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New autism course from SKILD and US behavioral expert big hit with students

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An approach to helping children with autism taught in the USA for half a century is starting to take off in Lebanon, thanks to LSESD and SKILD.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the scientific study of human behavior to help change behavior in a meaningful way.  ABA has been used in the USA for behavior modification for over 50 years. Today, it is a common practice used in schools, homes, and clinical settings throughout the country. “It is recognized as the most effective research-based methodology to alter behavior, enhance quality of life and social interaction, as well as to target complex skills, such as reading, conversing and understanding another person’s perspective,” says Dr Tonia Crane, an ABA expert from Missouri Baptist University. “In addition, families who receive intensive ABA support report a greater reduction in daily stress.”

Crane has seen directly how effective ABA practices are. “I have had nonverbal children with autism who receive intense ABA therapy three times a week and within six months of therapy, not only do they begin communicating, but there is also a significant improvement in their ability to maintain eye contact, listening to instruction, and with peer interactions,” she says.

Since July 2013, Crane has been sharing her ABA knowledge with SKILD and education practitioners in Lebanon. She was invited by the President of Oklahoma Baptist University, David Whitlock, who knew of her passion for children with special needs and her expertise in the field of autism/behavior, to help design a model school in the Middle East for children with special needs. Inspired by the project, Dr Crane said yes! She has been assisting SKILD on her visits to Lebanon by evaluating children thought to be on the autism spectrum, writing recommendations and behavioral plans, training staff at SKILD on evaluations and screening tools, developing behavioral strategies to use when providing therapy to children with Attention Deficit Disorder, and leading ABA training to SKILD professionals, teachers, and administrators in the field of special education.

In 2014, she helped SKILD develop a screening tool to use in the public school sector to identify students who are at risk of learning differences. The screening results helped SKILD staff target those schools and classes in need of additional resources and training to effectively meet the needs of all students.

This July, thanks to LSESD Executive Director Nabil Costa and SKILD, Tonia Crane started a new ABA course in Beirut, which she has developed with Haigazian University. It is being offered to undergraduate students at the university who have a background in and are majoring in education, and to education and psychology majors at the graduate level. The course aims to enable them to develop strategies to help address classroom behaviors.  Students were taught by Crane for one week at the university campus, and will complete the rest of the course online. 

Dr Crane has been amazed by her students’ response to the course.

“The students were so engaged in learning! There was no comparison to any course I’ve taught at the collegiate level in the USA in the last 8 years,” she says.

Dr Crane is hopeful that an advanced level course will be offered at Haigazian University in 2017 for those students interested in furthering their knowledgebase and applying the concepts to real life experiences.  Teaching the students has been personally enriching for her.

“This was a rich experience and I will always cherish the relationships that emerged as a result.   Each and every student has a special place in my heart and it was an honor to have the opportunity to teach them.”

She is thankful to Missouri Baptist University president Alton Lacey and Provost Arlan Dykstra for their support of her work with SKILD. The leadership of Nabil Costa and Hiba Jamal (SKILD Center Director), has also been invaluable. She says the impact Nabil and Hiba and the SKILD team have made, not only on allowing the ABA course to happen at Haigazian University, but also in developing support for children with learning differences in Lebanon, has been significant.

“Hiba continues to amaze me with her passion for the field, leadership abilities, vision, and earnestness,” says Crane. “I’ve watched the center grow under her leadership and see the relationships that she has built with her team at SKILD, professionals in the field, and the families that she serves. 

“Nabil saw a need for ABA in Lebanon and without him I would not have had this opportunity.  It is his vision and perseverance that has significantly changed the realm of ABA and inclusion in Lebanon. It is breath-taking to look at where they are today and where they were 3 years ago, when I began.  SKILD is lighting the path for a brighter future for children with special needs and to be a small part of their journey is a blessing than is unmeasurable.” 

This article is based on an interview with Dr. Tonia Crane conducted by Chris Hall.

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