based on everything you’ve gone through, what advice might you offer others undergoing a challenge or in need of a change?

A: Go find your purpose. I know, in my heart, I’ve found mine. The reason I was put on this earth is not only to be “Daddy” to Madeline and Addison (yes, my teenage daughters still call me “Daddy,” and I hope that never changes) but also to serve others.

In our “Keeping up with the Joneses” society, the chase for the better job, bigger house, nicer car, perfect body… it leaves almost all of us feeling “less than.” But what are we really chasing anyway? Is it even obtainable, whatever “it” means?

It took a lot for me to get to this place in my life where I’m happy again, even without my best friend by my side. I never thought I’d reclaim my lost smile. My girls are active and happy, too, in our new community and always want to “give back” themselves—that couldn’t make me prouder.

As someone who spent what felt like years in the fetal position in tears, I realize now that it is, in fact, possible to find joy again. For me, it took giving of myself and helping others to step away from my own problems. By helping others, I didn’t have as much time to think about my problems, and that, in itself, was healing.

For anyone in pain, depression, sadness, or grief, volunteer your time, even when you think you have nothing to offer. Know that there are individuals worse off than you. Find them. Help them. And come to see through these selfless acts that you’re the one getting the greatest payback.

Successful Toilet Training for Kids with Autism

Potty training, toilet training, toileting… whichever term you use, tackling these skills can be a big deal for kids and their parents. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often delayed at the age of successful toilet training, even when compared to children with other developmental disabilities. The average age in which a child is successfully toileting was 3.3 years of age for children with autism in comparison to 2.5 years of age for children with other developmental disabilities (Williams, Oliver, Allard, & Sears, 2003).

Extended use of diapers may diminish personal hygiene, self-confidence and increase physical discomfort, stigmatism, risk of problems later with bladder control and restrict participation in social activities (e.g., camp, after school program, etc.). Extended diaper use for children with autism is also problematic because these children may become so accustomed to using a diaper that they often demonstrate resistance to toilet-training procedures and will prefer to wait for a diaper in order to void (Tarbox, Williams, & Friman, 2004). Teaching independent toilet skill can improve the quality of life for children with autism and their families. Families will definitely benefit from the decreased costs of purchasing diapers, their children will feel empowered to address their physical needs independently all while decreasing the risk of complications associated with extended diaper use.

Before beginning toilet-training procedures, caregivers should check with their child’s doctors to rule out any medical conditions that may prevent their child from being successful with a toilet training program. Upon getting medical clearance, the next step will be to determine whether their child is showing signs that they are ready for toilet training. The following questions will assist with this step:

  1. Does the child act differently or seem to notice when diapers or clothing are wet or soiled?
  2. Does the child show any interest in behavior related to the bathroom, toilet, hand washing, dressing, undressing or related tasks?
  3. Does the child show an interest in seeing other people involved in activities or with objects related to toilet training?
  4. Does the child stay dry for at least 2 hours during the day or does his/her diaper stay dry after naps?

Each child and family is unique; therefore, the toilet training procedure needs to be designed to specifically fit the child and his/her family’s needs. Generally, caregivers and their clinician should identify and agree upon the child’s preferred mode of communication to best indicate when they need to use the restroom. This can be a specific word or phrase (e.g., “Potty”, “I need to use the toilet”, etc.) or it can be as simple as a hand signal or the presentation of an image of a toilet. To increase the potential for success, caregivers should have a preferred item or activity available (e.g. special snacks, video, etc.) and present it as a reward the moment that their child successfully voids in the toilet.  This item should be reserved only for toilet training. The child should also receive lots of praise and high fives when he/she stay dry for a specific duration of time.

Going from using a diaper to using a toilet can be a big change and is extremely difficult for lots of children. If your child has a hard time with transitions, a picture schedule may be a helpful tool to remind him/her of what task are needed to complete the toileting routine. Some things to remember: make sure to have plenty of extra underwear and clothes, a comfortable potty chair, a timer, your child’s favorite drinks, and a positive attitude!

Toilet training may be a lengthy process and require a lot of patience. This is a big commitment but the payoff will be huge!  Make sure to consult with your behavior analyst along the way to ensure the procedure is clear and is tailored to your child and family needs.

Dai Doan, M.S., BCBA




William, G., Oliver, J. M., Allard, A., & Sears, L.  (2003).  Autism and associated medical and familial factors:  A case control study.  Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 15, 335-349.

Tarbox, R. S. E., Williams, W. L., & Friman, P. C. (2004). Extended diaper wearing: Effects on continence in and out of the diaper. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 37, 97-100.

How to Select Appropriate Gifts for Kids with Special Needs

Buying the perfect gift for kids and other loved ones can be challenging, and this can also be true when buying gifts for kids with autism. To help make your gift-giving easier, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when purchasing gifts for individuals with autism:


Focus on the person’s interests and preferences

Research shows that incorporating preferences into the learning and play environment of individuals with autism, can reduce behaviors and can increase certain skills (1). So we can capitalize on what someone already likes! For example, if a child likes dogs, find games, activities, or toys that are dog-related. If a child likes swimming, activities involving water play may be a hit (e.g., water tables, sprinkler toys, water beads, grow capsules). Alternatively, if a child is sensitive to loud noises, a toy fire truck with a siren may not be appropriate. Ask friends and family of the person for whom you are buying the gift what that person generally likes and/or dislikes.


Focus on age-appropriateness

Although keeping a person’s preferences in mind when shopping for gifts is a great start, always consider the age-appropriateness of the gift in mind. For instance, a teen with autism may love playing with shape sorters, but considering that he is a teen and the toy is meant for toddlers, there are more appropriate toys with which he could play. Try finding gifts that have similarities to the original toy, but have age recommendations that correspond to the age of the individual for whom you are buying the gift. For example, rather than buying a new shape sorter for the teen, a more appropriate gift might be Jenga or a piggy bank. In Jenga, stacking wooden blocks in a pattern and pushing wooden blocks out of a block tower is a similar activity to pushing shapes through a shape sorter. Additionally, dropping coins into a piggy bank slot is a similar activity to pushing shapes through a shape sorter. Both of the aforementioned activities could serve as a more appropriate replacement for the shape sorter.


Focus on developmental-appropriateness

Many toys come with age recommendations, and while these recommendations are helpful, they might not always lead you to the perfect gift. A rule of thumb when purchasing a gift is to consider both the age and the development of the person for whom you are buying a gift. For example, the game “Apples to Apples” would not be developmentally appropriate for a non-verbal teen, even if it is an age-appropriate game. When looking for the right gift, focus on what the person can do. For instance, if the non-verbal teen mentioned above is great at drawing, then a sketch pad or an adult coloring book could be a more appropriate gift. If you are unsure what the person can do, ask friends and family of the person for whom you are buying the gift what skills that person has mastered.

Note: Be sensitive to how family and friends of a person with autism may feel when being asked questions about the skills of their loved one. If asking questions, always frame your questions from the perspective of accomplishment (e.g., what skills have they mastered) and not deficit (e.g., in what areas are they delayed) to be supportive and respectful of the individual’s growth and development.


Be mindful of behavior excesses/triggers

Some individuals with autism engage in behaviors that put them or their loved ones at risk of harm. For example, if a child engages in pica (e.g., eating of nonfood items), gifts containing small objects may pose as a choking hazard. For example, if a child engages in aggression towards others, gifts with violent content may not be appropriate, as additional exposure to violence may contribute to future instances of aggression. Alternatively, individuals with sensory-seeking behaviors may benefit from gifts that redirect their behaviors in more appropriate ways. For example, if a child rocks back and forth, a swing may be a great way to meet their sensory need. Additionally, certain objects can trigger behaviors in some individuals with autism (e.g., loud noises, highly preferred items, phobias, etc.). Ask friends and family of the person for whom you are buying the gift if there are any behavior excesses/triggers to consider before purchasing a gift.


Focus on toys that encourage interaction with others

Social deficits are a defining characteristic of autism, which means that when gift-giving, try to purchase gifts that encourage social interaction. While almost any activity can be turned into a social interaction, certain activities may be more conducive to social interactions than others. For example, instead of buying a computer game, consider the game Bop It, which is an electronic game that can be played in a group.


Focus on expanding their repertoire

Individuals with autism sometimes have restricted or limited interests (e.g., a person only wants to talk about trucks or only wants to play with dinosaurs). In order to help expand their repertoire, try finding activities that are new, but similar to current interests. For example, if a child’s favorite activity is playing with PlayDoh, kinetic sand or slime may be an appropriate gift to help expand their repertoire because it is similar to their current interest, but slightly different. Ultimately, gifts that will provide them with new experiences may act as potential new reinforcers (e.g., stimuli that increase behaviors), and may significantly enrich their learning environment.



Stores: Lakeshore Learning Center,,, Target, Kohl’s, Amazon, WalMart, iTunes (for apps)

Brands: Melissa and Doug, Fat Brain Toys

Apps: Proloquo2Go, Avaz Pro, Life360 (Find my family, friends, phone), Choiceworks


– Brittany Barger, M.Ed., BCBA




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