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Life and Work with Susan Berkowitz

Today we’d like to introduce you to Susan Berkowitz.

Susan, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I became interested in children with autism when I first saw a documentary on t.v. when I was in jr. high and I became fascinated. I took a circuitous route to become a speech-language pathologist, majoring in Psychology, taking Special Education courses, and ending up in a Master’s program for Speech Pathology and Audiology. Since most of my fellow grad students were interested in working with adults, I got most of the pediatric cases.

Since becoming an SLP in the ’70s, I have worked in public and non-public schools, state developmental centers, group homes, nonprofit agencies (including UCP of SD), and an assistive tech center. For the past 22 years, I have run my own private practice in San Diego, serving families and school districts all over Southern California.

I have enjoyed specializing in Alternative-Augmentative Communication (AAC) and working with children (and adults) who do not speak. I have provided independent evaluations for families as well as schools and have done training for parents, school districts, and other agencies working with these children.

Several years ago, I decided to turn one of my self-created therapy programs into an app. I found a local pair of programmers who made my vision into a reality. Question it became a ground-breaking program; teaching children with language disorders how to answer Wh questions in an entirely different way. A couple of years later, I also developed SoundSwaps for students with dyslexia.

I enjoy presenting at national and international conferences and writing articles and research papers.
I recently wrote a book, primarily for parents, for how to teach your nonverbal child to communicate with AAC. I found myself saying the same things over and over to parents, and realized there were so many more parents I couldn’t reach. I want every parent to be empowered and I want every child to have a voice.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The road has been fairly smooth if a bit convoluted. Being unable to find a job after college, so that I had no choice but to go to grad school was a bit of a bump, but ultimately a good outcome. Being disillusioned by my first graduate program (in Special Education) was a small bump, too, but one which I overcame by switching schools and majors to speech pathology.

There are always jobs for speech-language pathologists. That’s both a good thing and a bad one. It would be nice if there were no need, but that’s not been the case in the more than 40 years I have been an SLP. For young women in college, unsure of where they want to head, but knowing they enjoy working with people, it is a wonderful career. There are so many options. Whether you prefer working with children or adults, severely disabled or mild, in schools or hospitals, there is a career here for almost everyone.

I would encourage anyone considering a career as an SLP to think about those children with complex needs. There are not nearly enough SLPs working with nonverbal populations. We could use your help.

What do you do, what do you specialize in, what are you known for, etc. What are you most proud of? What sets you apart from others?
As a speech-language pathologist, I have specialized primarily in working with Alternative-Augmentative Communication (AAC). I have always preferred working with children with significant disabilities and complex communication needs; figuring out how to give them the power to communicate.

I have enjoyed doing research and contributing to the base of knowledge in the field and sharing that with others.
I am most proud of the book I wrote, “Make the Connection!: A Practical Guide to Parents and Practitioners to Teach the Nonverbal Child to Communicate with AAC.” It was, I believe, the first of its kind to be written as a clear, concise road-map for parents to follow to teach their child to communicate. Too often, parents feel powerless and frustrated, and are not given the tools they need by “the professionals.” I wanted to end that and to make the information easy to follow. I’ve also had positive feedback from other SLPs who have liked that the book is not another textbook for them to wade through. I think focusing on parents makes my book different from that of many others in the field.

There’s a wealth of academic research that suggests that a lack of mentors and networking opportunities for women has materially affected the number of women in leadership roles. Smart organizations and industry leaders are working to change this, but in the meantime, do you have any advice for finding a mentor and building a network?
In this day and age, the best place for networking seems to be Facebook. There are numerous Facebook groups for SLPs and related fields, as well as a number for SLPs who specialize in AAC. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) also provides a mentorship program for graduate students; pairing them with interested professionals.

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