Faculty Spotlight

Reaching Across the Spectrum with Judah Axe, Professor of Behavior Analysis

Much of your research is focused on autism in children. What inspired this focus?

When I was a rising college senior in the summer of 1999, I happened upon a job at a summer camp as a one-on-one aide to a 13 year old boy with autism. Although he had limited communication, excessive anxiety, and sensory challenges, he had some savant skills, which fascinated me — he could make balloon animals, and he learned to play piano without being taught. In my last year of college, I worked for a program serving children with autism, learning about effective ways to teach them. The first agency I worked in after college sent me to many conferences and trainings, and a workshop on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) stood out to me, showing how effective ABA was with teaching communication, social skills, and reducing challenging behaviors. I said, that's what I want to study and do with my life! I went on to graduate school and my PhD, studying applied behavior analysis and special education.

We call autism a spectrum disorder, and a lot of kids I work with are on the severe end of the spectrum: non-verbal, aggressive and, at times, self-injurious. Applied Behavior Analysis, as a field, focuses more on this end of the spectrum. I'm also interested in people on the higher-functioning end; people you wouldn't know have autism, but certain situations are challenging for them, social skills are difficult, and they have some intense interests. There are a lot of people at that end and we need to keep developing ways to help them. Before teaching at Simmons, a lot of my work was consulting: I would go into a home or classroom and work with the parent or teacher on strategies to improve the students' skills. I've worked in a variety of public school districts, helping teachers, principals, and therapists.

For the 13 years I've been at Simmons, I've continued to serve and do research to improve how we teach children who have autism and related disabilities. We're certainly better at identifying it and accepting autistic students into public schools, more so than we were 30-40 years ago. Parents and other advocates have fought for public schools to provide services, and in the last ten years they've fought for insurance companies to offer reimbursements for treatments. That has allowed more avenues of research, and allowed these kids to get help from highly trained people.

Students assist in your research - what can you share about this process?

Simmons has a PhD program in ABA, and I work collaboratively with the students on research projects. They often have a particular interest in work I've published before, so with my help, they design studies to extend the research, and that turns into their PhD dissertation. We also present and publish what we've learned whenever possible, which is important for sharing new techniques and procedures with others. I have some ABA master's students also interested in getting involved with research, as well.

I love the research and writing process, so I focus much of my time on that. I co-authored the tenth edition of a textbook on ABA, and it was exciting to contribute to what a lot of students are learning in college classrooms, beyond Simmons.

What is your goal in your current research?

Right now, one of my research interests is discovering ways that adolescents with autism can use technology to answer questions. If they have a problem — like discussing with friends or family what to pack for a trip — they can look at a weather app to see what the forecast will be where they are going. Looking up information on apps is a pivotal skill to learn, and can help them with independence and problem solving. There are many applications of teaching problem solving using technology with academic and social skills, as well.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your research?

In our studies, a PhD student is generally working directly with a child with autism in a clinical setting, or instructing a teacher on how to implement the sessions. The pandemic put a halt to conducting in-person sessions with kids, so we got crafty and started setting up research sessions over Zoom. Beyond that, we've put more time and effort into writing and publishing literature reviews, particularly in the area of building motivation when working with students with autism.

As for the impact of the pandemic on kids with autism, I hear about many challenges from my graduate students, and I hope there are books and documentaries being made about this. With less verbal kids who need intensive communication intervention, you use your face and mouth to enunciate words, but wearing a mask really limits that. Isolation and social distancing can also go counter to the goal of increasing social skills. Given the sensory challenges of many autistic individuals, wearing a mask can be extremely uncomfortable, and I have several colleagues doing studies on how to get kids with autism to wear their masks. Also, anxiety is also a big part of autism; I once worked with a fourth grader who would get anxious about the weather, often looking out the window and commenting on the clouds in the sky. I can't imagine how kids like him are worrying about this global pandemic.

Do you have advice for Simmons students interested in studying ABA with children?

It's good to get experience working with children. Spend time directly teaching kids who may be severely impacted by their autism. Our master's program requires 1500 hours of supervised clinical work, so make sure you enjoy that type of work before you jump in!

ABA has applications beyond autism, including in business, general education, and behavioral medicine. Look into what kind of job opportunities there are. Behavior analysis is different from psychology and cognitive science, so make sure you know what you're getting into. Early in my career, I said I enjoyed working with kids with autism using the ABA approach because it's challenging, scientific — lots of data collection and analysis — and fun. It's a joy to work with kids and figure out ways to make improvements and help them progress.

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