After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Melissa Johnson Graham was, in her own words, “looking for a path and a purpose.” That path brought her back to her hometown of Muncie, Indiana, and she found purpose when she began working at a local applied behavior analysis (ABA) clinic as a behavioral therapist.
“It was there I fell in love with ABA therapy after seeing the significant impact it had on behavior and how drastically it improved the quality of life for the kiddos and their families,” says Graham, who today is executive director of Muncie’s Engaging Minds Autism Services.
“Communities are struggling to keep up with the demand because so many families are in need,” she says. “[As of 2018], Delaware County [where Engaging Minds is based] has 1,952 individuals living with autism and 310 school-age children living with autism.”
In 2012, Graham met the parents of two boys with autism living in Kokomo, about 60 miles northeast of Muncie. Because of the lack of quality ABA therapy in their city, the family was driving four hours each day to find the intensive treatment they needed. After identifying the extensive need in their county, the parents founded Engaging Minds with Graham’s assistance in Kokomo.
Graham worked in that clinic as an ABA therapist for two years before returning to Muncie in 2014 to launch a second Engaging Minds as executive director and begin her master’s in ABA.
“My primary goal is to support the people who make this happen,” says Graham. “That includes the staff, the clients and their families. We consider each person family, and we strive to treat them as we would our own families.”
When she first became aware of this need and the fact that ABA therapy is the only scientifically proven, research-based effective treatment for autism, Graham enrolled in Ball State University’s master’s degree in applied behavior analysis with an emphasis in autism. The program is offered fully online.
Studying online meant she could continue working full time in the field and get hands-on experience.
“I would not have been able to manage both work and on-campus courses at the same time,” she says.
Graham liked the idea that Ball State faculty worked in the Muncie area.
“Most of my professors were local and worked right here in the community,” she says. “I was able to learn ABA from those individuals impacting the families right here in my own hometown.”
The master’s degree that Graham earned gave her the course work requirements to become eligible for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst Examination (BCBA) and graduate-level certification in behavior analysis. BCBAs are independent practitioners who supervise BCaBAs. Ball State has one of the largest master’s degree programs in ABA in the country.