The Importance of Ongoing Autism Research – Introducing Jessica Zawacki, Director of Research

Introducing Jessica Zawacki, Director of Research for ABA Centers of America

Why is autism research necessary?

Autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by problems with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors, has been the subject of increasing attention over the past decade. The focus on autism research has arguably put on the map the need to understand this condition better, the impact on individuals and families, the role of educators and providers, and the call to improve existing resources and information regarding the spectrum.

So, what is the latest on autism research? ABA Centers of America wants to know too, and we strive to be an integral part of the progress. This curiosity is why, in September of 2023, we invited Jessica Zawacki to step into the role of Director of Research. Dr. Zawacki recently presented on a circuit of panel discussions/interactive lectures regarding the Quality of Life in the autism community. We caught her between events, asking questions about how she came to the profession, how things are going, and how she sees the future of autism research developing.

Click here for more information about ABA Centers of America, our ABA therapy options, and autism diagnostic services for children and teens in the New Hampshire and Massachusetts area.

ABA Centers: What was your journey like getting to ABA Centers of America?

Zawacki: I was client-facing for 17 years, but getting into ABA initially was an accident. My interest was in psychology – significant abnormal mental health and mental health disorders. However, I was in my undergrad, and I saw a posting for a one-on-one discrete trial ABA team with an adolescent with autism. It was a lot of teaching him to read grocery lists and functional skills a few hours a week. I gained a lot of experience, and I really enjoyed it. I fell in love with the family and the work he and I did together, and the year I graduated college, he got accepted into a new, small, specialized school that served adolescents and adults with more complex or pronounced disabilities using ABA, and I said, “Well, I need to work.” So, I went there, and I worked.

I fell even further in love with the field, obtained my master’s, and soon after that, I was promoted to the chief clinical officer of the same, now growing, community-based program. When their school districts or adult service providers couldn’t find people to help or support them due to their complexity, they came to us. So, I did that for 15 years while I got my doctorate in Special Education.

When the position of Director of Research arose, where I could have access to state-of-the-art data systems and new technologies and be able to put together research to share with the greater good, I was very interested. I jumped on it.

ABA Centers: How long have you been a BCBA? How does that experience compare with working at ABA Centers of America?

Zawacki: I was a practicing BCBA from 2012 until September when I started with ABA Centers. So, a good 10 or 11 years? I am still actively certified and continue to consult and practice, but on a much smaller scale now.  I think something fun and unique about working for this company is that, despite being so large and having such a strong structure of layers of professionalism and oversite, if there’s a good idea, if there’s something that’s going to improve outcomes for the team (for the kids, the professionals, admin), if it makes sense, it goes up the ladder, down the ladder, and then becomes a reality. The turn-around time is fantastic. It’s a very open and collaborative atmosphere. 

I am a clinician at heart despite loving to do research, so getting to hop on collaborative case reviews, support someone with a complex case, or get a text from a clinician asking for literature on a unique topic really makes every day working here a very welcoming and supportive team approach even though we’re so far from each other demographically. I think that’s very cool. 

You don’t get that in places where a survey or request for support goes out and it instantly gets 15 responses and team messages, such as, “Where are you at? How can I help?” Many passionate people are working here. That energy and positivity are vital to taking ABA and what we do to the next level. We have so much work that needs doing, and I think we’re all willing to chip in, which is remarkable.

ABA: Is this the position of your dreams?

Zawacki: I never imagined myself taking on the role of research because this position is often very academic. Usually, that position attracts people who have had their time as direct support and are looking back and reflecting. This new wave of ABA has a different perspective. Instead of using an academic approach, I see it as an extension of active clinical support. We need to stay ingrained as professionals. We need to remain active, boots on the ground, in the trenches, and remember that that’s where the real work happens. It’s our job to take that real work and put it out there to the world so that others can do things differently, better, and more successfully. We need to remember that as the needs and goals shift and as ABA grows into more of a supportive, compassionate, and inclusive approach, we need to change with it. 

Considering the history of ABA and where it’s been, we’ve been alive for most of it. There have been so many changes. We must continue to influence that change with humility and continue to surround ourselves with those who are smarter or have different expertise, goals, and ideas because that’s how real change happens. I think a company like this truly hands you the reigns to do that. But it’s still up to us here to take them and do something about it. I’m excited to see what we accomplish in the next two or three years because I think we have an excellent infrastructure to work with.

ABA: What drew you to the neurodivergent community to begin with?

Zawacki: I found a community that was just so under-supported with people that were so genuinely themselves. When you work with someone with autism, and they want to be around you, they don’t want to borrow your car or to get something out of you; they just really like you, and that’s a privilege. I found myself connecting with them and felt a lot of pride when I could help them get to a place where they could have a life of meaning and value. So, I fell in love, and I never left.

Working with the adult population for so long and seeing how hard it was for them to get services, let alone achieve a quality of life, get employed, and have good outcomes, I’m always looking out for what we could do sooner, what we could do better to prevent someone from ending up in some of these dark and bleak places. We have such an opportunity now with early intervention and all the different available services, but we still need to be looking at the long term.

We had a panel discussion at APBS in Chicago, and I gave an interactive presentation in Fort Worth, TX, for the CASP Conference to wake people up to the importance of quality of life. We continue to report individuals with autism have a terrible quality of life into adulthood, but what are we doing about it? How are we representing different fields and different areas of interest and growth? How are we actively looking at it, programming it, teaching it, and coaching towards it on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis so we can stop the cycle that we’re continuing to see and continuing to feel remiss about?

ABA: How can the BCBAs and RBTs help?

Zawacki: In this research group, we’re looking to build resources so clinicians can pull, find, and access their research without outside support. We’re creating those visuals and designing a module for growth and learning.

We support our RBTs who are entering their master’s programs for BCBAs at Temple University. We also started a research study with Drexel University, which is waiting for Pennsylvania’s clinics to have a full roster.

If an RBT or BCBA were to come to me and ask what steps they need to take to get into the research field, I would tell them that I could put them on a project today. Essentially, it’s about doing it—about participating.

You asked about my dream job before. My dream is to take this step to help clients with their medications, in addition to their behavioral needs and their educational needs, because that’s the next very under-supported role. I want to learn all that I can to try and help them support their mental health so that we can help their behavioral health, ultimately helping their educational health. It’s a big dream, but since arriving here in September, I’ve told everyone, “I’m ready! I’m ready for the first round to be down and the next round to be up.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always move as fast as we would like. But I’m incredibly excited with how we’ve started.

Autism Research and ABA Centers Of America

ABA Centers of America provides top-tier ABA care (and research) because we know these services make a massive difference in individual’s lives. We serve the autism community throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and surrounding areas.

If you want to learn more about our autism care options, call us at (844) 923-4222 or complete our online form with no obligation.

Discover how our autism treatment services can help you.

Get Social With Us

Related Posts

Sibling Support: Navigating Neurodiversity with ABA Care

Sibling Support: Navigating Neurodiversity with ABA Care

Raising a child or teenager with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a unique experience filled with both challenging moments and gratifying times. However, the impact ...
Read More →
Short Diagnosis Times in Autism: Impacts of Waiting Periods

Short Diagnosis Times in Autism: Impacts of Waiting Periods

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects millions of individuals worldwide, with the CDC reporting 1 in 36 having the condition. Those with autism commonly present with ...
Read More →
Understanding High-Functioning Autism: 5 Tips for Parents!

Understanding High-Functioning Autism: 5 Tips for Parents!

High-Functioning Autism (HFA) is a term some use to characterize individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have average or above-average intelligence. In many cases, ...
Read More →
Navigating ABA: Unpacking the Parity Act for Autism Coverage

Navigating ABA: Unpacking the Parity Act for Autism Coverage

Despite the proven effectiveness of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), many families still encounter significant challenges when attempting to obtain insurance coverage for this crucial autism ...
Read More →
Scroll to Top