Autism

Hannah Walter, a behavioral technician at AIM, works with children with autism to help their behavior and teach them how to express themselves.

As Brandon Sikes spoke with the children at the Autism in Motion clinic on Jan. 31, he took note of their behaviors and communication in order to provide them with skills that they can use in their everyday lives.

Interacting with children is just part of Sikes’ position as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. A position he thinks Arkansas has a shortage of compared to other states.

BCBAs are professionals certified to conduct Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which the U.S. Surgeon General considers to be one of the most effective treatments for autism.

There are 95 certified BCBAs in Arkansas, 23 of which are located in Fayetteville, according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. Bordering states Oklahoma and Mississippi have a similar amount of certified BCBAs, with 116 and 94 BCBAs, respectively.

Other states bordering Arkansas –– Missouri, Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana –– have significantly more BCBAs at 552, 1,000, 613 and 363 respectively, according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.

ABA therapy has been in place since the 1950s and involves applying and adapting principles of learning theory to affect behavior in another person. It is one of the only widely accepted methods for treating autism, according to Applied Behavior Analysis Education.

An estimated 1 in 77 Arkansas children has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to UAMS.

Sikes, also the regional clinical director for Northwest Arkansas AIM Clinics, said the number of BCBAs at a clinic determines how many kids they can treat.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board recommends a caseload of 6-15 kids per BCBA.

While there is currently about one BCBA per school district, Sikes thinks there should be more funding sources for additional BCBAs to help out kids in the school districts, he said.

“I hate seeing families and kids who were kind of lost and maybe depressed about their situation, but now with ABA I’ve been able to see the progress that you can make,” Sikes said.

Mackenzie Rex, a freshman who has autism, took a class at the UofA about Applied Behavioral Therapy last fall.

Rex took the class because she wants to be a teacher and she thinks learning about behavioral analysis is interesting, she said.

“You can have seven kids with autism and it’s gonna be completely different versus each individual,” Rex said. “You can’t say ‘This kid needs this’ and have it work for every kid.”

Rex said that medication, weighted blankets, fidget toys and support from her friends have been the best treatment for her.

Elizabeth Lorah, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction, said that for someone to become a BCBA, they must have a master’s degree in education or psychology, six courses specific to content in behavior analysis and 1,500 hours of work supervised by a BCBA.

The UofA offers an online graduate certificate program in Applied Behavior Analysis, which has 26 students enrolled as of Feb. 4, Lorah said.

“What we see is that behavior analysis - applied behavior analysis - is consistently listed as one of the most validated, if not the most validated, method of autism treatment and intervention,” Lorah said.

Many of the BCBA in Arkansas work with people with autism or in school systems, Lorah said.

In a survey of over 7,000 BCBAs, over 67% worked in autism-related fields, according to the 2016 Job Task Analysis. 12% of the BCBAs worked in education and 8% worked in developmental disabilities.

“We have more than quadrupled the amount of behavior analysts available in Arkansas since I moved here (in 2013), which is incredible, it’s a wonderful thing,” Lorah said.

Lorah said that more available BCBAs mean that more children can receive a high quality and evidence-based education.

“That's really, really important because it affects the ability of the individual to live independently and to access things independently, like learning how to communicate or learning how to even go to the bathroom,” Lorah said.

Miranda Stith is a news editor for the Arkansas Traveler, where she previously worked as a reporter from 2018-2019.

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