If Hillary Ran had a thinner skin, she might have been offended when an autistic 4-year-old so detested her singing that it warranted forming his first complete sentence: “Stop singing, Hillary!” But instead of taking it personally, Ran used it to her advantage. The boy had a habit of grinding his teeth so loud it could be heard across the house. So Ran started singing each time he ground his teeth. It was the perfect deterrent.
Reinforcing good habits and discouraging bad ones are all part of a day’s work for Ran, the founder of a Denver-based company called Exceptional Learners Behavioral Services that works with autistic children and their families. Ran uses Applied Behavioral Analysis to improve the behavior of her autistic clients through rewards and punishments. The ABA method helps Ran tackle everything from potty training to social skills to eating different foods.
Ran discovered her passion for working with autistic children with a stroke of luck and a leap of faith in 2001. An English major, Ran noticed the picture of a 2-year-old boy on a bulletin board. “Hi. My name is Alex, and I have autism,” said the message below. Alex’s parents needed help looking after him. Ran phoned them and got the job.
“I had never met anyone with autism before,” she says. But working with Alex introduced Ran to a new world. Four years later she became the director of the Cincinnati Center for Autism, and in 2008 she started her own company in Denver.
“I love working with the kids,” she says. “I feel like they’ve taught me so much more than I’ve taught them.” One thing she’s learned is that sometimes her singing is a better punishment than a reward. For Ran, that’s just another trick up her sleeve.