March 14, 2024

Irene Looi, MS, BCBA, LABA, a program specialist for The New England Center for Children’s (NECC) Intensive Instructional Program (IIP), has always been a big advocate of implementing applied behavior analysis (ABA) programs to help children with autism learn crucial life skills. Looi has been able to nurture her dedication to ABA through the Western New England (WNE) University graduate assistant program offered at NECC. Recently, she presented her research at the WNE Colloquium, exchanging ideas and research insights with like-minded colleagues passionate about this field.

Looi’s choice to enroll in the WNE program was motivated by her dedication to implementing ABA programs that help children with autism live fuller, more independent lives. The graduate assistant program aligned perfectly with her goals, offering expertise, credentials, and practical experience to apply her knowledge.

“When I heard about the grad assistant program, I realized it fit everything I wanted,” shared Looi, adding that presenting to her peers as part of the program is a valuable learning opportunity. “I look forward to engaging in constructive discussion and improving my study. I also think publicly speaking about my research is such a confidence booster. The dissertation journey can be daunting, so the assurance and support that I get from a squad of quality-control experts goes a long way.”

Looi’s research is centered around generalization and investigating how skills acquired in one setting can be applied in different contexts. “Generalization is when you learn a skill in Context A and then use that skill again in Context B, C, D, etc.,” explained Looi. “Without generalization, imagine having to relearn how to tie your shoelaces each time you get a new pair of shoes! Sometimes, this comes naturally, and other times, it doesn’t. I’m researching its occurrence and strategies that can improve it.”

In addition to providing her opportunities to explore ABA research, the WNE program has influenced Looi’s teaching style. “Back home in Malaysia, students don’t typically speak up in class. We were encouraged to listen well, take neat notes, and excel in exams,” shared Looi. “I remember how shocked I was during my first class in the U.S. when the professor asked for students’ involvement in our discussions. Speaking up was one hundred percent encouraged, if not rewarded! This was consistent across all my courses at WNE. That affected my teaching style because I started listening to my students better and learned to ask about their preferences and opinions as much as possible.”

Choosing a career working with children with autism has led Looi to find joy in her students’ precious moments of learning. Whether it’s matching colored cards, trying new foods, or simple reminders, Looi considers these experiences the most rewarding endeavor she has undertaken.

“The moments when my students learn something new are pure gold!” she said. “It’s messy at times, but it’s also beautiful. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done, and I think I’ll continue to enjoy this for a long time.”

And for those thinking about pursuing graduate school, Looi encourages individuals to simply do their own research. “Gather all the information and see how you feel. That’s how I started,” said Looi.

For more information on NECC’s WNE graduate program, visit