Articles, Newsletters, Podcasts, and Video

Jill Escher of the National Council for Severe Autism (NCSA)

By Special Education Matters / 2021-03-08
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Many of us have noticed the increase in students diagnosed with disabilities such as autism.  These numbers include students, like my son, whose disabilities significantly impact their ability to live independently. 

This nearly crushing increase in numbers of individuals for whom lifetime care is required is putting pressure on our communities, states and systems.

Jill Escher, mother to two children with profound disabilities, is taking on this challenge in her role as president of NCSA, The National Council on Severe Autism. 

We discuss the challenges ahead and the commitments society must make to help some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society.


Jill is President of the National Council on Severe Autism, an autism research philanthropist (Escher Fund for Autism), real estate investor who provides low-income housing for adults with developmental disabilities, former lawyer, and mother of two children with nonverbal autism. She is also immediate past president of Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area.


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Behavioral Therapist Kirstie Gillespie Helps Us Understand the Functional Behavioral Assessment

By Special Education Matters / 2020-05-04
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When you are entering the world of assessments and therapies, often the FBA, or Functional Behavioral Assessment, is dropped into the conversation as a starting point to understanding how best to help a child. 

Today I speak with Kirstie Gillespie, a behavioral therapist (BCBA), and we get down to the nitty gritty of what an FBA is, how it is conducted and how the assessment guides therapies going forward.


Kirstie Gillespie joined the CSH family in 2016, and is currently working as a Clinical Supervisor providing support to direct therapy, staff oversight, program development, creation and implementation of behavior intervention plans, and Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA) to clients and families with developmental disabilities, learning disabilities and related behavior disorders. 

Kirstie graduated with her Bachelors of Arts in Behavioral Science with a focus in Deviant Behavior in 2015. She received her Masters of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2017, and became a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in November 2018. 

Prior to working at CSH, Kirstie worked in an integrated healthcare system, working directly with patients suffering from Stroke and Traumatic Brain Injuries, then later managing the Hospital’s Strategic Operations Center. 

Kirstie utilizes her education and experience in neuroscience and background in lean, supportive management systems as a staple in every team she is part of, and every family she works with. In her free time, Kirstie enjoys snowboarding, hiking, working out, and photography.

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Lynne Merrill Education and Reading Specialist

By Special Education Matters / 2020-04-21
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About Lynne Merrill

Lynne Merrill followed her years in the classroom by opening Merrill Educational Center in 1993. Lynne had wanted to teach since she was eight years old, inspired not by good teachers, but by poor ones. She recalls, “I was astounded how much a poor teacher could extinguish a child’s love of learning. I realized early on that I needed to teach to make a positive difference.”

Lynne’s teaching background covers many curricula—from first, fifth, sixth, and eighth grades, to high school English and history. She is qualified in Regular and Special Education and has graduate degrees in these areas, as well as graduate work in English. Lynne holds an undergraduate degree in English and Teaching English as a Second Language. All of Lynne’s programs, at prestigious universities, were completed with Summa and Magna Cum Laude recognition. She has been recognized by members of the state government for her work in pursuing her educational goals.

Lynne is a reading specialist and treats children with decoding, comprehension, spelling, and written expression problems through worldwide acclaimed programs in literacy. She also specializes in Executive Functioning disorders through teaching study skills and organizational techniques. Her greatest accomplishment comes from helping students to help themselves.

Lynne delights in traveling, reading, theater, and spending time with her daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter, and grandson. When she speaks of her family she smiles and says, “They are my moon and stars.”


  • Education Therapy and Remediation
  • Independent School Options
  • Tutoring
  • Testing Preparation



Let Me Carry The Burden On My Shoulders

By Special Education Matters / 2019-12-06
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I don’t have to remind you how difficult it can be to raise a child with special needs. However, I am going to do it anyway. Along with the challenges of maintaining the daily activities we call family, a parent to a child with special needs may also have to advocate and/or or fight to ensure their child has the services they need to succeed.

Raja Marhaba is one of those parents who not only fought for her children, but also went on to create a foundation focused on helping parents in similar situations.  As you will hear today, Raja understands this battle can break families and her foundation is looking to reduce the breakage.


Raja B. Marhaba is the Founder and President of The Jonathan Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities, Inc. The motivation for establishing The Jonathan Foundation was driven by her personal struggles with having two children with disabilities and the multiple battles she endured to obtain appropriate special education and related services from their school district over a period of eight years. The result: eight due process complaint filings, including a hearing; an appeal to the Federal Ninth Circuit District Court; as well as periods of extreme financial hardship from the cost of paying for private assessments, specialized interventions, and placements, retaining legal representation, and witness fees. Thus, Raja envisioned The Jonathan Foundation to be the vehicle she would use to assist families, like her own, , in dealing with a “broken” special education system, “one child at a time”.

Since its inception in 2001, The Jonathan Foundation has provided families of children and adolescents with various types of disabilities with information, resources, referrals, and direct advocacy services by Raja in both special education and regional center matters. Moreover, Raja has developed a strong relationship with Children of the Night, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing children from prostitution and continues to volunteer her professional advocacy services to children and teens served by the organization’s programs. Driven by her personal experience and the outcomes of some of the cases in which she had been involved, Raja decided to launch the “Assessment Scholarship Program” in 2014 to lessen the financial burden families are faced with when obtaining private evaluations.

In addition to her involvement in The Jonathan Foundation, Raja is not only a licensed realtor, but also the co-owner of Martec Construction, Inc., which she runs with her Partner, Omar. She and Omar have operated Martec Construction for over twenty years. Due to her work in the company, Martec Construction has been recognized as a woman-owned business since 2003.

Raja’s educational background includes possessing an Associate of Applied Science degree from Borough of Manhattan Community College in Business Administration. Ms. Marhaba won a Scholarship to The Anderson School of Business at UCLA – Business Development Entrepreneur Program, graduated in February 2004.  She also holds a certification in Paralegal Studies with a Concentration in Litigation and Corporations from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also successfully completed the Management Development for Entrepreneurs (MDE) Program. Raja was selected and successfully completed the first cohort of the federally-funded Special Education Advocate Training (SEAT) Program in 2006. After her completion of the SEAT Program, she was selected to be a member of the Education Panel & Committee for the Juvenile Division of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, which is comprised of special education attorneys and advocates, who are court-appointed to represent the educational needs of children involved in the foster care and probation systems.

Raja continues to hold active memberships and certifications with the National Association of Women Business Owners, National Women’s Business Enterprise and Women-Owned Small Businesses. Additionally, she has earned several awards as a result of her more than twenty years of success with Martec Construction and The Jonathan Foundation.  In February 2016 she received Enterprising Women of the Year Award.  Her construction company made the 2017 Inc. 5000 list. Ms. Marhaba participated in Birthing of Giants Fellowship Program in June of 2018, hosted by Inc. 500., and is also one of nine extraordinary women whom have been award the 2019 L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth Award.

Raja has two children Omar Jr. and Jonathan

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There Is a Lot More to Learning Than Just Hearing by: Dr. Cydney Fox

By Special Education Matters / 2019-09-15
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About Dr. Cydney Fox

Cydney holds a doctoral degree in Audiology from the George Osborne School of Audiology at Salus University in Pennsylvania. Her master’s degree in Audiology was awarded from the University of Denver and her undergraduate degree in Speech and Hearing from Indiana University. She is Board Certified in Audiology. Dr. Fox has been working with and assessing Auditory Processing Disorders since 2007.

Cydney has held positions at the UCLA Audiology Clinic from 1975-1996, USC Head and Neck Physicians Private Practice from 1996-1999 and was the director of Tracy Family Hearing Center (affiliated with John Tracy Clinic) from 1999-2003.

She was Director of Audiology Services and Director of The Auditory Processing Disorders Program at The Tinnitus and Audiology Center of Southern California from 2004 -2012. She is the Audiology Member of the Craniofacial Team at Orthopaedic Hospital and has served in that capacity since 1999.

Cydney was a staff lecturer both at California State University, Los Angeles,(1998-1999) and Northridge (2008 through 2009) in the Division of Communication Disorders. She was President of the California Academy of Audiology from 2001-2003 and served on the Board of Directors prior to that time. She was one of the Audiology Members on the State of California Speech Language Pathology Audiology Board from 1995-1999. She has also served on the Board of Directors for Hope for Hearing Foundation.

Awarded the Larry Mauldin Award for Excellence in Education in April 2005, she also received an Audiology Foundation of America Award for Leadership in Audiology in 2007.

Cydney is currently a member of the Craniofacial Team at Orthopaedic Hospital and is full time at Audiology Solutions LA. Because of the make up of Audiology Solutions LA, she is able to travel to various offices within the LA area, thus making it easier for patients to access her services.



    Behavior Analyst Melissa Willa Helps Us Understand ABA

    By Special Education Matters / 2019-09-11
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    ABA, Applied Behavior Analysis, is a popular program designed to improve the overall development of individuals on the autism spectrum.

    If you are new to the world of ABA, then my chat with Melissa Willa of Gateway Learning Group is for you. We start with the basics of what ABA is, what it looks like from a parent and therapist point of view and how it is evolving over time.


    Melissa is the Chief Clinical Officer and Co-founder at Gateway Learning Group, a leading provider of ABA therapy services to individuals with autism. Melissa heads up the clinical team at Gateway, where she focuses on the delivery of the highest quality of ABA therapy services and the dissemination of positive behavior support practices to the community. In addition to her role at Gateway, Melissa is an active advocate for individuals with special needs. In recent years she has served on the Board of Directors for several SF Bay Area non-profits, helping to advance missions related to inclusion, equity, and access for children with special needs.

    Melissa has worked with individuals with autism for over 20 years. She began her career as a teacher and has taught in both general education and special education classrooms. Prior to founding Gateway, Melissa worked as an Autism & Behavior Content Specialist for San Francisco Unified School District where she designed and launched the LEAP program. LEAP was SFUSD’s first formal effort to offer ABA early intervention services to preschoolers with autism.

    Melissa is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She holds a Master’s Degree in Behavior Disorders from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.S. in Education from SUNY Geneseo.

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    Pediatric Neuropsycholoist Dr. Dana Chidekel

    By Special Education Matters / 2019-05-24
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    About Dr. Dana Chidekel

    Dr. Dana Chidekel started her career as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. She subsequently completed training in neuropsychology. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology and the American College of Professional Neuropsychology. She is certified by the American Board of Professional Neuropsychology and by the American Board of Pediatric Neuropsychology, for which she also serves as an examiner.

    Dr. Chidekel maintains a private practice in Tarzana, providing comprehensive clinical assessments to children, adolescents and adults referred for cognitive, developmental, academic, psychiatric, and behavioral difficulties. She has attended countless IEP meetings, has provided Independent Educational Evaluations for students in 13 school districts in Southern California, and has testified as an expert witness in special educational due process hearings.

    Dr. Chidekel is a frequent presenter to lay and professional audiences. She has authored and co-authored professional articles about developmental neuropsychology and parameters of professional practice for journals such as Cerebellum, Pediatric Neurology, and Applied Neuropsychology: Child. She is a co-author of “ADHD as a Model of Brain-Behavior Relationships” (Springer 2013) and the author of “Parents in Charge: Setting Healthy, Loving Boundaries for You and Your Child” (Simon and Schuster, 2001). Dr. Chidekel has appeared on many local and national radio programs and TV programs, including multiple appearances on The Today Show and a one-hour PBS special: “Great Parents, Great Kids with Dr. Dana Chidekel.”


    • Expert witness in cases related to personal injury, employment, education and more
    • Parent trainer and workshop provider
    • Classroom observations
    • Advise on educational placement and services
    • Gifted IQ testing



    Education and Clinical Psychologist Dr. Marta M. Shinn

    By Special Education Matters / 2019-02-23
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    About Dr. Marta M. Shinn

    Dr. Marta M. Shinn, Ph.D., is the founder of Variations Psychology, a private practice mental health clinic in Orange County, California that offers independent diagnostic testing and counseling services to children, adolescents, college students and their families.

    Dr. Shinn specializes in clinical child psychology and educational psychology. She helps families who have children with special needs that require services through their public or private school. As an expert advocate,

    Dr. Shinn supports families with IEPs, 504s, diagnostic testing/independent evaluations, and accommodations for high stakes exams.


    • Preparing parents for I.E.P. & 504 Plan meetings
    • Supporting parents in understanding the tests/evaluations conducted by their child’s school
    • Developing & administering psychological & educational tests to clarify diagnoses & support eligibility decisions (e.g. giftedness, test accommodations, special education)
    • Helping parents decide what educational placements would benefit their child
    • Consulting with parents at our practice to orient them to the special education and psychological assessment processes
    • Joining parents at school-based meetings to represent the best interests of their child



    Advocate Meg Flanagan Discusses Special Education Services for Children In Military Families

    By Special Education Matters / 2019-01-20
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    As we all know, having a child with special needs may require a lot of effort at home and a ton of effort working with schools to ensure your son or daughter is receiving the services they need.

    If you are a military family, those efforts may need to be repeated on a regular basis as you move and redeploy to a new location within or even outside of the United States.

    Advocate Meg Flanagan is currently living in Okinawa where her husband is based. She understands the unique circumstances military families face and is here to share those experiences and strategies to help families who have a child with special needs.


    Meg Flanagan has a passion for helping busy families find success and peace on the education journey. She has helped dozens of families feel better about the IEP or 504 Plan process, providing support and resources.

    Meg holds an M.Ed in special education and a BS in elementary education. She is currently certified in both areas in MA and VA, as well as by the DoDEA.

    Meg has lived in the SoCal region on and off for the last decade, but currently calls Japan home.



    Special Education Advocate Peter Attwood

    By Special Education Matters / 2018-11-21
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    About Peter Attwood

    Peter was hazed into the special education world in 2007, and has been working for others since 2010, and full time since 2014 when he was laid off from his systems maintenance programming job. He is still debugging, but special ed problems now instead of computer code. He emphasizes getting the kid’s real needs figured out and taken care of, especially overlooked processing problems. He will use the law and other such remedies if the district wants to do it that way, but prefers to rely on reason and win-win solutions if the district is willing.


    • Attend IEP meetings
    • Review records
    • Draft letters
    • Advise on educational placement and services
    • Refer to outside attorneys as needed