UWF Alumni Magazine: Center for Behavior Analysis

The article below was written for the University of West Florida’s Spring 2020 alumni magazine, Connection.

Read the issue online.

New Center Meets Critical Needs in Healthcare and Safety

For families who have a child with autism, the waitlist time to receive behavioral services—or even an official diagnosis—can last for years. This wait represents a loss of time when early intervention and treatment are critical. Families are forced to exist in limbo, bouncing between a maze of different organizations and healthcare providers while struggling to help their child.

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is the most widely accepted evidence-based treatment for autism and is largely based on behavior and its consequences within context. Techniques involve teaching individuals essential skills, addressing contextual variables, and overcoming barriers to support the best outcomes.

“Behavior analysts strive to understand behavior and why it occurs,” said Dr. Leasha Barry, director of the University of West Florida Center for Behavior Analysis. “We assess needs, identify goals and formulate interventions to help people overcome barriers, acquire skills and enhance their lives.”

Barry has long been a champion of behavior analysis. She began offering courses in the field at UWF in the early 2000s, and she collaborated with community stakeholders to help establish the Autism Center of The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart, with one of her first graduates chosen as its inaugural leader. In Fall 2018, she advocated for the University to expand on her course offerings, community collaborations and research to create the Center for Behavior Analysis.

The UWF Center for Behavior Analysis provides a collaborative space where higher education, socially valued service and applied research synthesize into meaningful applications. The center is based in a new space within Argo Village and features two conference rooms, administrative offices and space for collaborations with community partners.

As a leading resource for individuals interested in a career in ABA, the center offers an online curriculum that meets all the curriculum requirements students need to become certified in ABA at various levels. A streamlined process for students seeking undergraduate or master’s degrees while obtaining certification is also available. Ten graduate courses and five undergraduate courses are offered, and the program now boasts 1,000 new enrollments a year.

UWF’s focus on training and preparing behavior analysts for the field could not have come at a better time.

According to a 2019 study for the Behavior Analyst Certification Board Inc., demand for board certified behavior analysts has increased approximately 1,942% from 2010 to 2018. Annual demand for board certified assistant behavior analysts increased by 1,098% in the same time period.

Applications for behavior analysis are exploding in healthcare, but the field reaches beyond that to touch organizational behavior and public safety.

UWF’s center has invested in a VirTra 300 virtual reality system, which is designed to incorporate ABA in enhancing decision-making simulation and tactical firearms training. Dayna Beddick ’08, ’16, associate director of the UWF Center for Behavior Analysis, in partnership with the UWF Police Department, is leading efforts to establish “real-life” training scenarios specifically for law enforcement, military and school resource officers.

Students seeking certification in the diverse field of behavior analysis must receive professional supervision by participating in hands-on practicum hours, in addition to their coursework.

Some ABA students intern on campus with UWF Student Accessibility Resources, working within the Argos for Autism program, which provides academic, social, life skills and career planning support to UWF students with autism.

“Students with autism get so much support in grades K-12,” said Michelle Lambert ’12, ’16, assistant director of the UWF Center for Behavior Analysis. “There has been so much focus on support services for children, but those children are growing up, and there is this underserved population of adults. We want to help them succeed in the transition to college.”

Jacob Flanigan ’21, an arts administration major and trombone player in the Argo Athletic Band, has participated in Argos for Autism since his freshman year on campus. One of his first experiences at UWF was a two-day early arrival program that helps new students with autism learn about the resources on campus and make connections with faculty, staff and fellow students.

Last spring, Flanigan also found a student mentor in Tyler Morris ’20, a health science major in the ABA program.

“Jacob and I would meet every Monday at the Chick-fil-A on campus,” Morris said. “He was very interested in the social aspects of college and meeting friends on campus. We would watch groups of people together and work on reading their cues and body language. We also did an escape room activity together, which was a lot of fun.”

Partnerships off campus also provide hands-on training for students while filling a critical community need. UWF ABA students work at the Autism Center of the Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart; serve as highly-specialized summer camp counselors with Autism Pensacola, a non-profit organization serving individuals and families affected by autism in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties; and work with families at the Lakeview Center at Baptist Healthcare.

Jessi Truett ’12, is the program director for Lakeview Center at Baptist Health Care, which offers more than 60 programs and services for people with mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependencies or intellectual disabilities. She also teaches ABA courses at UWF.

Under the mentorship of Beddick, Truett worked to establish behavior analysis services at Lakeview Center, and she now hires UWF ABA alumni and hosts students from the program as interns each semester.

“The reason we advocated for adding behavior analysis at Lakeview was because it was the missing piece for hundreds of families,” Truett said. “There was a massive need in Pensacola for these services. A problem was identified, and people who wanted to make a change came together to come up with ideas. When you know something works, you catch this fever and just really want to help as many people as you can.”

Photo credits: University of West Florida