Applied behavior analysts are both scientists and practitioners who (1) seek to understand why behavior occurs and (2) apply interventions based on applied behavior analysis (ABA) to address a wide range of social problems and behavior disorders and produce meaningful outcomes to improve an individual’s quality of life.
Although applied behavior analysts are best known for their work with children with autism spectrum disorders and other pervasive development disorders, these professionals also create and implement effective, evidence-based interventions in many other populations and settings to address a myriad of social concerns.
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 the simplest of 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?
The expertise of behavior analysts is valued in settings ranging from early childhood education to the corporate environment; in capacities ranging from private practice to consulting; and with clients ranging from those with developmental disabilities to those with mental health issues.
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However, the practice remains 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 the success of the treatment.
Behavior analysis can be broken down into two, primary areas of study:
Experimental Behavior Analysis
The experimental analysis of behavior serves as the basic science of the discipline, which, over the past decades has grown substantially thanks to a large and well-respected body of research literature that seeks to learn 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. Applied behavior analysts apply objective research to implement therapies that influence socially important behaviors. In other words, using the findings of experimental behavior analysis, applied behavior analysts implement behavior change techniques.
Using the dimensions of ABA, applied behavior analysts provide services that include (but are not limited to):
- Conducting behavioral assessments
- Writing and revising behavior-analytic treatment plans
- Overseeing the implementation of treatment plans
- Training others to implement components of treatment plans
The Role of Applied Behavior Analysts in the Implementation of ABA Therapies
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)
Applied behavior analysts provide evidence-based treatment to target a variety of behavior and skills, such as:
- 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
Applied behavior analysts implement interventions that target behaviors that are essential to that person. For one person, this may include employing techniques designed to help them cross the street safely, while for another person, this may mean curbing aggressive behavior and getting along with peers in social settings or school. For one child, this may mean adopting a bedtime routine, while for another, it may mean learning appropriate bathroom 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 memorialize behavior gains
- 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., which is why the field of ABA has a number of well-defined practice areas, such as:
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 and understanding another individual’s perspective. They often work in institution-based, school-based, community-based, and home-based settings.
A number of ABA techniques have evolved into individualized and intensive early intervention programs for children with autism that allow children to learn and practice skills in both structured and unstructured environments.
Applied behavior analysts may also help teens and adults with ASD to build important life skills. The employment of ABA techniques often helps these individuals transition into independent living situations and gain 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, such as a business, industry, or human service setting.
The goal of applied behavior analysts 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, which is based on the principle that organizations are complex systems. The goal of applied behavior analysts 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. Applied behavior analysts focus on principles such as reinforcement, punishment, and stimulus control, among others.
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 home-based, nursing home-based or community-based settings.
ABA therapies are often an important part of a special education teacher or applied behavior analyst’s repertoire in a special education setting. Although ABA therapies have traditionally been focused on children with autism spectrum disorder, applied behavior analysts now use them as part of an effective intervention plan to improve the skills of children with other developmental disabilities and students receiving special education services.
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. 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 and service animals.
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-based animal training uses a well-researched treatment plan based on the unique needs of each animal. It is now a widely accepted form of animal training, as it focuses on positive, humane, and science-based methods.
The Verbal Behavior Approach is a branch of ABA that has a functional language focus. It captures and builds upon motivation and uses rewards to reinforce communication for children with language challenges caused by developmental disabilities, such as autism, or impaired language development or social interaction skills.
Applied behavior analysts following the Verbal Behavior Approach use repetition, prompting, and shaping to motivate the child to use words to get the desired response. It is often used with other forms of therapy, such as 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 children and adults. Applied behavior analysts working in the mental health field often collaborate with psychologists, psychiatrists and related professionals to optimize patient outcomes.
Applied behavior analysts often direct ABA therapies at children and adults with developmental/neurological disabilities who have co-existing mental health issues.
Careers in Experimental Behavior Analysis
Behavior analysis promotes basic research and encourages the application of that research. Several exciting subspecialties have evolved out of experimental behavior analysis:
Behavioral economics draws on five decades of research and Herrnstein’s matching law, which has been used as a quantitative measurement tool to describe patterns of behavior-environment relations. Behavioral economics provides an understanding of how naturally occurring events affect socially important behaviors.
This area of ABA is used to study human behavioral issues like consumer choice, gambling, drug use, and therapy.
Behavioral pharmacology has made significant contributions to the study of drug effects on behavior, particularly in drug-behavior interactions. 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 drugs, and the use of pharmacological tools in the analysis of behavior.
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.