From Student to Scholar: An Introduction to our Speech Development Research

From Student to Scholar: An Introduction to our Speech Development Research

Skybound Research Series – Part 1

Embarking on a Research Journey

It seems like we’ve been waiting forever to tell you about our research collaboration! Research projects take time, and rightly so, however an unexpected pandemic thrown into the mix delayed our ability to share our insights from a journey that started back in 2019 for Skybound and 2020 for Sophie. Going back even further in time, we’ve always known that one of our core therapies, a blend of behaviour analysis and TalkTools, has been successful in developing speech in previously non-verbal children. We were also acutely aware of the lack of evidence-based research on this technique. It has always been our dream to be involved in the research and contribute to the pool of scientific knowledge on this subject.

Research projects, however, also need a lot of funding, far beyond the level that Skybound could have managed alone. That’s where KESS 2 came in. “Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships (KESS 2) is a major pan-Wales operation supported by European Social Funds (ESF) through the Welsh Government. KESS 2 links companies and organisations with academic expertise in the Higher Education sector in Wales to undertake collaborative research projects, working towards a PhD or Research Masters qualification. Research elements are integrated with a higher-level skills training programme, leading to a Postgraduate Skills Development Award.”

We were offered a truly amazing opportunity. At last, with a manageable level of investment from ourselves, we could take our first step towards adding to the literature, and what could be a more valuable addition than developing speech in non-verbal children with autism?

The only missing piece of the puzzle was identifying a suitable PhD student to propel the project forward. Allow us to introduce Sophie Bradbury and invite her to share her journey with you…

Navigating the Path to a PhD

Hi, I’m Sophie, nearing the end of my PhD funded by KESS2 (Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship), a project which partners a University with a company. I have always enjoyed working with children and so I worked part-time at a day care nursery throughout my undergraduate degree.

While on a degree work placement at a special school, I had my first experience of working with individuals with autism. It was during this placement that I made the decision to pursue a career focused on helping children facing learning and intellectual difficulties.

In my final year of undergraduate studies, I encountered Applied Behaviour Analysis through a short module. Initially, I perceived it as a small aspect of psychology. However, my interest grew and my perspective shifted when my current supervisor visited one of my lectures to discuss a master’s programme in ABA, revealing it as a distinct field. This led me to enrol in the ABA master’s programme at the University of South Wales immediately after completing my degree. Here, I discovered the path to becoming a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) and pursued a postgraduate diploma to gain practical experience in implementing ABA principles, eventually qualifying me to sit for the BCBA exam.

My PhD journey unexpectedly began while gaining experience in ABA. I was involved in various home programmes to gain experience with children of different ages, and coincidentally, Skybound was consulting on one of these programmes. This is where I met Risca for the first time. Risca told me about a speech intervention research project partnered with the University of South Wales. Although initially planning to leave the world of University and start my career as a BCBA, my interest piqued when I delved into the project’s details and learned that it centered on speech interventions for minimally and non-verbal children with autism. Unlike other behaviours I had experience teaching, I couldn’t comprehend how one initially facilitates vocalization.

Despite my limited experience in this area, I was fascinated by the challenge. It would also give me the opportunity to continue to work with the University of South Wales, where I had enjoyed learning from experts in the field and to continue to work with Skybound and Risca, who I had learned so much from in such a short period of time. I applied for the KESS 2 PhD, went through an interview process, and started in July 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting the PhD at this time was a unique experience. I found myself working from home, grappling with the uncertainty of what my responsibilities entailed and adapting to a solitary work environment. I had been so used to seeing people every day. During these early stages, I had numerous questions about the PhD and seeking answers proved difficult. In the first few months, I focused on acquainting myself with the literature and comprehending the scope of a 3 year PhD journey. Simultaneously, I prepared to take the BCBA exam, dedicating my spare time to intensive study, including reading the Cooper book and completing mock exams. I was lucky to get an appointment between lockdowns to sit the exam in April 2021 and passed!

There were many challenges; some were related to undertaking doctoral research, some were due to COVID-19 and some were personal. I faced challenges in conducting research, especially with evaluating TalkTools, which proved difficult because of COVID-19 restrictions. Doing a PhD can also be quite a lonely journey as you delve deep into the literature and research. Of course, I had support from my supervisors, Risca, and other PhD students, but I found myself only sharing pieces of the project rather than the whole story. There were days when I had to remember the ‘why?’, why I am doing the PhD, and that was to help develop an evidence-base to support the development of vital skills in minimally and non-verbal children. To help these children be able to get their wants and needs met, safely and effectively.

Despite the ups and downs, I can confidently say that this journey has been worthwhile. I’ve presented my research internationally, collaborated with experts, and gained invaluable experience. I look forward to further developing my skills as a behaviour analyst with Skybound, continuing our research, and sharing my knowledge with as many people I can in the coming years.

The KESS 2 projects bridge academia and practical expertise while providing essential PhD funding. It allowed me to pursue a PhD that otherwise would have been financially challenging. It’s a remarkable opportunity that I hope continues to be available. I am thankful to KESS 2, the University of South Wales and Skybound Therapies for giving me this chance.

Keep a look out for Parts 2 and 3 in this series where we dive deeper into the research and publish the results!

To read the second part of this series, please click here.

Find out more about Speech and Language Therapy at Skybound here.

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