A professor and clinical psychologist spoke to students about how applied behavioral analysis (ABA) can help those on the autism spectrum.

This past Thursday, the Student Psychological Association (SPA) collaborated with the Association for Applied Behavioral Sciences (AABS) to host Jennifer Gillis Mattson — a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Binghamton University — to speak with students on BU’s psychology track.

Gillis Mattson began her presentation by sharing how she entered the field and current area of research. She later went on to describe her research in applied behavioral science, and how she applies it at the Institute for Child Development at BU.

One issue Gillis Mattson discussed was how, through her research, she observed many children on the autism spectrum who were fearful of medical staff and treatment. She explained the methods she used to help address this fear.

“We took an assessment of which procedures children were avoidant of and what aspect of that medical procedure,” Gillis Mattson said. “Depending on the child, we had a video model to show them the step-by-step procedure of what was going to happen during it. For some kids, just showing that videotape was enough for them to move on with the procedure. For other kids, it wasn’t enough. In other instances, a nurse would come by and — let’s say the child had a fear of the stethoscope — just showing a child the stethoscope, letting them feel it, play with it, watch it being used and then seeing when the child could tolerate it, then it went on them.”

According to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, for children on the autism spectrum, doctor visits can be a stressful experience, considering children are often separated from their parents and may have sensory issues in response to the new environment.

Jason Tang, an organizer of the event, the president of the SPA and a senior majoring in psychology, said the event’s purpose was to inform students majoring in psychology about the opportunities available to them. The majority of students in attendance were on BU’s psychology track.

“We have hopes to raise more awareness of the Autism Spectrum Disorder track that [BU] has to offer for undergraduate students in the psychology major,” Tang wrote in an email. “With a lot of new psychology majors not being fully aware of what opportunities and occupations that can come from their majors, we hope to give new students more inspiration and hope for their professional futures, since most psychology majors have a preconception that psych majors mainly go into clinical/health psychology to become a therapist or a psychologist.”

After some time, Gillis Mattson opened up the floor for attendees, in-person and through Zoom, to ask her questions. One student asked Gillis Mattson about common misconceptions in the ABA field. ABA is a form of therapy used to help those on the autism spectrum, according to Gillis Mattson.

Gillis Mattson responded by describing ABA’s purpose, listing a few common misconceptions regarding the field.

“How do you change public perceptions when, in our ethics code, we can’t use testimonials?” Gillis Mattson said. “I can’t use parents’ testimonials to show how great their experience was with ABA. We are also very poor at marketing ourselves and disseminating all the good that we do. This is because none of us are in this to sell it to people, or convince you why this is good.”

Derek Order, vice president of the AABS and a junior majoring in psychology, said this portion of the event was a significant takeaway for him.

“She emphasized how ABA is an expanding field and that there are so many job opportunities,” Order said. “I plan on going into that field, possibly becoming a school psychologist. I also want to study behavioral analysis, and so it’s nice to hear the field is expanding.”

Gillis Mattson ended the event by reminding students of the importance of empathy when researching autism.

“It’s important that we approach anyone that we come into contact with with a lot of compassion and empathy,” Gillis Mattson said. “It’s important to be willing to be more open-minded about our assumptions and biases.”