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.