Community Conversations: An Interview with Dr. Marlene Sotelo, the Executive Director of Els for Autism
I am deeply honored and happy to introduce you to Dr. Marlene Sotelo, whose list of qualifications and accomplishments are prolific and profound. She is the Executive Director of the Els for Autism Foundation. Aside from being a friendly, thoughtful, and caring person; and being a devoted, humble, tireless, and interdisciplinary servant leader; Dr. Sotelo possesses multiple academic and professional degrees, including a BCBA-D and MT-BC (for her complete background, here is the link to her profile on the Els Center’s website: https://www.elsforautism.org/team/dr-marlene-sotelo/).
Dr. Sotelo is a certified special education teacher, board-certified music therapist, and doctoral level board-certified behavior analyst. As the Executive Director, Marlene serves on the board of directors for The Learning Center (ages 3-14) and The Learning Academy (ages 14-21) at The Els Center of Excellence campus in Jupiter, Florida and is the liaison between both public charter schools and the Foundation.
She has been working with individuals of all ages with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disorders for over 25 years. Prior to joining the Els for Autism Foundation staff in 2014, Marlene worked for the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) for 12 years as the Director of Education and Training. She earned her Doctorate in Special Education from Nova Southeastern University where she is an adjunct faculty member.
I have known Dr. Sotelo for more than 20 years. I met her through UM-NSU CARD when I was a child, and I have had the chance as an adult to work with her when I was a constituency board member for UM-NSU CARD (between 2011 and 2017). I was introduced to the Els Center in 2014, when I worked under Dr. Sotelo as a counselor for that year’s summer camp program. I continue to work with her today as a member of the Els for Autism Foundation’s advisory board, as I have since 2018, and I am proud to call her a friend and a mentor.
Her contributions to the autism community are ground-breaking. For example, the Els Center’s advisory board primarily consists of people with autism. It is one of the first organizations I know of to value the voices of people with autism in this manner. I do know that I would not be here today without her friendship, inspiration, and support.
In that vein, I only have great things to say about her. I am certain that after this interview you will love her as much as I do!
Without further ado, here is Dr. Marlene Sotelo:
You are originally a musician but now you are one of the most important people in South Florida’s autism community. How did you get connected to the autism community in the early years? What were your early experiences like?
I graduated from the University of Miami Music School and completed an internship in Music Therapy and Child Life at Miami Children’s Hospital (now the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital). I worked there for almost 7 years as a Music Therapist and Child Life Specialist in addition to completing my master’s degree in Diagnostic Teaching at Florida International University. When I left the hospital to move to Broward County and work as a special education teacher, one of the nurses I worked with called me and asked if I would come to her house to play guitar and sing to her son that was just diagnosed with autism. I had never heard of autism at the time, but I knew the power of music and began to travel to many families’ homes to run music therapy sessions with their children. I was then contacted by Dr. Tuchman, neurologist at the soon to open Miami Children’s Hospital Dan Marino Center in Weston, Florida. He invited me to run music therapy sessions for the Center. And just like that, my career in autism took flight.
Where can we find/purchase your songs, albums, and other musical works? What are your favorite original songs?
Some of my songs were available on iTunes and Amazon for a time, but I stopped the service. There are a few of my 12-inch records still floating around for sale on eBay including a top 100 remake of Sky High, and Restless, written and recorded by my friend Joe Alonso. The first officially recorded original song is Make a Miracle. I wrote and recorded it to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network which benefited Miami Children’s Hospital. I also wrote the song Make a Difference and donated all proceeds to Autism Speaks. I’ve been involved in several recording projects over the years. My favorite original is the song I wrote for my son, Jordan, a few months before he was born called Since the Day. I recorded it in the studio for his 18th birthday.
Who/what inspires you? What gives you motivation and strength?
I am inspired every day by the perseverance and spirit of the people with autism I work with and their families. I am also inspired by the dedication of the professionals that work with them for the love and care they share each day. I am also inspired by my mother, that is fighting with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. No matter how bad each day can be for her, she always has a smile for you that screams “thank you”. I am motivated by results, solutions, and positivity.
How did you begin your relationship with the Els Center?
I was introduced to Liezl Els by my friend, Dr. Michael Alessandri. At the time, I worked for Dr. Alessandri at UM – NSU CARD. Michael knew I needed more to challenge me. Els for Autism Foundation was recruiting for a new director, and he shared my name with Mrs. Els. That is a true friend, a real leader. His referral changed my life forever. But that is not uncommon, as Michael has changed the lives of so many people around the world.
Your son plays professional baseball. That’s awesome! What has parenting taught you about autism and children/adulthood in general, and vice versa? How do sports, fitness, and physical activity fit together with the Els Center’s mission, especially considering how professional sports have been central to South Florida’s autism community (Ex: Ernie Els for golf, and Dan Marino for football)?
Els for Autism provides evidenced based interventions that support the individual to reach their greatest potential. The National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice (NCAEP) report in 2020 confirmed fitness an evidence-based practice for individuals with autism. The first program developed by the Foundation was specialized golf clinics for individuals with autism. These clinics became a full curriculum for teaching golf and autism specific skills called the Ernie Els #GameON Autism® Golf program. This program is delivered by Official Program Providers across the world. The Foundation also has a specialized curriculum for teaching tennis and fitness.
What are your most favorite personal/professional awards and accomplishments?
My favorite accomplishment was winning Miss University of Miami 1988. That moment changed my life, giving me the confidence I much needed to eventually lead me to obtain my doctorate degree and becoming a board certified behavior analyst.
What are your favorite types of music? Who are your favorite musicians/songwriters/performers? Any recommendations? What is your favorite musical instrument? How have they inspired your own musical career?
I like most genres of music. They key for me (no pun intended) is music that has a great melody and fun or inspiring lyrics. The genre that carries those two elements are secondary. I love the group Incubus and am in awe of Adele’s voice. I also like music by Carlos Vives and fun dance and techno music. My favorite instrument to listen to is the cello. I would love to learn to play the guitar at a higher level than my self-taught abilities.
Who would you like to acknowledge/shoutout/promote/thank for their involvement in your life and how they helped you get to where you are today?
My parents for their unending love. My husband for the supporting my career. My son Jordan Schulefand, for his inspiring pursuit to make his dreams come true with hard work and determination. Dr. Michael Alessandri for his friendship, mentorship, and many laughs.
INTERVIEWER’S CLOSING NOTES FOR THE READERS
Thank you for your time and readership. I hope you enjoyed this interview. There will be more interviews with more people to come in the near future. Have a great day!