Remember Why You Started in ABA

By Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

I remember the day I decided I wanted to be a Behavioral Scientist. I was working in an in-home ABA program with a 4 year-old boy with autism who I will call Trey. My supervisor, a behavioral psychologist, was in the room watching me teach this boy to match letters. He was not having it. He was crying, pushing my hands away, and pinching my leg. I was 17 years old and brand new to the ABA and autism world and determined to get through to this blue-eyed boy who had yet to say his first words. My supervisor told me to stop. She asked me what he would do if I let him go play. Of course I knew what he would do—I spent every afternoon with him. I replied, “He will go straight to the TV and put in the Little Mermaid tape.”  I could see the wheels turning in her head as she said, “Try singing one of the songs from the movie.” Well, I knew “Part of Your World” (what teenage girl who grew up in the 80s and 90s doesn’t) but singing it in front of my brilliant, PhD supervisor was not something I wanted to do. Sensing my reluctance—although she didn’t know the words—she started to hum the song. I jumped in with the words…”Look at this stuff… isn’t it neat…” Trey stopped crying and looked straight into my eyes. Surprised by his immediate reaction, I kept singing, “wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete, wouldn’t you think I’m the girl, the girl who has…” Trey jumped in with his version of the word, “everything”. My supervisor and I both looked at each other in shock. I grabbed Trey’s hands. I kept singing the song. “Look at this trove, treasures untold, how many wonders can one tavern…” (I paused)… Trey said, “hold”. “Looking around here you think” Trey sang his version of, “sure, she’s got everything!” At this point we had his mom, his aunty, and his older sister crowded around the two of us sitting across from each other. Somewhere during the song everyone joined in, we sang through the song together with Trey singing many of the words and looking at his mom and sister with a big smile on his face. By the end of the song we all belted, “Part of Your Wooooorld!” with tears in our eyes. Everyone clapped and hugged Trey. Ironically, we broke through to this boy, lost in his own world through a song all about wanting to join another’s world. It was beautiful. It was poetic. I learned how to use motivation to teach him. We used other songs from The Jungle Book, Barney, and others and within a few months, Trey was using 2-3 word phrases to make requests and label items. This experience solidified my decision to go to college to study behavioral science and to continue to serve in the field of ABA and autism. (It also solidified by love for Disney and music.) 

It’s Sometimes Hard to Remember

Throughout my career, there have been many other “starts”. I started working in Japan. I started working with teens. I started filming stories like the one above and sharing them. I started my own business.  I started applying behavioral science to staff behavior. I started writing. Each of these “starts” was born from a meaningful experience that ignited a light which drove me to do it and keep doing it despite the difficulties. Sometimes things get in the way and create a fog between myself and that light. Being in the human services field comes with many trials and distractions, especially when you get to more senior positions. With the leadership title comes increased administrative load, regulations, and bureaucracy. Most of us didn’t think of this part of the job when we decided to start. For most of us, when we decided to work in the health and human services field it was a result of an experience related to helping others or being the one that received the help. We wanted to come home every day with sweat on our brows and smiles on our faces. It’s during these times that we remember those experiences and the reasons why we began down the path we are on.

Use Cues to Help you Remember

At Christmas time, I often receive cards from families that I have worked with in the past. It’s amazing to see and hear how the kids are doing in the letters. The boy, Trey, above, is now 24 years old! This last Christmas I received a letter from a mother of a different child (who I will call Bryce) whom I worked with for several years when he was 6-9 years old. She says,

Dear Emaley

As you can see from the pictures, Bryce has grown! He is 18 years old and entering adulthood nicely. He is attending community college and working part-time at a local grocery store. He also got his driver’s license and is driving my mom’s car which is 3 months older than he is!! He enjoys his independence and continues to be a pleasant young man. I can’t thank you enough for helping Bryce way back in elementary school. You will always be thought of for all you have done for Bryce and me!

I have a picture of this handsome young man with his huge grin on my desk where I can see it and be reminded of why I will continue to do what I do and trudge through days filled with unpleasant distractions. I urge you to find something to display somewhere that will remind you of why you started down the road you are on.

Use that Reason to Propel Yourself to New “Starts”

Don’t let it stop there. The reason why you started can inspire you to do a lot more than just keep going. It can propel you to do more good in the world with what you have learned. Using Behavioral Science to make people’s lives better has endless possibilities and these possibilities may come to light within your own personal experiences. Use your knowledge and skills to help a family member care for a parent with dementia, a neighbor whose toddler escapes the yard, a family who can’t attend church services with their child with a behavioral disability or an animal shelter that can’t find homes for abused dogs. Use those reasons to add more reinforcement and praise in your loved ones’ lives. Use those reasons to support and recognize others’ innovations, achievements, and successes. Use those reasons to always go the extra mile to provide quality support to your team and those you serve. Those new “starts” are the spice of life and push us to do things that frighten us. When you are about to give up, when all the haters make you feel like quitting, when you feel like life is a daily grind, and when the odds are stacked against you, remember why you started!

Tell us the story of your “starts” in the comments below, and if you enjoyed this article considering subscribing to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA co-founded Autism Training Solutions, LLC in  2008, and is currently the Vice President of Relias Institute at Relias Learning. Relias Learning is the premier provider of online health care training for Health and Human Services, Senior Care and Public Safety. Emaley is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds an MA in Special Education. She has served in the field of ABA for over 18 years and has provided and overseen services to individuals between the ages of 18 months to 24 years in homes, schools and clinical settings. For eight years she served as a consultant and supervisor at agencies based in Hawaii and Japan where she trained groups of professionals and parents. Emaley’s passion is elearning, staff training, dissemination of evidenced-based interventions, research, film and videography and using technology in the field of behavior analysis and special education.  You can contact her at [email protected].

4 Comments on "Remember Why You Started in ABA"

  1. Wonderful post, and very timely too! I’m looking back over old memories now! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Having a child with Autism, where she is impacted with many things in life, I cannot express the appreciation for your work and the many Behavior Analysts who have helped my child over the years. I will never forget when a brilliant BCBA discovered my daughter (who has severe apraxia and vocal speech is hugely difficult) could say a word if we spelled the word better than an echoic of the word. The vocal behavior was controlled by hearing the order of the letters, and again produced better vocal speech. That was one of our “starts” that I will never forget.
    Thank you again!

  3. Nice Emaley! I also find that referring back to a list of “why” I am doing something gets me through tough times.

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