Most of us in the autism field know that women make up the bulk of board certified behavior analysts (BCBAs). In fact, women represent 85.43 percent of BCBAs, according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. What often gets overlooked, however, is that the nearly 78,000 female BCBAs across the country are also part of STEM, the acronym for an area of work—science, technology, engineering, and math—notoriously lacking in female leadership. Why are behavior analysts left out?
This week, in honor of Women’s History Month, we asked three female leaders at LEARN what it’s like to work in a STEM field—and how they use science, math, and data analysis in their positions. The women include Chief Clinical Officer Hanna Rue and Senior Vice President Sabrina Daneshvar, in addition to consultant and Women in Behavior Analysis (WIBA) Conference Director Devon Sundberg. Here’s the conversation.
Q: STEM is a hot topic right now, but the field of behavior analysis tends to get left out of the conversation. Why do you think that’s the case?
A (Hanna Rue): If you ask behavior analysts if their friends and family understand their job, the answer is usually “no.” As a field, behavior analysis has not done a great job at marketing the positive impact the field can have on socially significant behaviors. When we work with kids, our work looks like play—and that’s great, but what people don’t often see are the copious data collection, critical analysis, and data-based decisions that happen behind the scenes in treatment.
A (Devon Sundberg): As humans, we have an overwhelming desire to pigeonhole all aspects of our lives and tend to view helping individuals as a form of therapy. Mistakenly, society does not often consider therapy a form of science. Applied behavior analysis, especially as practiced at LEARN, represents the union of science and the love for helping others. For instance, we can’t track meaningful change objectively without data, and science is a huge part of what we do.
A (Sabrina Daneshvar): Some people consider behavior analysis a soft science and underestimate the importance of the science we exercise. The term “soft science” is a misnomer. In actuality, we’re doing the same things scientists do by using observation and data to make treatment decisions.
Q: You actually use a lot of science and math, both in your leadership positions at LEARN and in your previous clinical work as behavior analysts. Can you talk some about the STEM skills you use—and why they’re a big part of behavior analysis?
A (Sabrina Daneshvar): We have scientific rigor and methodologies in place that aren’t always visible. For instance, we make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and use evidence-based, scientific evaluation to make decisions and refine our approaches daily. Our work requires us to account for what we observe, while also accounting for sources of variability. There’s nothing simple about behavior analysis.
A (Hanna Rue): I constantly use math to evaluate how we’re doing as a company from a clinical perspective. For instance, we conduct surveys at LEARN to evaluate our services and use the data to inform our training and clinical practices. A number of projects require data analysis and an understanding of parametric and nonparametric statistics.
Q: How has ABA therapy evolved with the use of data gathering and analysis? What about aggregated data—how does that contributed to better treatment and services?
A (Hanna Rue): I started working in the field before it was common to have apps assist in data collection. Back then, I collected paper and pencil data and graphed it on good old-fashioned graph paper. Now, we can collect data via an app that can be downloaded to a tablet or smart phone. It is incredible to think that I can see updated behavioral data from clients at any point in time. Quick access to behavioral data helps to improve the quality of behavioral programming and efficiency in clinical practice.
A (Sabrina Daneshvar): I can relate to Hanna—and add that as a field, we’re starting to look not only at a single client’s response to a particular behavior intervention but also to multiple clients across the country. This can only strengthen the work we do and the interventions we administer. Insurance companies are starting to request data, too, as evidence that our services work. Thankfully, we’re in a good position at LEARN to provide it.
Q: Did you pursue math, science, and other STEM-related fields growing up? When did you take interest in these areas?
A (Devon Sundberg): I had little interest in math or science growing up, though I was interested in helping people. My first job was at a group home for children with autism, but no one trained me, and my efforts weren’t all that successful. In my next job, I learned how to provide applied behavior analysis—and realized how much it could have helped kids in my former job, at the group home. I was disappointed that not all children had access to this amazing therapy and excited to finally feel effective in my work. From this, I learned how useful math and science can be when applied to real-life problems. From then on, I was hooked.
A (Sabrina Daneshvar): Like Devon, I didn’t pursue math and science as a kid. In college, I majored in psychology and fell into the field of autism when I worked as a special education teacher at an autism treatment center affiliated with my school. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. I didn’t feel equipped to handle my students and decided to go back to school to earn a doctorate in developmental psychology—to learn how to make things better. As I got more involved, not just in the treatment but also the research, that’s when the science interest in me piqued. I saw the need for science and statistics and haven’t looked back.
Q: A longstanding belief (or perhaps a myth) in our society—and in many societies—is that boys are better at math than girls. But what does the research say?
A (Hanna Rue): Empirical evidence does not support male superiority in math or science. In fact, history suggests that the environment was the primary factor resulting in so many more males than females in math and science, with gender stereotypes leading teachers and mentors to encourage boys and young men to participate in math- and science-related activities. Given that behavior analysts understand how much adult attention and praise can shape behavior, it isn’t surprising that more men ended up in careers in science or math. That is all changing now, and I am thrilled.
A (Sabrina Daneshvar): Yes, research shows that boys and girls learn math at similar rates, but it’s the social expectation that boys are naturally better at math that can make boys perform better. Carol Dweck, who wrote the book The Growth Mindset, has done some interesting research in this area. Dweck found that girls who viewed math ability as “a gift” performed more poorly in math than those who viewed it as something they could improve through practice and experience. According to Dweck’s theory, when girls believe they can achieve in math by applying themselves, they can, in fact, achieve in math (and science, too).
Q: What advice would you have for girls or women who shy away from or just dislike or struggle with math and science?
A (Sabrina Daneshvar): Math and science skills are a continuum. There’s a lot of variation in skill levels among various skill sets. For instance, someone might be great at data analysis and struggle with communicating findings or understanding the impact. I’m not the best of math, but I have a solid grasp of statistics and how to do a scientific study. My advice is not to be intimidated—and trust that you will have strengths in one area and limitations in another. And that’s OK.
A (Devon Sundberg): Math and science can make us more effective in the areas we care most about. I wasn’t excited about math or science until I realized these disciplines allowed me to do my job more effectively. At that point, math and science started to come naturally because they served a meaningful purpose in my life.
A (Hanna Rue): For young girls, I think it is important to find activities they really enjoy and discover how they connect to STEM. One of my favorite websites to recommend to parents is A Mighty Girl—it’s full of inspiring stories, books, and resources that focus on female contributions to science and technology.
Q: What advice would you have—for women and men, or girls and boys—about working in ABA? What, in your opinion, are some of the advantages of a career in the ABA field?
A (Hanna Rue): Anyone who finds human behavior interesting should consider a career in ABA. The technology of ABA can be used to address an endless number of socially significant behaviors. In fact, behavior analysts now work in fields that involve social justice, health and fitness, reducing waste, and safety.
The field of ABA is relatively young, and opportunities for research and discovery—and to advance our science—are endless.
A (Devon Sundberg): Join the field of behavior analysis, even briefly. In addition to making me more effective in all facets of my life, behavior analysis makes me a better human. Understanding why we behave in the ways we do leads to enhanced communication, grace, and acceptance of others. For these reasons, I hope everyone learns about behavior analysis throughout their life.
By Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Strategic Advisor, LEARN Behavioral
Preparing a child who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for any routine change can be a significant challenge. In fact, insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior are common traits and characteristics for children on the spectrum. So, you have your schedule, your child has adjusted to it, and then Daylight Saving comes along. Getting ready for school no longer happens during sunrise, and eating dinner no longer occurs in the dark. Now what? Thankfully, there are tools at your disposal that can mitigate the stress caused by these abrupt changes and help you prepare for the upcoming Daylight Saving Time—when our clocks “spring forward” an hour at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 14.
When establishing a new routine with your child, planning ahead is important. A change is made all the more stressful when it is abrupt. You can sit down with your child a few days or even weeks before Daylight Saving to explain what will happen and why. If your child is used to visual routines, you can add the new sunrise and sunset into the visual schedule, so it is something they can look at and expect each day. You can even start using light-blocking curtains to mimic the upcoming change in sun around waking and sleeping times.
It is also helpful to put your child’s schedule in context with the rest of their day. Instead of explaining to your child what time each thing is to be done, you can explain it as an order of events. For example, you could say, “breakfast is before school,” instead of, “breakfast is in the morning at 7 a.m., and we leave for school at 7:30 a.m.” Framing the story in this way leaves room for flexibility. Plus, the statement will hold true when the time has changed—and your child and family continue to eat breakfast before school, regardless of the light outside or the time on the clock.
Another stressful trigger for children with ASD during this time is their internal clock. They may find themselves wide awake at their bed time and overly tired in the morning, as their bodies adapt. For this, two main techniques can help: incremental adjustment and physical activity. To use the first technique, start moving your child’s bed time in small increments (15 minutes, for example) each night leading up to Daylight Saving Day, so their bodies have more time to get used to the new schedule. Also make sure they engage in physical activity after school, so they burn some energy and feel tired by their new bed time.
For children with ASD, most of the stress that comes with routine changes stems from a lack of understanding the change. It will take time, but with proper communication and incremental adjustments, you can significantly minimize the stress triggers that come with Daylight Saving. Once your child has acclimated, reward their flexibility with a task they enjoy, verbal praise, or any preferred activity you currently use. This will lay the groundwork for flexibility in future routine changes and encourage positive coping behaviors for stressors moving forward.
By Mary Smith, BCBA, LBA
Executive Director, WEAP
The global pandemic of COVID-19 has directly claimed 2.6 million lives worldwide, with roughly 20 percent, or 525,000, of the departed living in the United States. Indirectly, the cost of and on lives is vast—beyond vast, actually—and we are all facing this vastness together, now and for future generations.
The impact of COVID-19 on the labor market has also been dramatic. According to studies, and to what I’ve witnessed firsthand as the executive director of WEAP, a part of LEARN Behavioral, this impact has been greater on women than men. Consider, for example, that there were 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force in October 2020 than there were in October 2019. Why?
Largely, it’s that the occupations and industries most affected by the pandemic—leisure and hospitality, education and healthcare, and wholesale and retail—have a high proportion of female workers. Another reason is the closure of daycares and schools, leading to increased caregiving responsibilities. Research indicates that women took on a disproportionate amount of these responsibilities, compared to men. Decisions needed to be made regarding the children and elderly who needed caring for, and millions of working women left their positions.
Time away from the workplace can result in missed opportunities that range from training and tuition reimbursement to participation in initiatives, pay increases, and promotions. Despite the fact that more women than men now graduate from college, women are the ones moving out of the workforce, potentially leading to an entire generation of women being unable to progress to leadership positions in their chosen careers as readily as men.
Why is this vacuum of women leadership in business a big issue for society? A recent analysis by authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, as published in an article for Harvard Business Review, finds that women scored higher than men in several key leadership skills, including taking initiative, driving results, developing others, inspiring and motivating others, and displaying high integrity and honesty—among other skills. So, empathy and multi-tasking, which women have, for centuries, been stereotyped as having in higher degrees, are not the only talents women bring to the table. It turns out women bring an abundance of skills. If women lose their seat at the table as a result of COVID, a tremendous opportunity for continued gains by women will be lost.
In my own field, applied behavior analysis (ABA), recent data reports that more than 85 percent of licensed practitioners are female. Likewise, a study by Melissa Nosik and her colleagues indicates that over the past few decades, women in ABA have made substantial career progress, transforming the field from one in which men hold more leadership positions to one predominantly led by women. Despite this progress, Nosik identifies career milestones, like becoming a fellow of the Association of Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) or receiving late career awards, underrepresented by women. If women are not given the flexibility to continue to advance into leadership positions, we risk this lack of progress and representation continuing.
As a female leader in the field of ABA, I have a significant responsibility to maintain a flexible work environment for every staff member, 85 percent of whom are women (and many of those who are working mothers). One benefit of COVID-19 that has made this easier is the increasing acceptance of telehealth by health plans. Now, 90 percent of insurance companies fund telehealth treatment and consultation—a move that has been vital for the children and families we serve, in addition to the clinicians who can work from home and be more flexible with their time.
In my role, I strive to ensure that all women and men alike are comfortable being flexible with their working hours. I want them to know, for instance, that they’re supported when they need to change their schedule to attend to care-giving needs. Additionally, I initiate conversations about leadership to ensure that my team consider it. As Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress, once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, then bring a folding chair.”
I am confident that LEARN takes female leadership seriously. Here, 75 percent of our senior leadership team are women, including the recent promotions of Hanna Rue to Chief Clinical Officer and Sabrina Daneshvar to Senior Vice President. Other opportunities helping women involve the introduction of sick pay for part-time workers, the majority of whom are women; the many cross-organization task groups available for people to practice leadership skills; the accepted flexibility of time management to meet care-giving needs; and the organization’s initiative to purchase from and do business with female-owned vendors and businesses. These decisions and actions, in addition to others, make me proud to work for and help lead an organization committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion—and to women.
By Katherine Johnson , MS, BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral
Children learn language best when they’re engaged and interested—something the right book can evoke in an instant. Since children on the autism spectrum sometimes struggle with reading comprehension, it’s important to build positive routines around reading as early as possible in your child’s life. Why?
Books often use repetitive or rhyming words that capture a child’s attention and help them focus on language. In addition, reading offers a chance to generalize recently-learned vocabulary and expose your child to new words. This year, in honor of Read Across America Day on March 2, which is also the birthday of one of my all-time favorite children’s book authors, Dr. Seuss, I’m sharing strategies and tips on using books to help your child build language skills—and, over time, an endless supply of new words.
Tips on choosing books
As you browse reading options, select books at the right level. It’s OK if they’re a bit of a stretch, but in general, they should use language your child can mostly understand. If you plan to read aloud, the best books for learning will be those with vocabulary your child has learned in programming and is just beginning to generalize.
Books with pictures are wonderful for many reasons. Colorful illustrations can capture a child’s attention; pictures can provide a visual for new words; and children can point to pictures, even if they don’t yet have expressive language.
As you look for books, don’t shy away from perseverative topics. Stories that center around your child’s intense interests can captivate your child’s attention and may even encourage spontaneous language—not to mention a long-term love of reading.
To get the most of your reading time, take a step back and let your child choose the book. If the selection feels overwhelming, talk through the options and categorize the books. For example, you can separate books into fiction versus non-fiction or picture books versus chapter books. If you want to target a specific topic, select several books and let your child pick from those. Kids love to feel in control of their choices, and studies show that letting them weigh in on the selection can boost their motivation to read.
How do you engage a kiddo who is still learning to love books? Try making your own books with homemade drawings or family photos. Alternatively, if your child is already a reader, consider using books without words, or even covering up the words, to work on skills like recognizing emotions, reading social situations, inferencing, and predicting.
Strategies to build language through reading
As you read together, follow where your child’s attention leads you, affirm their interests, and keep it positive. This sort of responsiveness to your child during reading promotes learning.
Some children may not yet have enough language to benefit from reading the actual words in the book. In this case, modify the words to match your child’s level of understanding. Also try out a range of prompts, as you read, to see what best supports your child’s communication. For example, you can model comments (“I had a feeling that would happen”), point to and comment on a picture, or provide a carrier phrase (“That is a …”) to encourage your child’s language. When your child becomes accustomed to talking during reading time, wait quietly after you turn a new page or finish reading a page—and know that pausing for your child to point or comment can foster initiation.
Reinforce the words your child uses and build upon them. For instance, if your child labels a truck, you might respond: “Yes, a truck! That truck is big and red. Look at the big tires!” In this way, you’re affirming your child’s observations, while extending the language development. Keep in mind, too, that some children may benefit from using other reinforcers at the beginning, such as tickles and treats.
When you come across a new word, stop and explain at a level your child can understand. You might point to things in the picture, use intonation or gestures to demonstrate the word, or give a different example. Whatever the case, read the sentence over again so your child can hear the new word once more, in context.
Draw connections between the book and your child’s life to assist with generalization. For instance, if you’re reading a book that introduces the word “grandmother,” you might draw a connection to the child’s own grandmother, known as “Mimi.”
Remember, too, to use repetition. After all, books with predictable or repetitive language and rhyming words help solidify new vocabulary—and children on the spectrum often count these books among their favorites. You can also read a favorite book many times over, focusing on new things each time.
Perhaps the most important tip I can offer, however, is to follow your child’s lead. Remind yourself to let go of the familiar parental urge to control—and let your kids choose how long they want to read, whether they want to hold the book, how fast they want to go, and even if they want to skip pages. Again, you’ll need to hold back your natural inclination to supervise, and in the words of Queen Elsa from Frozen: let it go.
Books of all kinds offer a wonderful way to teach new words and can help your child generalize recently-taught language, while making progress on current goals. Plus, building a love of books will cultivate curiosity—and a love of learning across a lifetime.
Did you catch our recent blog post about reading, “Celebrate Black History Month with These Children’s Books”? Also see “How Can Parents Embed Language?”
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.