May 26, 2019  

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Dr. Jim Moore

As director of Southern Miss’s Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Master's Program, psychology professor Dr. Jim Moore is playing a key role in training its graduate students to become board certified behavior analysts and deliver services for individuals diagnosed with autism and other disabilities. He took time recently to share with Southern Miss Now specifics about the program and the positive impact it’s making.

Q: Describe the Applied Behavior Analysis Program. What is its origin, purpose and desired outcomes for both clients and purposes of research?

A: The USM ABA Program is a five-semester program that prepares students for the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) exam to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Our curriculum and supervised experiences have both been pre-approved by the BACB, so students are eligible for the exam on the day their degree is confirmed. The program is general in its nature, meaning that the basic principles of behavior analysis are taught in a way applicable to all individuals, regardless of diagnosis, age, etc.

The origin of the program is deeply rooted in the passage of House Bill 885 in Mississippi. This bill accomplished two major things related to ABA: 885 mandated that insurance companies must cover ABA services for individuals with autism (which creates the need for BCBAs in Mississippi), and established a licensure board to regulate the practice of behavior analysis in Mississippi. Now the term “behavior analyst” is legally protected, much like the term “psychologist.” You must have a state-issued license to refer to yourself as a behavior analyst.

The desired outcomes of the program focus on the production of highly competent behavior analysts who collect structured data, which they use to guide decision-making in the treatment process. Although the focus of our program is training behavior analysts, the clients we serve benefit from the provision of effective ABA services offered in an affordable manner. Our research runs the gamut of problems ABA can address: language acquisition in children with autism, parent training, skill acquisition, and even topics such as training college students to effectively interview and teach young soccer players to correctly execute safe headers. Our students have already published book chapters and articles in such prestigious journals as the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Behavior Analysis in Practice, and the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

Q: The occurrence of autism diagnoses has increased in the U.S. For those who may not understand or be familiar with it, what are early warning signs, and to what do you attribute the cause in the increase of those being diagnosed with it?

A: The two-year-old well check-up is a crucial time for parents to talk about specific developmental milestones with their child’s pediatrician. For example, does the child respond to his or her name, does the child use words to communicate his or her wants and needs, has the child started playing in a reciprocal manner with peers, and other questions related to communication and social functioning. Many children engage in some of the repetitive, stereotypic behaviors that are often seen in children with autism, so the differences in language and social communication are important to focus on at this young age. If the child has limited eye contact and does not respond to his or her name around 16-18 months old, the parents may wish to consult with a licensed psychologist even before the two-year-old well check-up.

The truth is that we really cannot explain the increasing prevalence of autism because we still do not know what causes it in the first place. Some attribute the increase to a greater focus on early-warning signs and improved assessment techniques, but these are all truly guesses at the present moment.

Q: How has autism treatment evolved over time?

A: ABA therapy has evolved significantly over the last 50 years. Ivar Lovaas was the pioneer in offering early intensive behavioral interventions to young children with autism based on a technique called Discreet Trials Training (DTT). Many people incorrectly assume that DTT is all that is involved in ABA therapy. Naturalistic methods, such as Naturalistic Environmental Teaching, Precision Teaching, Incidental Teaching, and stimulus equivalence teaching are all empirically validated methods to use in early intervention programs with children with autism. We have learned through research that nonprofessionals, even family members, can deliver these services with a high degree of accuracy as long as a BCBA guides the process. This has allowed our field to deliver high volume treatment in an economical manner that is quite unique within mental health.

Major advances have been made in the assessment and treatment of problem behaviors, such as self-injurious behaviors, aggression, stereotypy, and ritualistic behavior have also been made, hallmarked by a functional approach to assessment. In short, therapists should learn why these problems are happening and then target a specific and individual intervention that addresses this function. This is much different than other approaches that often select treatment based on the description of the behavior, or a diagnostic category.

A major change outside of ABA therapy has been the crusade to weed out pseudoscience in the treatment of autism. As more research is conducted, parents will become better equipped to make the best treatment decisions possible for their children. Education is the key, as pseudoscience is still wide-spread in the field.

Q: Discuss how ABA training helps graduates provide services for others who may not have autism, but have a disability that can be alleviated from an ABA-trained practitioner.

A: ABA training just makes your life better. For example, I am very scattered, and would often lose and misplace important items, such as my keys, wallet, etc. Through self-management technique, based on ABA principles, I now rarely lose anything.

One exciting and fairly recent development in ABA training has been the development of Relational Frame Theory and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, based on the work of Steven Hayes, who was here in the spring as our Hildman Colloquium scholar. ACT Therapy has shown incredible promise in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and phobias, to name a few. The literature also contains a plethora of effective treatments for other issues, such as ADHD, Conduct Disorder, Dyslexia, and numerous others.

Q: Recently, the USM ABA program partnered with Pine Belt Mental Healthcare Resources to provide a scholarship and internship for qualified applicants who are in the program. Talk about the benefits of this partnership for both entities and the scholarship/internship recipients.

A: The obvious benefit to the students who have gone through the partnership is the provision of a scholarship that pays for tuition and gives the student a monthly stipend. This partnership also solidified an already strong relationship between the Department of Psychology and Pine Belt Mental Healthcare Resources. Students from other programs, such as the Counseling and Clinical Ph.D. programs, have served in Pine Belt settings for years. Now, the ABA Program adds to the capacity of Pine Belt to deliver services to a wide array of children and families. Over time, this partnership will help establish a thriving ABA Clinic within Pine Belt, as well as providing a practicum site for students in the ABA Program.

Q: What attracted you to this field? What are its benefits and challenges?

A: Well, I never intended to enter this field. In 1995, I was a music education major here at USM, under the close watch of Dr. John Wooton and (now) Provost Moser. That summer, I enrolled in educational psychology, taught by Drs. Dan Tingstrom and Joe Olmi (who is now the Department Chair). In that class, I was introduced to the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner, and it made complete sense to me. I realized I had stumbled upon a technology that was literally limitless in its potential to help people. After class, I would bug Dr. Tingstrom or Dr. Olmi and they would placate my interest with another Skinner book to read. By the end of the summer, I was hooked. In 1997, I entered the behavioral School Psychology Ph.D. Program at USM, and then completed a pre-doctoral internship that allowed me to be trained by the best of the best. I consider myself so fortunate to have experienced such outstanding training.

One challenge I think potential students face right now is one of identity. Many fields want to claim ABA as its own, including psychology, special education, and curriculum and instruction. You can receive ABA training in each of those fields, including specific degree programs just for behavior analysis. The truth, in my humble opinion, is that behavior analysis is now a stand-alone field. Students should carefully research programs and determine which offer the best training experiences.

The benefits are too many to count. You work in a field where you not only try to help people, but see the tangible evidence of their improved quality of life every day. My favorite thing is hearing a child tell his or her parent “I love you” for the first time.

Q: What is the future of the program? Do you see innovations down the road that can advance trained practitioners, both in the implementation of new best practices, or in technology advancements?

A: Based on our applications each year, the future is bright. One neat advance I see coming is the inclusion of ABA therapy embedded in virtual and mixed reality formats. The science of human behavior will greatly benefit from an ever-evolving technology to support it. The future is bright and exciting.