Lauren began her career journey as a Behavior Tech. Now, she's helping others do the same.
Lauren Van Hoeck has spent the last five years learning - about herself, about autism, about growing through trial and error.
As a member of the Balance Autism team - first as a Behavior Technician, now in a leadership role - no two days have been the same, and each one comes with its own lessons.
One of the biggest lessons learned?
Things don't always go according to plan. And that's okay.
Today, as Program Manager at Balance Autism's Iowa City location, Lauren helps candidates and new hires navigate their career paths.
Her own career, however, was less like a straight path forward and more like a winding mountainous road, with unexpected dips and turns. In fact, her journey only began when her original plans fell through.
Like many Iowa kids before her, Lauren, who grew up a few minutes from Balance Autism's Cedar Rapids clinic, had long dreamt of leaving cold Midwestern winters behind and heading west to milder climes. Her future was in California.
At least, that was the plan. But when she graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a Psychology degree, Lauren, who had longed for California sand between her toes, got cold feet.
"At the last minute, everything changed," she said. "I got a little scared, so I decided to move back home."
At the time, returning to her childhood home felt like a step back. But it turned out to be the first step of a journey, a journey in which she would discover not only her career, but her calling.
Returning & Embarking
While California is nearly two-thousand miles from Iowa, Lauren's new job was about two minutes from home.
After moving into her parents' house, Lauren landed her first full-time job as a Behavior Technician (BT) at Balance Autism's Cedar Rapids clinic. Although the clinic was only three blocks away, she knew very little about Balance Autism before joining. And although autism had come up a few times in her Psychology courses, she was far from an expert.
"I was kind of going in blind," she said.
But after doing some research online and reading about the role of Behavior Technician - a role that often attracts young professionals with Psychology degrees - it seemed like a good fit.
California hadn't panned out, but at least her career was moving in the right direction.
One day, Lauren was at the clinic, working with a child. He was considered "nonverbal" - meaning he struggled with basic language skills - and had a particularly hard time making "oh" and "ooh" sounds. Lauren had been working with him for nearly a year, helping him gradually develop his oral motor skills, when he looked up and said, "Moo!"
"It just brought me to tears," she said.
Although Lauren had joined Balance Autism as a logical first step in her career, it was moments like this in which she discovered her passion for the work. As a Behavior Technician, Lauren worked one-on-one with children with autism in a clinical setting. Using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) - a data-driven technique that involves rigorously logging and analyzing a child's behavior and using that data to create positive change - Lauren helped children develop a variety of cognitive, behavioral, linguistic and social skills. Each day, she worked directly with children for about three hours; the rest of her time was mostly spent analyzing data, developing strategies, receiving feedback, training, and communicating with families.
For Lauren, witnessing moments of progress - like a nonverbal child saying "Moo" - and sharing them with parents was the best part of the job.
"Seeing the parents get excited is awesome," she said. "They get to see that all the hard work is paying off."
Setbacks & Steps Forward
As rewarding as being a Behavior Technician could be, it was just as challenging.
Progress could be frustratingly slow. Some children had serious behavioral issues; as a BT, Lauren had chairs thrown at her, and she still has a mark on her arm from the time she was bitten. She also worked with several children who exhibited self-injurious behavior, in which they would deliberately harm themselves in front of her.
"It was really hard to see. It was emotional," she said.
But while the work could be stressful and taxing, Lauren never felt alone or unprepared. Before she ever set foot in a clinic, she underwent about forty hours of training - standard for all registered BT's - and picked up skills from mentors and coworkers along the way. She regularly met with Clinic Supervisors, like Amy Walter, to review footage of her work and learn where she could improve. Over the years, Amy taught Lauren several de-escalation strategies, such as physical holds, which are essential to protecting BT's and the children under their care.
With each new day and each new lesson, Lauren felt more confident in her role. No longer a beginner, she began to consider where she might take her career next.
Finding Her Way
While Balance Autism BT's often become Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA's) - a graduate-level certification - Lauren was drawn toward leadership. After serving as a BT for several years, she moved to Balance Autism's new Iowa City office, where she was promoted to Office Manager and, in September 2021, Program Manager.
"Balance gives you an opportunity to grow," she said. "That means different things to different people. A lot of Behavior Techs go back to school to earn their Master's and become BCBA's, and I know our supervisors help them get into the right programs and get the training and experience they need to complete their degrees. You can also move up within the organization, like I did, and take on a leadership role.
"They help you get where you want to go."
Lauren - who, five years ago, was just graduating college and had never even heard of a Behavior Technician - knows as well as anyone what it takes to be a successful BT. When interviewing candidates, she looks for people who are detail-oriented, patient, adaptable and eager to learn. And when she brings on new hires, she often tells them an important lesson she learned along the many peaks and valleys of her career.
"Don't be afraid to fail," she said. "I have a lot of staff who start out as perfectionists. If they don't do something right the first time, they're hard on themselves. I always remind them that this is a hard job, that you're not going to be perfect. You're going to make some mistakes along the way, and that's okay. It's more than okay - it's necessary. It's all about taking a step back, looking at your mistakes, and learning from them.
"That's how you find your way forward."
Thanks for reading Lauren's story! As the rate of autism continues to increase nationwide, the demand for Behavior Technicians is greater than ever. Balance Autism is currently hiring for a variety of positions, including BT's. If you are interested in growing your career with us, learn more about our available positions (including benefits, qualifications and more) at our Careers Page.