Spotlight on Black Professionals in ABA: Brandon Whitfield

Our new series, “Spotlight on Black Professionals in ABA,” kicks off with an interview with Brandon Whitfield, the clinical director overseeing LEARN Behavioral’s Autism Spectrum Therapies (AST) Beach Cities office in beautiful, sunny Los Angeles.

This series comes on the heels of an analysis conducted by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), which found that Black behavior analysts make up only 3.6 percent of the total board certified behavior analysts, a number that lags behind the 13.4 percent of Black people living in the United States, according to 2019 U.S. Census data. To put this in perspective, this equates to roughly one Black behavior analyst for every 28, compared to a population of roughly one Black person for every eight people in the United States.

Here, Brandon sits down to talk about his efforts to help boost diversity and share stories about his experience in the field.

Q: Brandon, thanks for taking time to talk with us. You recently served on a panel of speakers for a webinar, “Racial Equity in ABA,” at the University of Southern California – Dornsife. How did you get involved?

A: Well, it was really coincidental. During a Harbor Regional Center vendor advisory committee meeting with other behavioral health agencies, I asked for updates on what they were doing to address diversity concerns. In a previous meeting, they had discussed some agendas surrounding action items for diversity, and I wanted to find out what was happening. A colleague from Harbor Regional Center heard me ask the question and later reached out to talk to me about her involvement with the “Racial Equity in ABA” event at USC – Dornsife. We hit it off from there, with both of us seeing a real need to diversify the field and make the pool of clinicians more reflective of the children and individuals with autism in need of treatment.

Q: You’ve been at AST for 12 years now. How did you get into the ABA field?

A: That’s a fun story—and a long story because it spans my entire working life. In college, I worked for a company as part of their mobile crisis intervention unit for adolescents and adults. I was assigned to a 13-year-old boy with autism who had severe behaviors, and I thought to myself: How did he reach the point of needing a 24-hour crisis service? I started researching and learning about autism, knowing there had to be a better way.

After wrapping up undergrad, my dad, a school psychologist, introduced me to his intern, who worked for AST. One thing led to another, and I started as a behavior technician on May 5, 2009. I’ve been here ever since.

Q: Tell us about your experience as a behavior technician (BT). How did it inspire you to continue in the ABA field?

A: Working as a BT was an eye-opening and rewarding experience. I started off as a BT in the classroom, where I realized I could affect change not only with the single child I was assigned to but also with his peers.

I remember taking my client to the playground and exposing him to social opportunities while playing kickball and basketball. He didn’t have the skills to socialize successfully, but I could see the desire to play and engage with his peers. So, it gave me a real purpose—to help him build the skills to get out there and play and socialize successfully. And with time, he did.

I was also motivated by watching his peers grow. Really quickly, they realized that it was OK to play with kids with special needs. Stereotypes washed away, the more time they spent together.

Q: That’s a great story, and I love the line “stereotypes washed away.” How does the story continue? In other words, what prompted you to become a behavior analyst?

A: As a BT, the research always intrigued me. I read some studies from UCLA that showed how peers could be involved and help with autism treatment, specifically with social skills. So, I got to read about what I saw happening firsthand.

My supervisors also played a role. I started getting access to parents on home cases and began helping to implement parent education goals. I really liked that interaction and started reading about it. I borrowed the classic ABA textbook from a friend—”the Cooper book,” we call it in the field. It’s by John Cooper and some other scholars from Ohio State University. Most people would fall asleep with all the scientific jargon, but I loved it. I ended up using it as a supplement to help parents and caregivers. I even made copies of certain chapters for the parents to review with me during sessions.

My supervisor noticed my extra steps and encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree and earn my BCBA. I told myself, “This is what I’m meant to do.” And I did it. Eventually, I was promoted to a program supervisor position. I worked 40 hours a week as a program supervisor, plus weekends at a group home. I spent every spare minute studying.

Q: That sounds like a busy schedule, but your hard work paid off. Tell us about your first months as a behavior analyst?

A: I started with a pretty challenging caseload—10 cases. But I felt more independent, more grown-up. Sure, I needed to work on time management and staff management, but I cherished the level of influence that I had gained over the treatment planning for the cases I was assigned. I really liked that.  The one difference that was really pronounced for me: within what felt like a day, I went from being people’s peer to being their supervisor. It was an adjustment, but I really enjoyed working with my team and growing together.

Q: It sounds like you were a natural, given that you’re now a clinical director. What are some of your future goals as a leader in the ABA field, both in general and in your involvement with LEARN’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Plan?

A: In general, I’m itching to get back to my community outreach, which has largely been upended by COVID. It’s something we’ve been passionate about in our region and something that works—using community outreach to increase awareness of ABA in communities of color. Tremendously large communities are underserved in our area, so I’d really like to change that—from a diagnostic standpoint to access to early intervention.

Of course, I’m really excited about LEARN’s DEI efforts. Beyond LEARN’s Future Leaders Diversity Advancement Program, we’re exploring the possibility of establishing affinity groups within our organization. Affinity groups essentially provide a safe space for employees who are members of marginalized groups to come and talk, problem-solve, and get support for issues that relate to diversity, equity, and career development. Efforts the DEI group is making as a whole really reflects LEARN’s dedication to securing a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future. The conversations taking place are important, and I hope they’ll spark more people to jump into the fray.

Celebrate Black History Month with These Children’s Books

On the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing civil unrest, particularly around race, children are learning and discussing racism in America more than ever before, whether it is discussed at home or not. With COVID-19 resulting in many children attending virtual school at home, it is up to us as parents and caregivers to equip our children with the education and proper context from which to speak. While this can seem like a daunting task, we can lean on the many great authors who have taken on the challenge—and written honestly and creatively about racism. In honor of Black History Month, and because this is an essential topic for all families, compiled below are six books for children and teens that address race, racism, and the Black experience.

Children K-2

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from The Underground Railroad
By Ellen Levine

This one is so popular that Scholastic has made a teaching guide geared toward teachers that you can use when introducing it to your child. Henry’s Freedom Box follows the tale of a young boy and his escape from slavery. It helps your child learn about the Underground Railroad, while allowing them to imagine themselves in Henry’s place, and therefore begin to comprehend the injustice of slavery.

Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters
By Barack Obama

Positioned as a letter from Barack Obama to his two daughters, this tender book is strong for a myriad of reasons. It has meaningful illustrations to captivate children; it shows them the power and accomplishments of 13 key people of color throughout history; and it encourages unity, while empowering readers to know they can dream just as big and accomplish just as much.

Grade 3-6

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History
By Vashti Harrison

Vashti Harrison does an incredible job of gathering some of the most influential women of color over time and presenting them in an inspiring and motivational light, without minimizing their struggles. This book highlights the power of women of color and the ability in all of us to stand up for change when needed.

One Crazy Summer
By Rita Williams-Garcia

This book tells the story of three sisters who visit their mother in Oakland, California, during the 1960s. Focusing on the history of racism in America, the story serves as a learning tool for children growing up during the Black Lives Matter movement who may not understand the overall context that ultimately shaped it.

Grades 7 and up

The Hate U Give
By Angie Thomas

In 2017, The Hate U Give won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction. This book follows the life of 16-year-old Starr Carter, the only witness to the fatal shooting of a dear friend at the hands of a police officer. Thomas’ story offers a gripping and earnest tale of the fear and vulnerability racism instills, and the courage needed to push against it.

Ghost Boys
By Jewell Parker Rhodes

Written in the unique perspective of Jerome, a ghost of a young boy, Ghost Boys takes readers on a journey from the view of those who have paid the ultimate price of racism. This book expertly balances the gutting realities of racism and the importance of hope for our future.

Let these books start your child’s important journey of discovering, processing, and addressing racism in America. Books like these inspire us to take racism out of the shadows of taboo and into the light where it can be examined and challenged. If you find yourself at a loss for these discussions, PBS has put together a helpful guide for parents with key words and helpful questions to get the conversation going. Also read our blog post, “How to Start Talking About Racism.”

Perspectives: Why Access to ABA Is a Matter of Social Justice

By Nathan Franklin
Managing Behavioral Treatment Technician, WEAP, Milwaukee

As our country starts the process of distributing vaccines for COVID-19 and re-opening our cities, many people are hoping that 2021 delivers a return to normal. We are getting that first glimpse of a promising horizon. But instead of trying to return to the old normal, we have a chance to establish a new and better normal, informed by the experiences of the past year.

The coronavirus pandemic brought many new problems to our lives in 2020, but it also exposed problems that have long existed, particularly the racial inequities that are so deeply and structurally rooted in our country.

One of the more well-documented areas of racial disparities is in the area of health care, including behavioral treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with which I am personally involved. I’ve spent the last 10-plus years providing applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to children with autism in Milwaukee at Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP). Studies show that Black and Hispanic children are diagnosed with autism at an older age than white children, are more likely to be misdiagnosed initially, and are less likely to receive an accurate diagnosis at all. Because the best outcomes for children with ASD depend heavily on early diagnosis and treatment, reading these studies was revealing—and brought the issues of racial justice to the forefront of my personal focus.

As a white man working with many children and families of color, I find the reality of a delayed or even absent diagnosis alarming and upsetting—and consider access to ABA a social justice issue that I can personally and directly help address. While I realize the causes of these disparities are complex and must be understood through a larger lens of historic and systemic racism in our societal institutions, I believe we can all make progress addressing these inequalities by starting in our own circles to seek understanding and solutions.

The good news is that by many measurements, the diagnosis gap is beginning to show signs that it is closing, though the problem is far from solved. Getting a diagnosis is only the first step, however, after which actually accessing the necessary services is key. And here again, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status can affect access to treatment and the quality of treatment.

For a long time, I took for granted that the vast majority of children I’ve worked with have been Medicaid-funded. Unfortunately, many providers simply do not accept Medicaid clients. While I’m grateful to work for a company that is the exception to that rule, I would call on the federal government, state government, and providers to do more to increase access to services. No one should be denied services because of their income, and since the economic disparities in this country are tied to historic and structural racism, it is not just a matter of social justice but also racial justice to ensure that quality treatment is available to everyone who needs it.

There are other obstacles that can contribute to the lack of access to ABA. For example, many ABA services take place in a client’s home, creating an unintentional barrier for working families, given that home-based services require the presence of a parent or guardian. For families who need multiple people working multiple jobs just to make ends meet, this requirement alone can prevent them from accessing services.

One possible solution is to provide opportunities for treatment that children can receive without their parent or caregiver. In the beginning of 2021, WEAP opened a learning center in the city of Milwaukee, giving communities of color the more convenient access they didn’t previously have but needed. Access is important, and the difference between travelling across a city and having resources in your own neighborhood can be the difference between receiving services—and not.

The services provided for children with ASD are no exception to the general rule of racial inequities, though the research and our understanding are only beginning to develop. For anyone inclined towards research, this is an open invitation to look into these issues more deeply. The experiences of the past year have given us new perspectives to understand that solving a widespread problem requires a combination of research, structural changes, and personal responsibility to do our part in our own worlds. For those of us heavily involved in the world of ASD, this historic opportunity to pursue a new and better normal calls on us to recognize, understand, and address the injustices in our field—and to act with a sense of urgency to ensure that our treatment options continue to improve not only in quality but also in equality.