Conducted by David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
David: We are all very excited to have you join our Board and look forward to the collaboration that lies ahead. I am grateful for this opportunity to have you respond to some questions for our readers! Please share some details about your career path and how you became involved in autism treatment.
Laura: As an undergraduate student at Louisiana State University (LSU), I was fortunate enough to take my first behavior analysis courses from Dr. Dorothy Lerman. Learning about the scientific study of human behavior and its application to people with disabilities ignited a strong interest in behavior analysis because it was a perfect mix of science and a helping profession. Shortly after taking my first course in behavior analysis, I started working as a behavior interventionist with a child with autism in a school setting. Over time, I observed him become more independent, engage in fewer problem behaviors, and better connect with his siblings and parents. These observations of improvement gave me a true sense of purpose and solidified my commitment to behavior analysis and autism treatment as a career.
After graduating from LSU, I pursued a graduate education in behavior analysis for my master’s and doctoral degrees at Georgia State University and Western Michigan University, respectively. During my graduate education, I had the opportunity to work in specialized clinics for people with autism including the Severe Problem Behavior at the Marcus Autism Center and the Center for Autism at Western Michigan University. There were a number of research groups in the specialized clinics in which I worked during my graduate education. Participating in these research labs gave me the opportunity to see how clinical challenges can help inform and inspire research questions and how clinicians can use the results of research projects to improve services for people with autism in their setting and beyond through dissemination efforts.
Observing the direct connection between applied research and service delivery steered me in the direction of pursuing an academic career in behavior analysis. I worked in several university-based programs where my primary responsibility was to train and mentor future clinicians and run an applied research lab. My favorite aspect of being a professor was working with students who were interested in pursuing a career in behavior analysis and seeing them progress. My time as a professor was incredibly rewarding but I felt like there was something missing.
Right before I transitioned to Garden Academy, I realized that I wanted to be more closely connected to the service delivery aspect of autism services but still make an impact through research and dissemination. My position at Garden Academy is a perfect fit for me because it provides me with opportunities to observe the positive changes in our students over time and to work on an applied research program that will help inform clinical service delivery for people with autism in the future.
David: It sounds like you have had a diverse array of positions over the last several years. With respect to your current role at Garden Academy, how long have you been there and what is a typical day like as its Executive Director? What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your work?
Laura: I’ve served as the Executive Director of Garden Academy for almost 3 years and I’ve come to learn that there is no typical day as an Executive Director! Each day is dynamic but there are a set of core activities that I work on each week. Typical activities include managing the business and finances of Garden Academy, arranging for training opportunities for our staff, mentoring and collaborating with our senior leadership team, engaging in dissemination efforts at local events and professional conferences, and building new programs that better support the New Jersey autism community. One of the most challenging aspects of my job is saying no to really cool projects that may not align with Garden Academy’s current goals. Taking on too many projects or projects that don’t align with the organization’s goals can negatively affect my ability to complete mission-critical projects and activities that benefit our students and staff the most.
David: We can certainly appreciate that challenge here at ASAT as we also have to make hard decisions about where and when to allocate our resources. What advice do you have for other behavior analytic center-based programs?
Laura: Behavior analysts rarely take courses or have experience in business administration or how to design and implement systems changes in human service settings. However, organizational leaders are positioned to make changes to constantly improve the services of their clients and the work experience of their employees. Systems changes can be challenging for employees, clients, and the families of our clients. Leaders benefit from developing a capacity for using organizational behavior management guide systems changes to achieve the best results possible. The second piece of advice is for leaders to invest time and resources in the people who work in their organization. Leaders who understand their supervisees’ career goals, interests, and talents can help position them to accomplish their goals while benefiting the whole organization and, most importantly, their clients.
David: What are your future goals for the Garden Academy?
Laura: Like most states, New Jersey is underprepared to adequately serve the needs of adults with autism as well as people with autism who engage in severe problem behavior. More than a third of Garden Academy’s students will age out of our program in the next 5 years. Their families are challenged with finding a quality adult program where their child will continue to learn skills that foster independence, happiness, and safety. Over the next few years, we will build a set of services to address two core needs of people with autism in New Jersey: an adult day program and a clinic for the assessment and treatment of severe problem behavior.
David: Have you had any families that were also undertaking other treatments for autism that had no or weak scientific basis? What (if anything) did you do?
Laura: Unfortunately, adopting approaches with little to no scientific support is more common than we’d like to admit. It’s important to acknowledge that families are doing the best they can and trying to make decisions they feel are right for their family. When a family is considering an approach with no scientific support, they may have concerns about something their current treatment isn’t addressing at all or adequately from their perspective. This is a valuable opportunity for clinicians to discuss any concerns the family may have about their child’s ongoing treatment and to discuss modifying or starting new programs that might better address the family’s need while possibly circumventing the need to try a pseudoscientific approach. If the family is going to start a pseudoscientific approach and it isn’t dangerous or potentially harmful, I might offer to design a data collection system to help the family objectively evaluate the possible effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the pseudoscientific approach. If the intervention is known to be dangerous, I will present the family with information about the potential harmful effects of the approach in a respectful and compassionate manner while focusing how the current intervention could be modified to better address the family’s concerns.
David: I really appreciate your perspective on how to best respond to families considering other approaches. This is very aligned with ASAT. How did you learn about ASAT and how have you used our resources over the years?
Laura: I learned about ASAT early on in my doctoral training at Western Michigan University in a discussion about evidence-based practice in one of my courses about autism. Over the years, I’ve used resources from ASAT in several ways. First, when families receive their child’s diagnosis, they often turn to the internet to find out more information about autism and different therapeutic approaches. Searching online can be daunting and much of the information is unreliable or of insufficient quality. Within the context of working at diagnostic clinics, I’ve provided information about ASAT to families to make it easier to find accurate, science-based information about autism and therapeutic approaches. Second, I have used several of the topical articles and information from the savvy consumer section in my undergraduate autism courses so students become more familiar with ASAT and its resources. Third, if a family is considering an ineffective or potentially harmful approach, I’ve referred them to ASAT’s savvy consumer section to read about those approaches to help frame conversations with them.
David: It is wonderful to see how our resources have supported your work over the years. What led to your decision to accept our nomination to the board?
Laura: ASAT’s mission speaks to me as a professional. ASAT shares accurate, scientifically sound, and easily understandable information about autism intervention to parents and practitioners. ASAT’s work is so critical given the increase in misinformation and pseudoscience in discussions about interventions for people with autism. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with such an accomplished group of people and contribute to ASAT’s dissemination efforts.
David: Thank you Dr. Grow for a wonderful interview. On behalf of the board of Directors and our incredible team of volunteers, we look forward to working with you in the months ahead.
Citation for this article:
Celiberti, D. (2020). An interview with Dr. Laura Grow. Science in Autism Treatment 17(2).