We love talking to people who are passionate about their work. It’s even better when they share the same values as we do at Awake Labs. Jessica Reed, MA, BCBA was no exception. Jessica has an incredible story about why she became a BCBA. She shares her first experience with a young adolescent with autism and some tips on how to build trust in autism therapy.

From Corrections, to a Non-Profit, to Public School District

Jessica began her career by working in the education department of a prison in Idaho. She loved it and was completely inspired by her boss and mentor. By Jessica’s account, her boss was a “total badass” who dedicated her life to supporting survivors of sexual violence.

All signs pointed Jessica towards a career in the prison system. Unfortunately, 2008 came around and brought with it a sharp decline in public sector funding. This led Jessica to find work with a non-profit organization as a youth mental health specialist.

Jessica was assigned to provide in-home support to people with autism and their families. She loved this new role. After a few years, she reached a crossroads; the only way Jessica could grow her impact was to become a BCBA.

As a BCBA, Jessica worked in schools and felt the strong spirit of collaboration often seen in school-based teams. Inspired by this experience, she now provides ABA therapy and other positive behavior supports in public schools as the District Behavior Services Manager at Cabrillo Unified School District in California. 

Maintain Perspective: Jessica’s Advice for Aspiring Behavior Analysts

“The most important thing a young Behavior Analyst can have is perspective. As clinicians we are responsible for participating in families’ best and worst days of their lives. I feel so blessed to have been a part of huge milestones, such as when teenagers speak their first words, or when toddlers alert their parents to an ear infection for the first time. 

But I’ve also seen the grieving that parents experience when they realize that their child has difficulty making friends and is probably lonely. I’ve seen countless parents cry, worrying about who will care for their children when they no longer can. 

ABA has such a strong emphasis on collecting data, but we have to remember that the people we support are more than these data points. There’s nothing worse than walking into a session and seeing a practitioner’s face glued to their iPad, sidetracked by the need to record data, rather than react to what is in front of them. 

Compassion can go such a long way in this field.”

Going the extra mile for a nonverbal child

The first person with autism that Jessica worked with at the non-profit was a 12-year old boy. He was nonverbal and regularly showed severe aggression. Jessica did not feel prepared to support this boy and his family. The only “formal” training on autism she had received was watching a film about Temple Grandin.

Because of her dedication, it didn’t take long for Jessica to excel in her new role. She loved this family and their child. She even learned sign language on her own to better understand the person she was caring for. On weekends and after work, Jessica would also take any classes available to learn more about autism.

Professional Boundaries Protect Relationships With Students

According to Jessica, professional boundaries play a huge role in delivering care. When the lines are blurred, then personal trust and rapport can be built. However, the professional relationship is compromised. This can end up having a negative impact on the person at the centre of care.

Like the majority of people in this field, Jessica became a BCBA because of the emotional connection she felt with that first family. This is a feeling that extends to each new person she cares for. This connection may feel like a good path to friendship, but to be seen as a friend makes it difficult to say the things people don’t want to hear.

Both parents and professionals want what’s best for the person they support. But a professional has a different perspective that comes from their training. They also see things through a different lens because at the end of the day, the person they support is not their own child.

“Professional boundaries are important. When the boundaries get too blurred, it can affect the relationship with the student, which is such a sacred thing.”

Utilizing Trust, Compassion & Empathy

Educators and therapists do not deserve blind trust – trust is earned. According to Jessica, the best way to earn that trust is to show compassion and empathy. This is best illustrated in a story she shared:

“I have a students that I actually worked with in a previous job, in a private setting, so I would work with them in their home. There is a huge difference for this kiddo at home compared to school. They thrive at school, but struggle at home. 

Even though I know how hard the family fought for services, I actually made the recommendation to scale back the interventions at school. The student no longer needed them. This was hard for the parents to hear. So, in the IEP meeting, I held the mom’s hand and looked her in the eye. I told her that I had her back and that if anything changed, I would reinstate her kiddo’s behavior services. 

After the meeting, the mom followed me to the parking log, where she teared up and thanked me for this. I think it’s because I validated her experience and showed her that I could understand what she was going through. 

ABA can be such a black and white field, everything objective, measurable, observable. There is so much more to building trust than to know how people are reacting to their environment. Showing empathy goes a long way to bridging gaps, to moving away from being adversarial. Everybody has the same ultimate goal.”

Connect with Jessica!

Are there any aspiring behavior analysts interested in connecting with Jessica? You can find her on LinkedIn by clicking this link.  Introduce yourself and share with Jessica what you thought about this post!

Do you have an idea for a blog post that you’d like to share with Awake Labs? Send an email to paul@awakelabs.com with the subject line “New Blog Idea!”