Careers in Applied Behavior Analysis

Adult man consulting with ABA therapistBehavior analysis is the scientific study of behavior and learning. Behavior analysts study socially significant behavior and its relationship to the environment to answer the question: Why do people do what they do?

Because applied behavior analysts double as both scientists and therapeutic practitioners, there are a variety of applied behavioral analysis jobs in fields ranging from medicine and psychology to marketing and law.

So, what can you do with an applied behavior analysis degree? A lot! As more organizations realize the value that applied behavior analysis has to their industries, the job outlook for ABAs only gets better. Let’s look at the various careers in applied behavioral analysis that are open to you.

What Is a Career in ABA?

ABA careers are as wide-ranging as the discipline itself. Expertise in what motivates people’s actions is valued in diverse settings ranging from classrooms to corporate offices. Although applied behavior analysts are best known for their work with children diagnosed with autism, ABAs also work with other populations to address behavioral problems, influence habits and lifestyle choices, and more.

Even with all this diversity, the methods and desired outcomes remain consistent across all behavioral analysis careers. Working independently or as part of a team, applied behavior analysts examine problems in individuals or populations, develop and implement interventions designed to address those problems, and monitor and document progress.

A day in the life of an applied behavior analyst may include tasks like:

  • Conducting behavioral assessments
  • Providing direct therapy care in one-on-one and group settings
  • Writing and overseeing the implementation of behavior-analytic treatment plans
  • Training registered behavior technicians and assistants
  • Coordinating with psychiatrists, teachers, caregivers, and other professionals for a patient’s treatment plan

There are two main approaches to the work you’ll do as a certified ABA therapist: experimental behavior analysis and applied behavior analysis. Though various applied behavior analysis jobs may lean more heavily on one approach, each of these influences and builds off the other in important ways.

Experimental Behavior Analysis

Experimental behavior analysis is the scientific basis of all ABA careers. This means ABAs identify problem behaviors, use behavioral modification methods and techniques to address problem behaviors, and make observations to see what’s working and what isn’t.

Using this approach, the field has amassed a large and well-respected body of research literature that helps reveal how behavior is learned and how it changes over time.

Because behavior change is a dynamic and ongoing process, behavior analysts must constantly document and analyze these changes over time. Experimental analysis is an important part of determining how specific behaviors function in relation to specific environments or environmental events.

Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) involves taking what is learned from research and setting it into motion to solve behavior problems in the real world. In all ABA careers, applied behavior analysts rely on the findings of objective research and analysis when implementing therapies for different populations and different behaviors.

There is a clear, linear connection between experimental and applied behavior analysis: using the findings of experimental behavior analysis, applied behavior analysts can implement behavior change techniques.

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The Role of Applied Behavior Analysts in the Implementation of ABA Therapies

Employee getting help from therapistApplied behavior analysts implement interventions that target specific problematic behaviors in individual clients. For one person, this may include employing techniques designed to help them simply cross the street safely, while for another it might mean curbing aggressive behavior so they get along with their peers.

Depending on the setting, population, skill deficits, or problem behaviors being addressed, applied behavior analysts use ABA therapies to:

  • Increase and maintain healthy behaviors and/or teach new skills (e.g., improve social interactions, increase on-task behavior)
  • Reduce interfering behaviors (e.g., persistent repetition, self-injury)
  • Transfer behavior from one situation to another (i.e., take the skills learned in a controlled environment to the real world)
  • Restrict conditions to eliminate interfering behaviors (i.e., modify the environment to improve behavior)
  • Increase organizational functioning (e.g., improve staff performance or management interventions)

Though behavior analysts work to modify and improve any number of specific behaviors and skills, just about all of them can be categorized under one of these:

  • Adaptive and self-care skills
  • Emotional development
  • Coping and tolerance skills
  • Play and leisure skills
  • Family relationships
  • Language and communication
  • Cognitive functioning
  • Self-management
  • Self-advocacy and independence
  • Safety skills
  • Social relationships
  • Vocational skills

Behavioral Analysis Careers

Male counselor working with young male studentWhat jobs can you get as a behavior analyst? Whether you’re interested in research as an experimental behavior analyst or in treatment as a practicing ABA therapist, there are dozens of applied behavior analysis jobs to suit your professional passions and strengths.

Some of the most popular careers in applied behavior analysis include:

  • Clinical behavioral analyst—This ABA career involves practical therapy and treatment with patients exhibiting behavioral, social, and developmental challenges. Most closely associated with patients suffering from autism spectrum disorder, clinical ABAs also help treat disorders like OCD, ADHD, and more.
  • Social worker—Clinical social workers (CSW) with an ABA degree work with at-risk clients needing behavioral support, especially those coming from situations of abuse or trauma. This might mean working with children that have social disorders or adults suffering from homelessness or addiction.
  • School psychologist or counselor—School psychologists support their student body through various academic, emotional, and social issues, often collaborating with parents and faculty to implement healthy behavioral plans. School counselors also support the community during traumatic or highly emotional events.
  • Life or wellness coach—As a life/wellness coach, your expertise in human behavior will help your clients implement lasting changes to improve their lives. This could be breaking bad habits, achieving career goals, maintaining work-life balance, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries, or becoming more proactive in their relationships.
  • Forensic profiler—A forensic profiler uses their expert behavioral understanding combined with forensic evidence to help law enforcement piece together the motivations and identity of criminal perpetrators.
  • Market research analyst—This ABA career involves helping organizations and businesses understand consumer behavior to increase their customer reach and drive sales. This may involve analyzing purchasing habits, consulting on marketing language, and offering forecasting based on demographic data.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the ABA careers that fall within the two disciplines of behavior analysis.

Experimental Behavioral Analysis Careers

As outlined above, experimental behavior analysis focuses on developing the research and theories that then inform the therapies used by ABAs to enact behavioral change. The result of experimental behavior analysis is the knowledge and understanding itself. If behavioral research is your calling, a career in experimental behavior analysis is a perfect fit.

Many experimental applied behavioral analysis jobs are found in the following fields:

  • Behavioral economics—Behavioral economics studies human behavioral issues like consumer choice, gambling, and drug use. As an ABA in this field, you’d use quantitative tools to identify and measure patterns to understand how naturally occurring events affect socially important behaviors.
  • Behavioral pharmacology—Behavioral pharmacologists research the effects of drugs on conditioned and unconditioned behavior, the relationship between pharmacological and psychological aspects of drug abuse, and the behavioral effects of repeated or chronic exposure to pharmacological agents. ABAs in this research field are often trained as both behavior analysts and pharmacologists.
  • Behavioral toxicology—Behavioral toxicologists investigate how specific toxic exposures change the way people and animals behave, as well as how exposure affects learning, memory, and behavioral characteristics. This area of experimental behavior analysis typically focuses on three classes of behavioral neurotoxicants: metals (most often lead and mercury), solvents, and pesticides.

Applied Behavioral Analysis Careers

Applied behavior analysts usually focus their work on a specific area, such as autism, developmental disabilities, mental health, head trauma, or geriatrics. Therefore, the field of ABA has several well-defined practice areas. Here are some of the top disciplines within which you’ll find applied behavioral analysis jobs.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Autistic girl working with ABA therapistABA has been widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for ASD, earning endorsements from many state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Surgeon General. Applied behavior analysts help everyone from children to adults with ASD to build important life skills, cope with daily social interactions, transition into independent living, and even find employment.

Applied behavior analysts working with ASD patients employ a collection of tailored techniques within an individualized treatment plan to foster basic skills, such as looking, listening, and imitating, or more complex skills, such as reading facial expressions and understanding another individual’s perspective. They often work in clinical settings, schools, community organizations, and in patient homes.

Organizational Behavior Management

Organizational behavior management (OBM) is a growing sub-discipline of ABA. Applied behavioral analysis jobs in OBM focus on improving individual or group performance within an organizational setting, namely corporate offices, manufacturing plants, and service-oriented businesses.

The goal of applied behavior analysis in an OBM setting is to achieve broad-scale performance improvement and organizational change to produce happier, more productive employees and ultimately a more efficient and effective workplace.

One of the approaches within OBM is behavioral systems analysis. Based on the principle that organizations of any kind are complex systems, the goal of ABA in this context is to create a balanced situation in which poor performance areas are improved, high performance areas are maintained, and employee performance outcomes are directed toward organizational goals.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injuries affect behavior in many ways. ABA careers working with individuals with brain injuries involve implementing ABA strategies that make a difference in recovery.

Using ABA techniques, applied behavior analysts can help improve:

  • Memory
  • Decision making/planning
  • Judgment
  • Organization/sequencing
  • Attention and perception
  • Problem-solving
  • Reading and writing skills
  • Communication
  • Self-perception
  • Safety awareness

ABA therapies can address social skills, emotional control and mood swings, stress, anxiety, frustration, and depression in those with brain injuries. They can also seek to improve visual memory deficits, visual-spatial impairment, verbal memory deficits, impaired logic, and sequencing difficulties, just to name a few.

Behavioral Gerontology

Many applied behavioral analysis jobs involve supporting the elderly population through the behavioral effects of aging. ABA therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for behavioral problems associated with late-life depression, anxiety, and dementia.

For example, when working with older individuals with dementia, applied behavior analysts first examine how environmental factors influence the frequency and intensity of dementia symptoms. They then implement ABA techniques and therapies to address the related behavioral issues like aggression, deficits in communication and discrimination skills, and disruptive vocalizations.

Special Education

ABA therapies are often an important part of a special education teacher’s repertoire when it comes to working with individual students, as well as for general classroom management. Although ABA therapies have traditionally focused on children with autism spectrum disorder, applied behavior analysts now use the same techniques as part of an effective individualized education plan to improve learning, social skills and other behaviors for children with other developmental or cognitive issues.

ABA careers in special education involve effectively managing behaviors, designing and delivering instruction, and developing and administering educational assessments for students receiving special education services.

Animal Training

Behavioral analysis careers in animal training involve changing the environment and consequences to change an animal’s behavior. Just like in any other type of ABA therapy, applied behavior analysts working in animal training identify antecedents, behavior, and consequence to create a behavior modification program for companion animals, service animals, and even animals in agricultural settings like feedlots.

Focusing on positive, humane, and science-based methods, ABA is now a widely accepted form of animal training.

Language Development

Verbal behavior therapy is a sub-discipline of ABA careers that focuses on the development of functional language skills. It’s all about building on the very things that naturally motivate all people to want to communicate – like needing to convey a need for something like food, to express an emotion, or to alert a caregiver of pain or discomfort.

Using classic ABA techniques and reward systems, ABAs reinforce effective communication to overcome speech and language limitations caused by developmental disabilities, impaired language development, or the social interaction challenges often associated with autism spectrum disorder.

Applied behavior analysts who specialize in verbal behavior therapy use repetition, prompting, and shaping to motivate clients to use their words to get the desired response, or reward. This approach is often used in combination with other forms of therapy, namely speech-language pathology.

Mental Health

ABA careers in mental health incorporate a behavior-focused component to the therapies a patient receives.

Working with children and adults with developmental/neurological disabilities and co-existing mental health issues, ABAs working in this capacity typically collaborate with psychologists, psychiatrists and other therapists to provide services that complement the overarching treatment plan and optimize patient outcomes.

Applied Behavior Analysis Job Outlook

Are behavior analysts in high demand? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for psychologists with a specialty in behavioral disorders is massively growing, with demand rising by a projected 23% over the next decade. Getting into this field means setting yourself up for a stable and highly sought career.

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Based on the growing prevalence of applied behavioral analysis jobs, how much does an ABA make? The 2020 BLS data puts the median annual applied behavioral analyst salary at $47,660, with the top earners working in government ($54,070) and hospitals ($50,460).

With all of this in mind, is ABA a good career? The answer is a resounding, “Yes.” Not only are ABA careers currently in demand with a solid average salary, but the projected growth means that the opportunities—and pay—will only grow from here.

Become an ABA and Make a Difference

Before embarking upon any of these applied behavioral analysis jobs, the first step is finding a state-approved degree program. Your ABA psychology degree will give you the foundation you need to have a lasting impact on people’s lives. Learn more about how to become an applied behavior analyst, and start your journey to a rewarding career today

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