Tara Rodas was halfway into her psychology degree at Capilano University when she was presented with the opportunity to work with a child with autism. Tara’s instructor, Cara Zaskow, was looking for a student interested in behavioral intervention to work with a young client, and Tara—keen to try something new—responded.

“I was on track to finishing my degree so I could go into the teaching program,” says Tara. “But there was a little bit of reservation—something didn’t feel exactly right. As soon as I started doing [behavioral intervention], it felt right.”

Seeing Tara’s aptitude for working with people with special needs, Cara gave her some career-altering advice and encouraged Tara to apply for the Applied Behavior Analysis-Autism (ABA) program.

Tara has since graduated and become a board-certified assistant behavioural analyst, landed a full-time position with the Canucks Autism Network, and is now working towards her MA in Special Education-Autism and Developmental Disabilities at UBC.

Finding her calling

Although the behavioral interventionist position was her first professional experience, Tara had already been thinking about working with children with special needs. While pregnant with her son, she was struck by the thought that he could be born with developmental disabilities.

But rather than feel worried about this possibility, Tara was overcome with a sense of purpose and conviction that she could provide the necessary care.

“I thought, ‘You know, I think I could do it—I could be an advocate,’” says Tara. “I felt very overwhelmed and emotional about that thought—that if that happens, I could do it.”

This natural inclination to work with children with special needs made the ABA program a strong fit for Tara. She applied without hesitation and knew she had made the right choice after meeting her first student with autism.

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“I realized that working in the field of ABA, you’re teaching different skills all the time and making really meaningful change,” says Tara. “It was the a-ha moment that this is really what I should be doing.”

Autism on the rise

The increasing incidence of autism was first noticed in the early 2000s. However, there remains a pressing need for specially-trained clinicians to work with these students.

“Right now in B.C., there are well over 7,000 children receiving funding for autism treatment and there aren’t enough certified behavioral analysts to serve them all,” says ABA program instructor, Richard Stock.

The same is true across Canada. In Ontario, there are currently more than 16,000 children on waitlists for autism services.

The ABA program was created in direct response to this growing need by two Cap U instructors—one of whom was similarly experiencing the challenge of finding professional support for her own son.

When it began in 2008, the program was the only one of its kind in Western Canada. Cap is currently the only school in Canada offering a Bachelor of Arts in ABA with a concentration in autism.

“Applied behavioral analysis is the most empirically-supported treatment of autism,” says Richard. As such, the course teaches the science of behavior analysis with a focus on applications specific for autism.

Into the field

The program also includes a 500-hour supervised intensive practicum, which runs throughout a student’s last year. For her practicum, Tara worked as an assistant behaviour analyst at Pals Autism School, an independent school for children with autism.

While she worked directly with one child in her first placement, in this new role Tara was responsible for writing and implementing the behavioral plans for four students of differing developmental abilities.

“It was the most rigorous experience of ABA that I think I could have possibly received,” Tara says, adding that it’s this hands-on component of the program that makes it stand out against other schools.

This practical experience is also required to be eligible to sit the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board exams. Therefore, students who complete Cap’s ABA program are equipped with the experience and education necessary to pursue board certification immediately after graduation.

Tara also took every opportunity to immerse herself in the ABA field outside of the classroom.

She attended the Association for Behavioral Analysis International (ABAI) Convention for three consecutive years and, in 2013, organized a panel discussion on working with families as the student representative for Capilano University. She is the first undergraduate student to have arranged an event of that size for the international ABA community.

What comes next?

Tara’s passion for the ABA field has continued to push her to reach new heights. After noticing a lack of programming for young adults with autism, she has partnered with the Canucks Autism Network and the UBC Department of Kinesiology to develop a fitness training program for her MA thesis.

Her research involves a 30-person randomized control trial—the first of its kind in her department—to determine what impact a fitness training program could have on young adults with autism. This attention to the needs of the autism community is something she learned in Cap U’s ABA program.

Tara’s thesis work is just the latest advancement in her ABA career, and the future holds many possibilities. Although she loves her work with the Canucks Autism Network, she also hasn’t ruled out pursuing a PhD to further her research.

With each new experience, Tara says she reflects back on her time at Cap and the support she received from her instructors. “They really care about their students. They take you into the Capilano family and keep trying to help you with the development of your career.”

Submitted by Communications & Marketing, written by Natalie Walters

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