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Sat, October 19, 2019

Meet a Roadrunner: Emily Corley is changing lives through research and service

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Meet Emily Corley. She is changing the lives of children with autism through her research and service at UTSA.

Emily came to UTSA to study psychology after spending 20 years in the hospitality industry. During one of her psychology classes, she told her professor about her interest in understanding why people do what they do, specifically how behavior works and how to help people in the real world. Soon thereafter, she began to volunteer in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) research, and is now an integral member of the Silbaugh Behavior Research Group (SBRG) in the Autism Research Center at the UTSA Downtown Campus.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects one in 59 children and is characterized by social and communication delays or deficits, and restricted and repetitive behaviors. These children experience difficulties with using and understanding language, benefiting from typical academic instruction, acquiring play skills, forming relationships, and many other aspects of life. Research has shown that individuals with autism can learn and experience large lasting improvements in quality of life through behavioral intervention using ABA. 

ABA is an evidence-based approach to intervention carried out by Board Certified Behavioral Analysts (BCBAs) in a variety of settings to address a wide variety of socially significant problems. Such settings include the education of individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities, improving traffic safety, reducing injuries in the workplace, improving independence and preserving dignity for the elderly, and training rats to sniff out land mines and tuberculosis. ABA is used in the workplace, in special and general education classrooms, and has even been used to train animals.

Corley became intrigued with ABA through her volunteer work in the Autism Research Center, where she helped to maintain the lab space and assist other lab members with their research. Later, she contacted Dr. Bryant Silbaugh, assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching and director of projects FEED, VARY, and CULTURE, in the SBRG to seek out additional research experiences. 

“After volunteering in the lab, my interest in working with children with autism grew even more,” Corley said. “I wanted to immerse myself into ABA and receive the supervision required to become a BCBA. Under the guidance of Dr. Silbaugh and SBRG I knew I would receive the in-depth training needed to achieve my goal. This experience has exposed me to more than I ever expected and has expanded my research interests.”

Corley started in SBRG by assisting Silbaugh in research on the assessment and treatment of challenging behavior in children with autism at a local clinic. Shortly after, she accepted an offer to conduct an original research study to identify motivating items and activities for children with autism.

This past spring, Corley presented her research at UTSA’s Spring 2018 Undergraduate Research Symposium and Creative Inquiry Showcase. She was awarded “Best in Show” for the College of Education and Human Development. 

“Presenting my work allowed me to develop my presentations skills in a field I have limited experience in,” said Corley. “It allowed me to inform individuals of the work we do within the Autism Research Center and SBRG. I was proud to present on preference assessments and how items or activities can function as reinforcers during instruction for children with autism.”

Since then, she has run an additional participant in the center and has initiated a literature synthesis in order to examine how researchers have used a specific type of preference assessment over the past 30 years. 

Some pediatric feeding disorders common in children with autism can include refusal to any or most liquids, causing significant distress to caregivers, and in some cases leading to dehydration. In addition, acceptance of new liquids can be nearly impossible to assess when they refuse to taste new liquids on sight alone, clench their teeth, or engage in challenging behavior. 

Most recently, Corley assisted Silbaugh in the development of an assessment that enabled them to identify multiple novel drinks that were consumed by such a child. This study was recently submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication and is currently under review. Corley will receive authorship for her many important contributions to the study. 

“I don’t know what we would do without Emily,” said Silbaugh. “Her contributions have been outstanding and are too numerous to list. Emily is becoming an outstanding scientist-practitioner and I am so excited to see she what she does next. We actually have an innovative video-based preference assessment study in the works. Our entire research group is excited for her.” 

In addition to her research, Corley also receives supervision hours under Silbaugh by providing six hours per week of free ABA services to a child with autism in the community. The hours she accumulates will ultimately enable her to take the exam to become a BCBA. 

“I never thought I would be changing careers so late in life,” said Corley. “This has been an experience that has exceeded all my expectations. I have had the opportunity to take what I learn and apply it in a clinical setting. It is the most rewarding thing to see when all of the hard work makes a difference in a child’s life.”

As a senior lab member, Corley will begin to mentor new lab members this year. Once Corley earns her degree, she will transition into UTSA’s Master’s of Arts in Special Education program with a concentration in ABA, and continue her work at the Autism Research Center. 

“As I am closing out my last semester as an undergraduate, I am eager and excited to start the master’s program,” Corley said. “I look forward to taking every opportunity I can to excel within my degree and become a BCBA. I also hope to inform other students about the exciting field of ABA and assist in training future labs members. As they say, ‘It is never to late to follow your dreams.’” 

About Dr. Bryant Silbaugh

Bryant Silbaugh, Ph.D., BCBA, LBA, is an assistant professor of special education in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching within the College of Education and Human Development. Silbaugh teaches courses in special education and applied behavior analysis to prepare preservice teachers and early intervention specialists for careers in educating and caring for children with autism and other developmental disorders. Silbaugh conducts research pertaining to the assessment and treatment of children with autism, pediatric feeding disorders, and a natural science of culture. His lab also collaborates with other groups around the country and the world such as California, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Brazil. 

If you are interested in working with SBRG, especially if you have a background in neuroscience, contact Dr. Silbaugh at bryant.silbaugh@utsa.edu. 

Autism Research Center:http://education.utsa.edu/teacher-education-autism-model/

SBRG website: https://sites.google.com/view/sbrg/home

Twitter: @abaatutsa


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