Helping Every Child Thrive: An Interview with Brian Boyd of the Juniper Gardens Children's Project

For Brian Boyd, director of the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at the KU Life Span Institute, a passion for autism research ignited at a summer camp job during his undergraduate years. It led to a career dedicated to early interventions for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and a focus on community-based research.

In this interview, Boyd reflects on the beginning of his career and the direction of his research today. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Where did your interest in autism start?

In the middle of my undergraduate degree, I went to work at a summer camp for children with autism. The first week I had a camper who was nonverbal. He also had an intellectual disability and seizure disorder. It was a tough week. He tried jumping in the camp pond, he threw a chair at me and ended up having a seizure that landed him in the hospital. He had a tantrum in the middle of the hospital. It was then that I realized this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

The experience had a deep impact on me. There was something fascinating about autism, people with autism and even though it was challenging and difficult, it felt meaningful. And so I knew after that first week I wanted to keep doing it.

How did you get your start in research?

After the recommendation of a mentor at the camp, I called Dr. Gary, the director of TEACCH, the statewide autism clinical, training, and research program based at the University of North Carolina. He essentially interviewed me on the spot and offered me the job. He really took a chance on me.

For a year and a half I did a variety of things. I was officially a predoctoral intern but I really just worked in several capacities: in the preschool classroom where we did an early research study, at an adult residential center that served aging adults with autism, and as a job coach for people with autism. It allowed me to get a wide range of experience working with people with autism.

What are your interests in autism spectrum disorder?

In general, my work is focused on intervention — I work with families or educators to help them implement the best practices for helping young children with autism.

I also want to better understand the children with autism that have what we term repetitive behaviors and circumscribed interests - a narrow, intense focus on a subject, for example.

Early in my career I met a preschooler whose first word was ‘pentagon’ -- not ma-ma or da-da but pentagon. So I wanted to know what it is about these sort of atypical interests that would motivate this to be a child’s first word. I want to research how to best leverage these behaviors to potentially improve other kinds of skills.

Why did you choose to join Juniper Gardens?

Research at Juniper Gardens has had a huge impact on the field of early childhood special education, so I was already familiar with the work being done here. The other main appeal was the chance to be a part of a research center where the work is very community focused and community engaged. Involving community members in the early stages and development of our research is important to myself and Juniper Gardens.

It's really about not just giving back, but exploring how we collect our knowledge as researchers to work with community partners and bring about real change.