An Interview with Michelle Kelly, PhD, BCBA-D, C. Psychol., Ps. S. I., Associate Professor, Counseling, Special Education and Neuroscience Division, at the Emirates College of Advanced Education (ECAE)

Part 2 of this interview can be found here.

Conducted by Lina Slim, PhD, BCBA-D, CCC-SLP

Dr. Michelle Kelly - Interview

Dr. Michelle Kelly

I had the great pleasure to interview Dr. Michelle Kelly and learn about her extensive work and efforts in disseminating the science of behavior analysis in the Middle East and especially in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Dr. Kelly is a Chartered Psychologist and President of ABA-UAE. She is an Associate Professor in the Counseling, Special Education, and Neuroscience Division at Emirates College for Advanced Education (ECAE) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Dr. Kelly is the Program Coordinator for the newly established Postgraduate Diploma in ABA and Master of Education in ABA programs at ECAE, and has received many important awards, including the International Development Grant from the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis, USA, for her work in coordinating the translation of seminal behavior analytic literature from English to Standard Arabic, and an International Dissemination Grant from the Dissemination of Behavior Analysis- Special Interest Group of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) with three of her undergraduate ABA students for a project entitled, “ABA-UAE: An Arabic Resource Hub.”

ASAT’s international interviews are integral to our mission and commitment to disseminating and improving access to accurate information about autism and scientifically validated autism treatment around the world. We are thankful that Dr. Kelly has offered to share her extensive contributions in improving the understanding and reach of the science of behavior analysis in the Middle East, especially in the UAE. Readers will enjoy learning from her experiences and gaining a deep appreciation for the importance of embracing cultural considerations to promote access to accurate information and best practices in autism treatment.

My interview with Dr. Kelly will be comprised of Part 1 and Part 2. Dr. Kelly’s extensive contributions to the science of behavior analysis in the Middle East within a culturally sensitive framework will be highlighted with a historical perspective of her dissemination efforts. The second part of our interview can be found here.

Lina: Dr. Kelly, can you share with us the path that led you into the field of autism and applied behavior analysis (ABA)?

Michelle: After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Psychology from the University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland, I really wanted to travel. In order to achieve this, I got my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) diploma and spent 4 years teaching children, adolescents, and adults, with and without special education needs, in Tanzania, East Africa; Melbourne, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; and Barcelona, Spain. Exploring options of combining my psychology degree with my new-found love of teaching led me to ABA. I returned to Ireland to complete graduate training in the science at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and wished to apply what I was learning within an ABA center. I began working at a wonderful school for children with autism called Abacas in Kilbarrack, Dublin. Here, I completed my supervised independent fieldwork and learned about the positive impact of using evidence-based intervention for students on the autism spectrum.

Lina: We can all appreciate the impact of using applied behavior analysis for student on the autism spectrum here at ASAT as we continue to advocate for effective and science-based autism treatment. It sounds like your early career involved significant world travel. Can you tell us why you chose to focus your international work in the Middle East?

Michelle: I submitted my PhD thesis in September 2012 and, the very next day, I moved to Jeddah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I have lived in the Middle East ever since! Interestingly, I was recruited for that job via LinkedIn. I jumped at the chance for a new experience in an area of the globe that I had never managed to visit, as well as the opportunity of a faculty position so early in my career.

I was hired as a lecturer in ABA at Dar Al Hekma University, an institution of higher education for women, which offered the first Verified Course Sequence (VCS) in ABA in the country. I greatly enjoyed teaching in the autism track of this undergraduate special education degree program where students completed their placements at Jeddah Institute for Speech and Hearing, supervised by my fantastic colleague, Ms. Mona Al-Haddad, BCBA. I spent two years working at this university and was delighted to help establish ABA-Saudi Arabia, the affiliated chapter of the ABAI, with many exceptional behavior analysts including Dr. Susan Ainsleigh, BCBA-D, LABA, who had initially established the VCS at Dar Al Hekmah.

It was during my time in Saudi Arabia that I was the recipient of the International Development Grant from the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis, where I was tasked with coordinating the translation of seminal behavior analytic literature from English to Standard Arabic. It was my pleasure to work with Ms. Al-Haddad and a large, enthusiastic team, who worked incredibly hard to develop a glossary of behavior analytic terms and translated important documents of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB), including their former ethics code and task list.

So, I moved to the Middle East by accident, really. Living and working in Saudi Arabia certainly had its challenges, but I greatly enjoyed learning and adapting to a vastly different culture in my first full-time academic post. I had the opportunity to work with great colleagues and students who were very dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with autism across the spectrum in Jeddah. I found it really interesting to see how the field was being developed in the region, and I thought it was an excellent opportunity to get involved and to help to build local capacity to continue this work.

Lina: We applaud your efforts to build sustainable, culturally sensitive practices through such extensive translation efforts. I am confident that the Arabic resources will help establish sustainable practices and promote dissemination. This aligns with ASAT’s commitment to ensure that effective treatment is accessible to all families worldwide. Can you talk about your journey to establishing the graduate programs in ABA at ECAE?

Michelle: In 2014, I moved to a neighboring country of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has a total population of just under 10 million. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are just two of six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with the others including the Kingdom of Bahrain, the State of Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, and the State of Qatar. The UAE is a federation of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah, with the three largest emirates – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah – home to nearly 85% of the population.

Once in the UAE, I established the first VCS in the country at Emirates College for Advanced Education (ECAE) in Abu Dhabi. Emirati students completing their Bachelor of Education were offered the choice to select an ABA concentration, which consisted of four courses in ABA teaching concepts and principles, behavior assessment, behavior change procedures, and ethics. This allowed them to meet the coursework requirements for the Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) credential. The concentration also offered the chance to accrue supervised fieldwork in an intensive practicum at the Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Special Education Operated by The New England Center for Children (MRC-NECC), an ABA center which provides educational services to UAE National children with autism and related disorders. Dr. Daniel Gould, BCBA-D, the Executive Director of MRC-NECC, as well as my former colleague at ECAE, Dr. Lilly Tennant, were both instrumental in advocating for the inclusion of an ABA program at ECAE. Without them, this remarkable feat may not yet have been accomplished.

As ECAE’s vision and mission evolved, the undergraduate program was phased out in 2020, and the college is now focused on the development of its continuing education center and graduate program offerings. This includes a one-year Postgraduate Diploma in ABA and a two-year Master of Education in ABA, both of which contain ABAI VCSs. Plans are also underway to offer a 4-year PhD in ABA. All of these programs are delivered in English across two campuses in the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Ajman. I am delighted that our ABA team continues to grow steadily with the international recruitment of Dr. Clodagh Murray, BCBA-D from Ireland, and Dr. Sarah Mead Jasperse, BCBA-D from the USA.

The ABA team at ECAE is extremely proud of our first two cohorts of students. The students in the first cohort have completed all of their coursework and are working on their research theses this semester. They have been incredibly resilient during these challenging times and will undoubtedly represent the college very well as they embark on their various careers. We look forward to seeing the exciting turns their careers will take. We hope to see the first UAE-trained behavior analysts in the coming years – a crucial mission for our program – in order that culturally sensitive support be provided to families of individuals with autism into the future.

Last semester, our MEd students completed a series of dissemination projects as part of their coursework, and we are looking forward to sharing these with you all shortly when we officially publish our new website, which was funded in part by the International Dissemination Grant from the ABAI’s Dissemination of Behavior Analysis- Special Interest Group. This Arabic resource hub proposal was generated by the final cohort of undergraduate students under my supervision and we are very excited to share this website with you all in 2021.

Lina: It was wonderful to learn of your journey establishing the graduate programs in ABA at ECAE. The program you developed will set the stage for and prepare young professionals entering the field to provide quality effective interventions and promote dissemination efforts of the science of ABA. I look forward to Part 2 of our interview, where you share more about your perspectives regarding cultural considerations, how individuals with autism are viewed in the UAE and the region, and what autism treatment is like in the UAE.

Citation for this article:

Slim, L. (2021). Part 1 of a 2 part interview with Dr. Michelle Kelly. Science in Autism Treatment, 18(2).

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