Applied behavior analysts double as scientists and therapeutic practitioners. In this dual role they (1) seek to understand why behavior occurs and (2) apply behavioral interventions and coaching to address a wide range of social problems and behavior disorders to encourage positive behavior and improve the quality of life for their patients and clients.
Although applied behavior analysts are best known for their work with children with autism spectrum disorders and other pervasive developmental disorders, ABAs also create and implement effective, evidence-based interventions in many other populations and settings to address behavioral problems of virtually any kind – from adults with phobias and eating disorders to veterans with PTSD and traumatic head injuries to animal behavior training. The field is literally that diverse.
A Career in Behavior Analysis: The Study of Behavior and the Application of ABA Therapies
Behavior analysis is the scientific study of principles of learning and behavior. In simplest terms, behavior analysts study socially significant behavior and its relationship to the environment in an effort to answer the question: Why do people do what they do?
Behavioral expertise and an understanding of what motivates people’s actions is valued in diverse settings ranging from early childhood education classrooms to corporate offices. The capacities in which ABAs work, and the kinds of clients they work with, are just as diverse – ranging from those with developmental disabilities and those with mental health issues to everyday, neuro-typical people with no diagnosable disorders or disabilities of any kind.
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Even with all this diversity, the methods and desired outcomes remain fairly consistent across the board. 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 issues, and monitor and document progress.
Behavior analysis can be broken down into two, primary areas of study:
Experimental Behavior Analysis
The experimental analysis of behavior serves as the scientific basis of ABA. In plain terms, that means ABAs identify problem behaviors, reach into their bag of behavioral modification methods and techniques, try the ones they think will be most effective for addressing particular behaviors, and make observations to see what’s working and what isn’t, carefully documenting their observations along the way.
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 real behavior problems in the real world. Applied behavior analysts rely on the findings of objective research and analysis when implementing therapies for different populations and different behaviors.
So 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. That might seem a bit reductive, but it’s the basic idea behind ABA and the basis of all the therapies they provide.
Of course, ABA isn’t all therapy all the time. A day in the life of any applied behavior analyst is also going to include, but is certainly is not limited to, things like:
- Conducting behavioral assessments
- Writing and revising behavior-analytic treatment plans
- Overseeing the implementation of treatment plans
- Working with parents to implement components of treatment plans
- Training RBTs and assistants to implement certain parts of those treatment plants
The Role of Applied Behavior Analysts in the Implementation of ABA Therapies
Applied 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 classmates and other peers. For one child, this may mean adopting a bedtime routine, while for another, it might be about learning appropriate bathroom skills.
Depending on the setting, population, skill deficits, and/or problem behaviors being addressed, applied behavior analysts use ABA therapies to:
- Increase behaviors and/or teach new skills (e.g. improve social interactions, increase on-task behavior)
- Maintain behaviors (e.g. self-control, self-monitoring)
- Transfer behavior from one situation to another (i.e. taking the skills learned in a controlled environment to the real world)
- Restrict conditions to eliminate interfering behaviors (i.e. modifying the environment to improve behavior)
- Reduce interfering behaviors (e.g. persistent repetition, self-injury)
- 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-advocacy and independence
- Safety skills
- Social relationships
- Vocational skills
Regardless of the ABA techniques used, applied behavior analysts employ a comprehensive program that includes:
- Creating specific intervention goals and objectives
- Creating and implementing a well-defined plan that includes ABA strategies for meeting goals and objectives
- Engaging in ongoing data collection to track progress
- Creating and following a plan that highlights the maintenance of behavior gains
Careers in Applied Behavior Analysis
Applied behavior analysts usually focus their work on a specific area, such as autism, developmental disabilities, mental health, head trauma, geriatrics, etc. This is why the field of ABA has a number of well-defined practice areas, the most popular of which include:
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
ABA 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 working with children with ASD employ ABA principles and techniques in an effort 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 institution-based, school-based, community-based and home-based settings.
Putting together a collection of the techniques that seem to work best for a particular patient, ABAs design individualized treatment plans that allow clients to learn and practice skills in both structured and unstructured environments. And working with people on the autism spectrum isn’t limited to working strictly with kids.
Applied behavior analysts may also help teens, young adults and older people with ASD to build important life skills, helping them transition into independent living situations, handle daily tasks like grocery shopping, and even find employment.
Organizational Behavior Management
Organizational behavior management (OBM) is a growing sub-discipline of ABA. Applied behavior analysts working 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 actually 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. Applied behavior analysts working with individuals with brain injuries can implement ABA strategies that make a difference in recovery.
Using ABA techniques, applied behavior analysts can help improve:
- Decision making/planning
- Attention and perception
- Reading and writing skills
- 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.
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.
Applied behavior therapists working with aging individuals often provide services in clients’ homes, as well as in privately run assisted living facilities, senior centers and state nursing homes.
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 in special education aims to effectively manage behaviors, design and deliver instruction, and develop and administer educational assessments for students receiving special education services.
Animal training using ABA techniques involves 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 (What happened in the environment before the behavior occurred?), behavior (What is the behavior?), and consequence (What happens after the behavior occurs?) to create a behavior modification program for companion animals, service animals and even animals in agricultural settings like feedlots.
Using an individual approach, they first attempt to identify why the behavior is occurring. Then they design a treatment or training plan designed to address the behavior. Unlike other types of animal training, ABA is capable of using a well-researched treatment plan based on the unique needs of individual pets and service animals, or individual groups of animals as would be found in an agricultural setting. Focusing on positive, humane and science-based methods, ABA is now a widely accepted form of animal training.
Verbal behavior therapy is a sub-discipline of ABA 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, as the case may be. This approach is often used in combination with other forms of therapy, namely speech-language pathology.
Nearly a half century ago, B.F. Skinner and Ogden Lindsley began landmark studies in the applied analyses of behavior using mental patients as subjects. Since then, ABA has been used to advance mental health services for both children and adults by incorporating 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.
Careers in Experimental Behavior Analysis
Behavior analysis promotes basic research and encourages the application of that research.
Experimental behavior analysis looks at the world from a purely scientific and academic perspective. It’s all about learning from observation and experimentation for a better understanding of what drives behaviors. This differs from takes place in the application of behavior analysis (ABA) where knowledge of human behavior is used to enact some sort of behavioral change. The end result of experimental behavior analysis is the knowledge and understanding itself, not the therapeutic application of that knowledge.
Several exciting subspecialties have evolved out of experimental behavior analysis:
Behavioral economics studies human behavioral issues like consumer choice, gambling and drug use. It attempts to understand of how naturally occurring events affect socially important behaviors. Though it draws on five decades of research and Herrnstein’s matching law in much the same way as any other area of behavior analysis, it makes use of quantitative tools to identify and measure patterns in an effort to understand the relationship between environment and behavior.
Behavioral pharmacology has made significant contributions to researching the effects of drugs on behavior. Behavior analysts (often trained as both behavior analysts and pharmacologists, known as behavior pharmacologists) study the effects of drugs on conditioned and unconditioned behavior, pharmacological aspects of drug abuse, drug interactions, the effects of repeated or chronic exposure to pharmacological agents.
Behavior analysts (often called behavioral toxicologists) working in behavioral toxicology investigate how specific toxic exposures change the way people and animals behave and 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.
One of the largest research centers for behavioral toxicology is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research.