european association for behaviour analysis
Mon, Jan 25, 2021

Maithri Sivaraman

As with most Indian kids of my generation, I began my professional life in engineering school, studying to become a Mechanical Engineer. This led to a career in the Automotive Industry. In the hopes of finding my true calling, I filled my free time outside of work volunteering at a school for children with special needs. On one such stint, I happened to work in a classroom with children with multiple disabilities, one of whom had autism.

Armed with a gung-ho attitude, a short orientation session and some guidance from the class teacher, but with no real background in special needs education, I started working with this child. I realized rather quickly that there was little to no support that I could offer this child. I was quite useless to him. The harder I tried to support this child's needs, the greater was the disconnect between us, leaving me with a constant feeling of inadequacy that spilled over into my day job as an engineer. Out of the blue, one balmy morning on the western coast of India, being the sane and rational person that I am, I decided exactly what I was going to do – I quit a promising engineering career to study special education.

Over the course of the next year, quite by accident, my journey in behavior analysis began. A small mention of positive behavior support in my special education course led me to enroll in the online graduate training program in Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas. As I began to study and practice behavior analysis, I found myself more and more drawn to human behavior and radical behaviorism. I felt large and powerful, in a sense, like the proverbial giants from children's books: The principles that I was learning about in class and from textbooks actually worked in real life! With my course work and the mentorship of my incredible supervisors, I found that the systematic application of behavioral principles could lead to socially significant change. Subsequently, I qualified as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and started my private practice offering ABA services to families of children with autism.

I chanced upon EABA's call for paper submissions, and decided to attend their conference in Enna in Italy in 2016. I like to think that this was a turning point in my life. For the first time in my career, I was in a room with more behavior analysts than I could count with my fingers. It opened me to the wide array of applications of behavior analysis and gave me the opportunity to listen to Doug Greer, Wayne Fuqua, and multiple other behavior analysts in person.

A chance encounter at the conference with Dr. Tara Fahmie served as the impetus for a collaboration that is still ongoing. With her guidance, we decided to undertake a dissemination project in India offering caregiver training for handling challenging behaviors in children with developmental disabilities. India is a region where behavior analysis is still in its infancy, and there is a dire need for greater access to behavior analytic services for children. With the support of a grant from the BACB's Committee of Philanthropy, we were able to offer our function-based assessments and intervention training to over 600 individuals in the Chennai metropolitan region in the south of India. This project, which has since been peer reviewed and published, also led me to develop a keen interest in the cultural adaptations that may be required for the international dissemination of ABA services.

Working with Dr. Fahmie and learning from her was instrumental in my decision to pursue an academic career. In 2018, I decided to move to Belgium to pursue a PhD in Psychology at Ghent University under the advisement of Prof. Herbert Roeyers. My PhD research focusses on early social behaviors in children with autism and those at elevated likelihood for autism. Most recently, I completed a randomized clinical trial evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention to teach social referencing to children with autism, comprised of multiple exemplar training and prompting. During the course of this study, I had the opportunity to interact with, and train clinical psychologists and speech therapists at early intervention centres in Belgium to implement behavior analytic procedures. These interactions convinced me of the value of collaboration in my education and practice as a behavior analyst.

My professional journey so far has led me to discover new things, appreciate and be awed by the role of behavioral science in the world. I hope to continue to work on fascinating topics, collaborate with others, and disseminate and contribute to the science of behavior analysis. I know there will be challenges, but as Skinner famously said, the real mistake would be to stop trying.

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