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Your ATN@Work: Meeting the need for highly trained ABA therapists

This Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network site is providing advanced, hands-on training for students of applied behavior analysis 

By behavior analyst SungWoo Kahng, BCBA. Dr. Kahng is an associate professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri and works in the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, in Columbia. The center is one of 14 sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN).

I am ecstatic that parents of children with autism are seeking evidenced-based interventions such as those based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Over the last decade, the clear evidence supporting ABA’s efficacy – combined with skyrocketing rates of autism – has fueled a dramatic increase in the need for high-quality ABA services.

However, as a behavior analyst working in the middle of Missouri, I see many families with children recently diagnosed with autism who can’t access the ABA-based treatment that they have been prescribed.

Our region is far from alone in this shortage. We see similar challenges across the country. There is no simple solution. We are working hard to better meet the great need by developing high-quality academic programs for training more ABA providers.

We are very fortunate to partner with the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders to provide our students with hands-on training. This collaboration gives them real-world experience in early intervention, social skills training, behavioral supports and severe problem behaviors. It also means more children get effective behavioral intervention under the supervision of highly experienced, board-certified ABA practitioners.

Hands-on experience
To develop a high quality academic program, one of the keys to success is a high quality practical experience. Training starts under the supervision of a board certified Behavior Analyst. This supervisor helps the student apply the knowledge gained in the classroom in our clinic. This not only benefits the graduate student, it also increases our capacity to serve more children. An added benefit is the enthusiasm, energy and dedication that these students bring to our clinic. We’ve seen how it benefits all aspects of a child’s care.

I recall how one graduate student, Ally, worked with a boy with autism who engaged in some of the most intense aggression I had ever seen. Ally would not give up. She was inspired by this child’s great need for help and because the boy’s mother was counting on her. Working with her supervisor, Ally developed a highly successful treatment plan. The boy is now excelling in school, and his mother is ecstatic about our training program. Ally now works at a school for children with autism.

Ensuring quality
Given the growth of the behavior analyst field, standards for training programs became vital to ensure that consumers received the highest quality of care. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board developed academic and experience standards for training practicing behavior analysts. The certification is now an industry standard qualification for practitioners providing ABA-based interventions to children and adults with autism, and many states now license behavior analysts.

Meeting the demand

Training more behavior analysts can only come about through the growth of quality academic programs. My profession has been working hard to create academic programs that train students to meet the high certification standards and fill the growing demand for these services.

Our academic programs in ABA here at the University of Missouri are growing because we feel it is important to provide the highest quality of training at the graduate level and the undergraduate level. Many undergraduates provide direct care to children as in-home tutors and continue on to graduate training.

Meeting the demand for more services also includes increasing autism awareness among our undergraduate students and showing them how they can make a tremendous difference in the lives of people affected by the condition.

We are doing this through an undergraduate course that introduces students to both autism and the principles of ABA. Going forward, we also hope to expose the students to more advanced ABA topics by adding higher-level courses.

Graduate programs
On the graduate level, we are providing comprehensive training in ABA techniques as well as additional specialization in ABA for mental health and education professionals including special education teachers, counselors and school psychologists.

Our recently approved Graduate Certificate Training in ABA programing gives students in other graduate areas an opportunity to receive additional ABA training.

For students who want more comprehensive training in ABA, we are developing a standalone master’s program in ABA through our Department of Health Psychology.

Our programs are but one example of how the ABA field is working to meet the need for more evidence-based treatments by qualified providers. Along with other colleges and universities throughout the country and the world, we are working to increase training opportunities for behavior analysts to meet the growing demand for a highly skilled and experienced workforce.

I want to thank the Autism Speaks community for supporting this work through the Autism Speaks ATN.

* Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
* Find the ATN center nearest you 
* Explore our archive of ATN expert-advice blogs and news stories 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.