A gym filled with bright colors, cushiony surfaces, a climbing wall, ceiling swings, rings, ladders, yoga balls, and a closet full of toys and games is where Dr. Aimee (Burney ’04) Piller fulfills her calling, serving special needs children as a pediatric occupational therapist.

“It’s very rewarding work,” said Piller. “I get to come to work and make a difference in someone’s life every day. It’s an amazing opportunity I’ve been given.”

After several years of working in the field, Piller opened her own OT practice seven years ago with four clients. Today, she owns three clinics in the Phoenix area and employs 35 therapists who serve about 700 children each week. Her team serves children with all kinds of disabilities, from Downs Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy, to general motor delays or sensory processing concerns.

​“A lot of different types of clients come through our doors,” she said, noting that many of their clients are on the autistic spectrum. Her work with these clients influenced Piller’s recently completed doctoral studies, as her dissertation research focused on how the sensory environment impacts the classroom participation of preschool students with autism and sensory processing disorders. Some of the children in the study had aversions to light or sounds. Others had increased sensory needs, such as needing to move more than classmates or seek out other physical stimuli.

The result of this research is an assessment tool for educators and parents to use to identify how much modification to the environment and support for the student is necessary for participation. This tool will soon be available online and free for all to use.

“Participation doesn’t have to mean ‘I completed the task fully by myself.’ There are a lot of levels of participation that people with autism may have,” said Piller. “Doing some part of the activity can still be participation.”

Broadening the view of participation was a part of Piller’s research. The other part was looking at the activities and the classroom environment from a teacher perspective to see how much modification is needed for children with autism.

“We found many teachers respond to these needs innately. They are already doing a lot of modifications, but they want to know, ‘How can I modify so that these kids can be more successful and so that my classroom can be more inclusive for all children?’”

Piller’s interest in occupational therapy began at York College. She had known for years that she wanted to work with children and had a passion for those with special needs. As an education major, she was completing her practicum hours at York Elementary School when she first saw an occupational therapist at work and everything clicked. “I thought, ‘oooh, I think that’s what I’d like to do,’” said Piller, noting that it combined the educational component with one-on-one interaction with children of differing abilities. She completed her degree in education at YC and went directly into a graduate program in occupational therapy.

“Occupational therapy really has a lot to offer,” she said. “We focus on developing an internal motivation and drive within a child to be independent. The therapist facilitates that child’s desire to engage with his environment and become an independent person, whatever that may look like for that child…We help kids to find their spark and see it in themselves. THEN we expand their repertoire of skills and their engagement and participation.”

Piller sees few clients herself now, as much of her work involves teaching and mentoring the therapists on her staff, as well as managing the business. However, she does maintain a small caseload and has been working with one client with autism since he was eight. “When I first started working with him he couldn’t imitate me, he only had about 20 words. He had a hard time doing everything in his life. Now he’s a teenager and you wouldn’t believe that he wasn’t really talking at eight years old. He’s going to high school now and he’s getting around to his classes by himself. He still needs support, but he’s got desires and things he wants to do when he graduates. He’s made a big impact on me, and he’s made a lot of progress, too.”

Piller’s husband, Glenn, also works with their business, Piller Child Development, as the director of operations. One of their three clinics in getting ready to expand into an adjacent office suite and Piller plans to add an additional ten therapists to her staff in the next three years. Finding work-life balance is a struggle for Piller, as she is constantly striving to better serve her staff and her clients. “The other challenge is that the leadership role is not something that comes naturally for me,” she said. “I never saw myself as a business person or a manager, but I’ve grown into that role.”

​While there are challenges, Piller is happy to be pursuing her passion of helping children improve their lives. She has some advice for the general public when it comes to children with disabilities. “Be mindful that every person has unique contributions,” she said. “We don’t all look the same and that’s really an amazing thing. God made us all different and unique. Recognize that differences don’t have to mean that a person can’t do something or that they are less of a person, but that we all have our own abilities and desires and that if we are aware of those differences then we can support one another.”