Meet Julie Azuma, President & CEO of Different Roads

Julie Azuma, Founder & CEO

Julie Azuma, Founder & CEO

We start our introduction to the Different Roads to Learning staff with no other than our President, founder and force extraordinaire, Julie Azuma. Julie is an incredible, tireless force, an advocate for families and an activist who never ceases to share her knowledge and expertise. Julie started Different Roads to Learning in 1995, a few years after her daughter Miranda was diagnosed with autism at the age of 6. Back then, autism was already rising with rates jumping from 1 in 2500 in 1985 to 1 in 500 in 1995, but well below the current estimates of 1 in 88 children, and 1 in 54 boys. In the maze of appointments, therapy sessions and doctors, she kept being told to find materials like 1-inch color cubes with no numbers or writing on them, or a specific non-distracting flashcard. As hard as she scoured the resources in New York City and on the web, she had an incredibly difficult time locating the materials that would help Miranda learn. With true entrepreneurial spirit and a fierce devotion to helping her daughter, Different Roads to Learning was launched in May of 1995 with about 30 products.

Julie started the company on the premise that parents who had home ABA programs needed help in finding the products for their children on the spectrum.  Since that time, schools across the country are now supporting Applied Behavior Analysis and Verbal Behavior teaching.  Tens of thousands of children have been mainstreamed by the age of five.  Our children are more capable in every way.

Today, Julie is proud that the mission of Different Roads has not changed. The goal remains to provide the most effective, affordable and appropriate materials out there to support students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in their social and academic growth.

Fun Fact:  Our URL is because back in the dark ages of the internet, you couldn’t string more than 9 digits together.

After 18 years, what do you look forward to every day?

Looking for new ways to connect with our kids. Whether it’s researching new products with Abigail at Toy Fair or looking for a way to create a new app….I love the idea of giving  our kids new opportunities to learn language and social skills.

What’s your hope for Different Roads in the next few years?

It’s my hope that Different Road endures in the years to come while giving kids the skills to mainstream.  We hope to help more children in Early Intervention and reach across the spectrum to support social skills for our students in school age programs.

Q & A: Margery F. Rappaport

Margery F. Rappaport, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist in private practice in New York City. I feel very fortunate to have a colleague as experienced as Margery that I can turn to for advice and guidance.

So, I thought I could share some of her wisdom and experience with a three part ‘Question and Answer’ post. This is only the first question folks. Stay tuned for more!

I am always interested in learning what has drawn a person to a particular field or occupation. What led you to a career as a Speech-Language Pathologist? And how did you find yourself working with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders in particular?

A lifetime spent in helping people find their own voices may have, in my case, been preordained (if you believe in that sort of thing). After all, more than one psychic has told me that I was born under a ‘communication star’.

As an infant, 11 months of age, my mother suddenly left for a year due to severe illness. At this preverbal age, I learned the torment of being unable to communicate ones feelings and questions in words. As an adolescent with creative tendencies, I studied music and dance, and majored in theatre in college, setting out to become a professional singer. Along this path, I struggled with vocal cord nodules and was put on complete voice rest several times. As I began to question my show business career choice, which was feeling increasingly unsatisfactory, fate intervened. On a flight from New York to Boston, I chatted with a charming, articulate woman in the seat next to mine. Before landing, she said, “You realize, of course, that I am a severe stutterer”. When I registered my amazement since I had detected no signs whatsoever of a speech problem, she said “Well, I have had a lot of therapy”. Astonishing thought! People who were unable to easily express their feelings, fears or questions can change. With help and guidance they can be released from this exile. Her situation reminded me of Jean Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, where the characters are confined in a room in hell. This woman had been trapped within herself, with no avenue of escape until she received this therapy.

Being able to communicate is so much of what it means to be human, and this notion, that impediments to communication, even severe ones, could be helped, resonated within me on many different levels. To learn more about the field, I found a secretarial job in the philosophy department of Columbia University’s Teachers’ College which allowed me to take free courses at the University. After one year and two courses in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology, I was accepted into the program on a full scholarship plus a stipend to pay my rent and buy groceries. Once in the program, I began to see how Speech Pathology allowed me to tap into dimensions of my personality that show business never had. I found great satisfaction in helping people free their expression. I was enormously stimulated intellectually by the study of neuroanatomy, linguistics, child development, psychology and the evolution of language. I came to specialize in working with children because I found they were ‘in the present moment’ and intrinsically imaginative and creative. I enjoyed working intimately with mothers on the most cherished thing in their lives, their child’s well-being. Like work in the theatre, I enjoyed the comradery of working on a team including the child, the parents, doctors and a multitude of other therapists toward one powerful goal. All these aspects of the work tapped into my essential being. I had found my life’s work. I recall a day towards the end of my training, standing in line for afternoon tea at a resort hotel in the mountains. The beautiful day room was filled with afternoon sunlight and as I thought about my impending graduation, I clearly remember thinking that I was born to do this work.

After working in clinics, hospital child evaluation units and then the Head Start program, I opened a private practice at about the time that the autism epidemic began to explode. With more good luck, I connected with professionals who were establishing groundbreaking interventions for children with autism, thus deepening my understanding and passion for helping children with severe communication challenges.