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EZIAFAKAKU NWOKOLO’s career shift is raising hope in families again

Eziafakaku Nwokolo, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), Qualified Behavior Analyst (QBA) and Advanced Certified Autism Specialist (ACAS). Notably, the only BCBA in Nigeria and one out of 7 QBAs in the country.

She is the Founder and CEO of Shades of Life Care Limited (SOL), a centre that provides assessment, diagnosis and intervention strategies to families with children that have behavioural challenges, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The facility also offers training and supervision services to behaviour analysts and technicians in Nigeria.

In addition, she currently sits as a member of the International Standards Committee of the Qualified Applied Behaviour Analysis (QABA) Credentialing Board, and is a member of the Association for Behaviour Analysis International (ABAI).

Through her work with SOL, she is helping to improve access to ASD and IDD support in Nigeria, while also building and equipping an army of behaviour analysts in Nigeria, who uphold this mission and strengthen it further.

Also, Eziafakaku is the founder of Shades of Life Foundation (SOLF), an NGO that was created to give indigent families the financial support needed to provide their children with autism and other neurodivergent needs access to the best therapy and resources. She has also organised and sponsored a ‘Ride for Autism’ cycling program in partnership with Cyclotron, to create a culture of awareness and acceptance for autism.

Upon graduating, her career began in the Oil & Gas sector, working with Chevron Nigeria Limited for 20 years. Her gut instincts told her it was time to accomplish a higher purpose, so she followed her intuition, which led her to the dynamic world of behaviour analysis.

What memories of your growing up years would you like to share?

My childhood was filled with lots of love, adventure and fun. Having parents who were both teachers and a father who was an ex-soldier, meant order, discipline and timeliness. These qualities were engrained very early in life and have played a great part in who I am today. Including uncles and aunts who challenged me cerebrally.

Tell us about being a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA), Qualified Behaviour Analyst (QBA) and Advanced Certified Autism Specialist (ACAS)

These are just a bunch of alphabets strung together. I say that because the letter killeth but the spirit that’s meant to be is that of rendering professional and ethical service based on the knowledge and skills acquired through the trainings. The service includes assessments, diagnosis, training and interventions for individuals who have developmental disabilities that fall within my area of competence. This is done using the science and principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).

Share on being the only BCBA in Nigeria and one out of 7 QBAs in the country. Shouldn’t the numbers be more?

Let me start by sharing a bit of background information. The qualification BCBA is from the Behaviour Analyst Certification Board (BACB) a US institution; and was up until 2023 open to anyone in the world to obtain. However, given the BACB’s announcement in 2019, that come January 2022, international certification will no longer be offered, we switched to another US-based program from the QABA. Therefore, my being the only BCBA in the country is probably a double-edged one because, I made up my mind and went after what I wanted before the announcement by BACB. It is an interesting but challenging position to be in, given that families who travel for assessments and diagnosis abroad always get sent to me. This is because there’s an open register of all certificants maintained by the BACB. It’s overwhelming as there’s a limit to the number of cases we can take on. The QBA is from the QABA which is more international. The challenges of providing professional training, competent supervision and ethical practice rests heavily on QBAs. So one has to be very careful. I’ve also been touted as being uppity and too know. I’m proud and happy about what God has allowed me to accomplish, and the role he’s set for me to play. He directs my path and teaches my hands to war. There’s a difference between the number of QBAs trading and those certified. To become a QBA, one has to first have a master’s degree, complete 270-hours of ABA coursework and 1500 hours of supervised fieldwork, then sit for and pass the board exam. These things cost money. Also, our people are yet to understand the true value of not just rendering ethical service but practicing within their competencies. Given this process, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the consumers have a role to play in driving these numbers up.

Why was Shades of Life Care Limited (SOL) founded?

The company, which is really the staff and clients gives me great joy. It’s a ministry of sorts because we don’t charge as we should, given the caliber of staff we have. We have BCaBAs, QASP-Ss, RBTs, ABATs, clinical and developmental psychologists. Our focus is on delivering professional, ethical and quality service which will enable our clients acquire socially significant and independent skills.

Finding out you daughter is autistic, how was that experience?

Finding out that my daughter had developmental gaps which required intervention was a new level for me. I kept diaries and charts of milestones for all my children which was how I noticed that she was behind her older and younger siblings. She also had other behaviours that were different, food selection, not interested in other people and non-vocal at age two and a half. While praying, I was also speaking to my friends and colleagues at the time about these observations. We then saw the doctor who asked a few questions and then told us she had autism. “What’s that?” I queried. Hubby and I went off to do our research, while the doctor took us through a few things and what had to be done. It wasn’t easy as I was working but we pulled in and leaned on our family members and started intervention both locally and internationally. She had 3 years of intervention before she started school. Through her, we’ve learnt quite a lot and I’ve also been able to utilise and tie my parents’ teachings and training into the situation. I’m a fighter and I tackle things head on; I’ve also been called ‘thatcher’ due to my approach to situations. If I don’t have an evidence based explanation for what I’m being asked to do, I don’t do it. These are the qualities that I used to tackle the situation. I also didn’t treat her differently. Yes, it took longer to train up certain skills in her but by and large, she’s acquired them. She’s 21+ now and lives independently. We’re still teaching and training up skills as a child with autism grows up to become an autistic adult. There’s no cure or quick fix, but it can get better if we as parents are patient. I’ve just started a series on siblings perspectives as they’ve not been given a voice. I pray and hope that as my children and other siblings share, people will be more equipped to live with and deal with their children who have autism or other developmental disorders.

Tell us about being a member of the International Standards Committee of the Qualified Applied Behaviour Analysis (QABA) Credentialing Board, and a member of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)

There’s a limit to what I can share about being an ISC member because we signed a non-disclosure agreement. However, part of what I do is to represent Nigerians and speak up for our needs and interests regarding becoming professionals and access to information. I also monitor with the help of other people, how those who have been credentialed by the QABA are practicing. I get complaints from different people especially in this era of social media madness. I can’t say it enough, the clime is changing, so those in the field must be careful and mindful of what they’re doing and how they practice. The era of charades and practicing outside or ones area of competence is drawing closely to an end. ABAI is a body that allows behaviour analysts disseminate their work. It also provides us with the platform to gain more information and knowledge, and the connections we require to keep us informed; a requirement for maintaining our certification.

What is ‘Ride For Autism’ cycling program in partnership with Cyclotron about?

I’m an athlete and one of the sports I love is cycling. Cyclotron is my cycling club and I figured I could approach the leadership and discuss the opportunity of riding for a cause. Since they agreed, Shades of Life sponsored the ride as a CSR. I spoke on autism and gave them some basic statistics and also encouraged them to raise more awareness about the disorder. I invited parents who felt comfortable sharing their experiences to come and speak. In the process, we had at least 3 cyclists who opened up about their children. That was part of the aim; the more people speak about autism the more people will realize that it’s not a death sentence and that help is available. We had nearly 70 people in attendance. Events like the ride for autism, is something that we’d like to keep doing especially through our foundation arm, Shades Of Life Foundation, but we need funders and partners.

20+ years with Chevron and leaving before retirement age, share the story of that move

I was also at a point where my salary would have been increasing but there were a lot of us in the same age bracket with limited positions. I like to be busy and if I don’t feel I’m adding value, I move. It actually came as a surprise to my friends and HR especially as by their metrics, there was no reason for me to retire early. However, I’d wanted to go on a study leave but all sorts of things started coming up and retirement solved the problem. Immediately I retired in June, I went straight to school. I starting my trading as a registered behaviour technician (RBT) then BCaBA, set up SOL and went off to do my MSc in ABA-IDD in the UK. It was tough as I’d been out of Uni for nearly 30years. While I was completing my masters, my husband said, ‘Oh, you should do a PhD’ and I gave him a side eye. But I wrote my PhD proposal in less than 24-hours, got supervisors and got accepted into the program in the same University. So, I’m still a student.

You have developed yourself extensively in understanding autism. Would you say that the experience with your child has therefore been a blessing in disguise?

Yes. Like I say to people, there’s no coincidence just ‘Godcidence.’ Everything in life is an opportunity to learn and give back.

On your ongoing research, what are the potential benefits to Nigeria?

My research is focused on the adolescents; validating existing screening and diagnostic tools for autism and also developing a screening tool for intellectual disability. Most tools used are free and downloaded from the internet due to cost. These tools focus on early childhood, birth to 36months and are not culturally sensitive. But focusing on adolescents; 11-26yrs, is also because a lot of parents hide their children, are in denial or just don’t understand the magnitude of their child’s problems and by the time they’re getting to secondary school, its no longer something that can be hidden. I’ve come across lots of situations like this. So if we have tools that will help us screen these adolescents that are easily accessible at not too expensive rates, then we can recommend the appropriate next steps, policies can be formulated and the list goes on. The tools are such that extensive training isn’t required to use them, another challenge faced by our professionals.

What words of encouragement do you have for parents with special needs children?

They need to be patient. There’s time for everything. Ask questions of and from those who want to work with your child. Ask to see their qualifications and their supervisors. Who trained them? Sending your child off to school when they don’t have basic skills is not the best. Most importantly, be involved! Don’t relegate your child’s development to just anyone even those qualified. It’s the same trend I see with Nannies bringing up children I see in this instance, no child should be raised by a nanny especially these vulnerable ones.

What can/should individuals, corporates and the government do to support this advocacy better?

Individuals should be understanding and seek to learn more about situations they don’t understand or know about rather than stigmatising. Other professionals should not feel threatened but see the opportunity to work together. I recall a friend pointing in the direction of someone who was doing some work in this field, and when I approached the individual, they just said, I shouldn’t worry, that I should just keep going , and that I’ll be fine. Corporate entities should invest in what adds value not showmanship. For instance, I approached some organisations for support to buy some of the research materials based on their values (one said they support research) and nothing happened. Thanks to family that rallied round. If after this interview, an organisation approaches us for partnership or sponsorship, it’ll be great. We have the Shades Of Life foundation that caters to those who can’t afford services. We want to do more trainings for parents, assessments and diagnosis, but we are limited by funds and support. Corporate sponsorship will help achieve this. The government should aim to provide the platform for policy making to be easy, not putting clogs in the wheel. The government is us, we shouldn’t wait to have the problem as individuals before we start aligning with those in the fore. I remember when I was incorporating SOL, the CAC folks kept saying I should get a psychiatrist or psychologist, or similar professionals before they could register me. I stood my ground and told them that there’s a whole new world out there and I’m a valid and bonafide professional in my own rights. It took a year and God’s intervention, and today, anyone can incorporate an entity with behaviour analysis in its article.

How are you living life daily and balancing all you are doing while staying positive?

I compartmentalise things. There’s a time for my phone to be answered and a time for it to go into ‘do not disturb’ mode. I empower my team to do a lot of what they’re trained for. I aim to be a leader not a manager. I have time to do my exercises and when I have to sleep, I do so even if it means shutting down by 5pm. Nothing is an emergency per se. If someone is dead, I can’t raise them from the dead. That’s God’s prerogative. If something is broken, look for the solution/next line of action. I’ve also trained my children to live their lives as if there’s no daddy or mummy. This doesn’t mean that they run amok, we still make inputs, but they take the lead now; the youngest is 19+. They were trained in the family values very very early. So they know the expectations and boundaries. So, once the pressure points have been shared, I can let my hair down. Above all, I’m not in control of my life, Jesus is, and as far as I keep that in the fore of everything, I’m good.

In conclusion

For parents, remember faith without works is dead. While you’re praying, please get your child the relevant help. Look for professionals who are verifiable, don’t be so desperate that you fall prey to the devourer therapists out there. For organisations, times are hard, yes, but your CSR budget can be spent wisely and better. To the government, help us to help this population. Then my professional colleagues, let’s truly collaborate. Collaboration is essential in this field. Money shouldn’t always be in the fore. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make money as businesses but the clients first. To those out there practicing outside of their competencies, kindly desist from this behaviour, it’s evil. Develop yourself if you truly want to be in this field.

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