Empowered Voices Leadership Group

Achieva’s Empowered Voices Leadership Group is comprised of self-advocates from around the Pittsburgh area. Driven by the voices and interests of the members, participants meet for opportunities to learn new things, have fun, and meet new people. 

Contact Melissa Skiffen, Disability & Family Support Advocate, [email protected] or 724.837.8159 x114 with any questions.

Google Meet Link

or dial: ‪

(US) +1 304.908.9025‬

PIN: ‪199 210 961‬#


Rock the Mat – Open Tournament

This year Elderton Elementary Wrestling is hosting an open tournament on Saturday and novice on Sunday. They will have custom steel awards for both tournaments including a fastest pin award.
This tournament has helped raise over $16,000 to Autism Connections of Pennsylvania and this year they hope to smash our previous donation totals. They will have a couple vendors, basket raffles each day as well as 2 “large” items to be raffled off over the weekend. Sign up or stop in to show your support!!!
Both tournaments are posted on pywrestling.com
Elderton Rock the Mat Open 2/3
OR
Elderton Rock the Mat Novice 2/4

Supporting People Through Supported Decision Making

Join Achieva’s upcoming webinar, “Supporting People Through Supported Decision Making,” led by Kelly Darr, Legal Director of Disability Rights PA. They’ll explore key aspects of decision-making support, uncover myths about guardianship, discover alternative approaches, and understand the implications of the new Guardianship law, Act 61.

Key Highlights:

  • Supported Decision Making:
    • Unveiling principles empowering individuals in their decision-making journey.
  • Myths about Guardianship:
    • Dispelling common misconceptions for informed and autonomous decision making.
  • Alternatives to Guardianship:
    • Discussing successful models respecting individual autonomy.
  • Act 61 Insights:
    • Overview of key provisions and impacts on guardianship practices.

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from Kelly Darr, a leading expert in the field. More information on Achieva’s website


Speaker Bio: Kelly Darr is the Legal Director of Disability Rights Pennsylvania (DRP). She manages the legal and program staff of DRP, including its work through systemic litigation, the provision of short-term representation to clients through DRP’s intake system, and investigation and monitoring of conditions in facilities and other locations where individuals with disabilities receive services across Pennsylvania. She has represented clients in a wide variety of disability rights cases, including education, Medicaid, and
disability discrimination. Prior to joining DRP in 2009, she represented children with disabilities at the Education Law Center. After graduating from law school at the University of Pennsylvania, she clerked for Judge Reed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.




Pittsburgh Marathon Runner Profile: Nina Barbero

Welcome to our first Pittsburgh Marathon runner profile featuring Nina Barbero, or “Miss B” as her health and physical education students know her. Nina agreed to an interview all the way from snowy Rochester, NY where she trains regularly and is a member of Rochester Area Triathletes (RATS), her hometown’s triathlon club.  

Get to know Nina through her interview here:

Hey, thank you for deciding to run for Autism Connection of PA!  Tell us about your experience supporting people with disabilities in your community.  

I have been supporting people with disabilities for as long as I can remember now. In high school I helped my mom with a family friend Meg, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and is dependent on others for care which we provided on a regular schedule. Once my mom got me into racing I was able to run a 5k with Meg where we pushed her in a stroller. 

Once entering the multi-sport community, I met the Peck family and Onni. Onni has a progressive muscular disease but her family doesn’t let that hold her back. She races triathlons with her dad who swims with her in a boat then attaches a stroller to his bike to ride with her in tow and then pushes her on the run in the stroller. I am always there cheering her on at all the races where we are both competing. 

Most recently, I was able to get one of my former elementary students who uses a wheelchair, to participate in a splash and dash event by my triathlon club. I knew she could do it and she did! In my current position I support our adapted PE classes where we recently started our own event “Northwood Olympics” for our students in APE classes to compete in track and field events. 

Nina dressed as a dinosaur standing with fellow runners wearing costumes

Tell us about your own fitness journey. What drives you? What have other people done to support you that has been most beneficial?  And what do you do to motivate others in the tri or run community?

My own personal journey is all about having fun and enjoying the races I compete in. I also love the community and friends that I have gained through my experiences in running and triathlons. My biggest support is my mom. We frequently train,  travel and compete in almost every race we do together. I could not do these events without her! I hope I’m still moving like her when I am her age. The next biggest support is my tri club. RATS has been a driving force in keeping me involved in the sport, every workout we do and event we host shows what an amazing community of people we have. No matter the pace or experience a person has, everyone is welcome and that is something I love about being around the club members! 

As for how I motivate others in the community, I just continue to work and push myself to compete in events. When I am racing I’m cheering people on as they pass me or I pass them. If I’m not racing I am volunteering at events or just showing up with my camera to get action shots of those I know and sharing the photos on our Facebook group. 

What was your first full marathon experience, which was here in Pittsburgh, like for you?  I heard you cried throughout the race, but not for the reasons people might expect. Can you tell us about that?

It was an incredible experience! It’s a hilly course that is similar to my hometown so I was ready for that! I did find myself in tears for the last few miles of the race. It was a big deal for me to be able to complete the race. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to as I was going. Every time someone would cheer me on or give me a compliment I would just burst out into tears, not because my feet hurt (they did), but because of how overwhelmed I was by the support and kindness of others! 

Nina poses in front of a screen after receiving a medal

I know you are related to someone at the Autism Connection of PA – did anyone in your family twist your arm to run on May 4, 2024?  What else are you excited for about that day – what are your after-race plans?

No one ever has to twist my arm to sign up for an event like this! I was telling my aunt and cousin that I was planning to come to Pittsburgh May 4th for the Pirates game. I am a big fan of the Pirates (Let’s go Buccs!) and a big Star Wars fan too! So when I saw it was Star Wars night I had to plan a trip for the give away! When I mentioned this my cousin told me it was marathon weekend so I figured why not sign up! So I will be doing the 5k Saturday and the half marathon Sunday! Calling it a training weekend for my second half Ironman I will be doing in July. After the race I’ll hop back in the car and head home so I can be ready to teach my littles bright and early Monday morning!


Nina Barbero, or “Miss B,” has shared an inspiring journey of dedication and support for people with disabilities, emphasizing the power of inclusivity in the running and triathlon community. As she gears up for the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 4, 2024, running for Autism Connection of PA, we invite you to join her cause.

You can support Nina by clicking her Marathon Race Roster page

Or, if you feel the call to action, why not lace up your running shoes and participate in the Pittsburgh marathon for a cause close to your heart? Nina’s story exemplifies the transformative effect of running for a purpose, and your involvement can make a difference.

Whether through donations or by taking on the challenge of a marathon, let’s rally together and make strides towards a more inclusive and supportive community. Thank you for considering and being part of this incredible journey.


Aversive Practices are Abuse

We work to provide hope and encouraging information across all of our media, events, and articles. Occasionally, though, we become aware of negative news that compels us to respond. The recent case of educators abusing three young students with disabilities is some of that bad news. Over the past several decades of our work, we have been consulted on or informed about aversive practices in classrooms all around the state of Pennsylvania. Based on that experience, we are sharing some key points with you.

All families grappling with disability issues in school must rely on the people who call themselves professionals for guidance, and often trust that those in charge have ethics, high standards, and the knowledge needed to guide and educate students in their care. Unfortunately, as in any profession, there are people out there being paid to do their jobs who behave in unethical and sometimes criminal ways.

But how does anyone know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what to do if they get a bad feeling about a person, classroom, or school, especially when dealing with students who have communication difficulties? Here are some tips you could use in decision making about these situations.

Tips for Decision Making

1.) Trust your gut – often said in terms of protecting ourselves from victimization in things like street crime, this also applies to protecting children or adults with disabilities.  It’s easier said than done, though.  If you get a bad gut feeling, you could request classroom observation for starters to see how your child interacts with or responds to the adults in the room.

2.) Behavior is communication, so watch for school avoidance behaviors (stonewalling on the tasks needed to get out the door, bus refusal, not getting out of the car at drop off time, bed wetting, afterschool distress).  Some of these things may be normal separation anxiety, but a pattern or intense behaviors may signal a scary school situation the person does not want to experience. People with regular transition issues who exhibit avoidance in going anywhere is one thing, but if these happen mainly or only regarding school, that is something to pay attention to.

3.) Listen and share with others – talk with parents, teachers, random school observers, and see if you get any inklings on classroom problems. Pay attention to anyone who comes to you asking for help from inside a school – sometimes politics get in the way, and you may be surprised to find adults who cannot or will not do the right thing in the face of obvious abuse, in order to protect their own self-interest and job.  

4.) Insist on mandated reporter training on a regular basis in your school. You can do this via parent teacher organizations, via your own Individual Education Program (IEP) process, or sometimes by just requesting it from the district office or building principal. If this is done routinely already, ask to sit in and invite other parents and guardians to participate as well. Keeping this on everyone’s radar is the safest and healthiest thing for a school climate.

5.) Beware the “local autism expert” teacher who may have misled their colleagues about best practices. We have seen or heard of some appalling ones such as: 

  • Overcorrection of a kindergarten student who wet their pants and was made to take them on and off repeatedly dozens of times in response on many occasions
  • Aversive tastes forced into someone’s mouth
  • Repeated “nagging,” taught as a technique, which was actually bullying students by loud and forceful repeated commands they could not process auditorily until they tried to leave, resulting in hands on restraints which escalated to panic fight or flight response 
  • Forcing students with sensory issues hands into aversive textures that made them gag (handling goo is not an academic goal nor a skill needed in adulthood) 
  • Public shaming in front of students and adults
  • Multiple staff repeatedly dragging a high school student by the arms to the bus in September after the student had been in a bus accident the previous June

Sadly, the list goes on. 

When things are disrespectful, punitive, fly in the face of disability needs, and are something you would not tolerate as an adult, they are likely not educational and may be abusive.

Safe Educational Environments are Crucial

As advocates, we recognize the vital role that education plays in shaping lives. The recent distressing incidents of educators mistreating students with disabilities underscore the urgent need for vigilance and action. Our decades of experience have shown us that, despite the majority of dedicated professionals in the field, there are instances where some lack the ethics and standards necessary for this responsibility.

In navigating the complex world of education, especially for those with communication difficulties, it becomes imperative to trust your instincts, observe behaviors, and foster open communication with other stakeholders. The provided tips for decision-making serve as a guide for parents, guardians, and concerned individuals to actively engage in ensuring the well-being of students.

It is crucial to remain vigilant against practices that are disrespectful, punitive, and go against the fundamental needs of people with disabilities. By staying informed, advocating for mandated reporter training, and fostering a culture of transparency, we can collectively contribute to creating safer and more supportive learning environments for all.


What to Do if You Suspect Abuse

Contact the school’s administration about your concerns and request unannounced visits to the classroom.

Include mandatory training for reporting suspected abuse, and training for positive behavior supports in the Special Education Services section of your child’s Individual Education Program (IEP). Visit PaTTAN’s website for Customized Professional Development and Technical Assistance.

Email [email protected] to alert the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) about suspected abuse.

Students who are concerned about abuse in school can visit Safe2Say Something for information about making an anonymous report.