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Disability Pride Month: An Interview with Briana P. Keller, Child Life Research Assistant and PhD Student

Briana Keller

During Disability Pride Month, ACLP celebrates, embraces, and honors the uniqueness of every individual as a vital aspect of human diversity. This month is a time to acknowledge that disability is a natural part of life, challenge stereotypes, and promote a world where every person is valued and respected. Briana P. Keller is an autistic child life professional, Child Life Research Assistant and incoming PhD Student at University of Alabama. She shared her perspective on entering the field as a disabled child life professional during a digital interview with an ACLP Team Member. ACLP thanks Briana for allowing us to capture her child life journey.

Entering the Field:

1. When did you first encounter or hear about child life?

When I was a rising college senior, someone on my social media feed made a passing comment about how helpful child life services had been for their family. I don’t even remember the context of the comment now, but I remember it led me to google “child life.” By sheer coincidence, that fall was the first time my university was offering an Introduction to Child Life class. I was intrigued and I had room in my course schedule, so I signed up. The class hooked me immediately.

2. What led you to pursue a career in child life?

I’ve always been interested in healthcare and child psychology, but most of the well-known paths (like nursing, psychiatry, or counseling) didn’t appeal to me. Child life seemed like a perfect fit. During that introductory class, my professor kept mentioning the benefits of child life are largely supported by anecdotes, not data. I spent some time deciding whether I wanted to work clinically, go into full-time research, or a combination of the two (more on that below). This led me to connect with several child life academic professionals, who gave me advice and suggestions that helped me carve out my path.

3. Please describe your educational and work experience so far.

When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I had very little research experience, so my priority was finding a way to develop those skills. I applied to a graduate program at Vanderbilt and spent two years working closely with Dr. Jessika Boles, a full-time faculty member who holds a CCLS credential. Even though I was taking classes, I grew to see myself as a research apprentice first, and a student second. My time there involved learning to design and conduct studies, analyze data, and create manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals. As my capabilities grew, I took on the role of lab manager, which enabled me to get experience overseeing projects and training other research assistants.

Briana & her mentorsI completed my master’s degree in May, the same month I accepted the ACLP’s Student Research Recognition Award for one of my publications. The paper analyzes what legacy truly means in a pediatric context. Later this year, I’ll be starting my PhD studies in the Educational Psychology program at the University of Alabama. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into establishing myself as an aspiring researcher, and have found mentors who were (and are) willing to invest in me.

4. Please describe your research.

Some of the studies I’ve worked on are centered around improving the child life field for both current and aspiring professionals. For others, we collect information directly from patients and families about their experience in the healthcare environment. We use a lot of different methods, from surveys and interviews to pilot studies (small-scale trial runs) of psychosocial interventions. When a study is done, we share the results with others by presenting at conferences and publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals. I frequently say that my job is to figure out things no one has ever figured out before, and then tell people about it! This work doesn’t just help child life professionals know what interventions to use. It shows concrete evidence of the hard work CCLSs do every day, and the benefits they provide. That in turn leads to more awareness, respect, and funding for child life programs.

Since there’s such a need for research in child life, I’m able to work on a huge variety of projects, which I love. We recently published an article about the experiences of autistic young adults transitioning from pediatric to adult healthcare. It was so great to be able to use my insight as an autistic adult to design that study and interpret the results. Some of the other projects I’ve worked on examine the roles of hospital facility dogs and their handlers, how siblings are served by child life, and strategies for individualizing pediatric behavioral health admissions. Last month at the Child Life Conference, I presented results from my thesis, which focuses on feelings of grief and loss in chronically ill adolescents and their parents/caregivers.

5. What are your goals in the profession?

As a PhD student, I’ll be working with Dr. Sherwood Burns-Nader, who is also an accomplished faculty member and CCLS. I just know it will be an amazing experience! Once I finish my doctorate, I hope to either secure a faculty position at a research university, or do full-time research work for a pediatric medical center. I’m still deciding which path is right for me.

Disability and the Profession

1. How has having a disability impacted your child life journey?

My autism has shaped so much of my journey. I want to first point out that there are some very successful child life students and specialists who are autistic (Gill, 2023). It’s not an unrealistic hope to have. At the same time, everyone is impacted differently. I personally thrive on predictability, while sensory challenges and unstructured social situations drain my “mental bandwidth” quickly. That means at least for right now, a CCLS credential and a clinical role aren’t on the table for me. Maybe that will change someday.

On the flip side, my autism is a major strength in research! When it comes to things that interest me, I have a great memory, I can focus for long periods of time, and I’m very self-driven. The structure involved in analyzing and publishing research are easy for me, and I love discussing ideas and findings with other people (which is a huge part of both attending conferences and networking). Autistic people tend to have very strong interests that bring us a lot of joy and satisfaction, as well as helping us connect with others (Long, 2024). That’s definitely been a big asset.

2. Has pursuing a career in child life changed your relationship with or outlook on your own disability?

It hasn’t changed the way I see myself, but it’s connected me to people who are knowledgeable about autism and understand it, which is a huge relief. There are still a lot of misconceptions among the general public. In most situations, I’m comfortable advocating for myself and explaining why I do certain things, but it’s also really nice to have a space where I don’t always have to do that.

3. What would your message be to individuals with a disability who are pursuing the profession?

As Paul Collins said, “[T]he problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg.” If the traditional path isn’t working for you, there’s no shame in looking for alternate routes or rethinking your goals. It just might show you how you can shine.


Gill, M. A. (2023). Supporting autistic child life students. ACLP Bulletin, 41(3), 24-27.

Long, R. E. M. (2024). Access points: Understanding special interests through autistic narratives. Autism in Adulthood. Online preprint. 

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