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According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated one in 68 children now has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has exploded, so has the interest in applied behavioral analysis (ABA). ABA is a therapeutic treatment approach with a broad application. It has also been repeatedly demonstrated to be effective in helping children and adults with autism.
There are other populations who benefit from applied behavior analysis programs as well, including:
- people who have mental illnesses
- individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- geriatric patients suffering from dementia
- people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury
- people who have diagnoses of other developmental disabilities
ABA is also used as a tool in early intensive behavioral intervention.
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Individuals who want work in the applied behavior analysis field must first have an applicable behavior analysis degree. Due to the rise in popularity of this therapeutic approach, there are many options for training and education in applied behavior analysis.
What Is ABA?
Applied behavioral analysis is an intensive therapeutic approach in which the applied behavioral analyst carefully documents behaviors in a systematic manner. The analyst will first observe the child or other behavior-disordered person in a variety of settings. They carefully document behaviors. She will also conduct a series of interviews with individuals who play an important role in the person’s life including:
- health professionals
The behavior analyst will use the data derived from her objective observations to create an applied behavior analysis program treatment plan that encourages the development of prosocial behaviors.
How Does ABA Work?
ABA therapy can often be broken down in several different components, including:
- discrete trials
- strategies for generalizing the behavior to other environments
- strategies to prompt certain behaviors while minimizing others
- reinforcement methods
- decisions that are based on outcomes
Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
DTT involves breaking down a goal into its individual, much smaller achievable pieces. Each individual piece is then taught to the child/client. The steps include:
- providing them with a cue
- waiting for a response
- giving a reward when the response given is the desired behavior
The cue, an environmental condition that normally is encountered by the child or other person, is called the discriminative stimulus. In order to prompt the client to give the correct response to the stimulus, the applied behavior analyst may use tactics such as:
- verbal reinforcers
- positional reinforcers
- physical prompts
Strategies for generalizing the behavior to other environments
In order to help generalize the prosocial behavior across various settings, the ABA therapy is normally commenced in a calm environment free of distractions. After the client is responding regularly as desired, the training is then taken into increasingly chaotic environments. The individual is prompted to continue the prosocial behavior patterns he has learned. The ABA therapy is not considered to be successful until the generalization of the behavior occurs on a routine basis.
A major part of effective ABA therapy is choosing the correct reinforcement methods. There can be negative or positive reinforcement methods used. A behavior analyst can use consequences to reinforce positive behaviors or discourage negative behaviors. Positive reinforcement occurs when the client is rewarded with an activity or item that he likes when the prosocial response is given. Negative reinforcement is when an item or activity that the child does not like is taken away from his immediate environment when the correct response is given.
It is important to distinguish negative reinforcement from punishment. The two are not the same. While reinforcement seeks to increase a behavior’s incidence, punishments seek to decrease behaviors. Because both approaches have been shown to work, the applied behavioral analyst will assess the reinforcers that work for the client. They will then include those reinforcers in the ABA therapy plan, making adjustments as necessary.
Strategies to prompt certain behaviors while minimizing others
Many analysts use a strategy in which they provide the most obvious prompts during the early DTT sessions. Then they provide prompts that become increasingly less noticeable. Eventually, the prompting is eliminated completely so that the client can give the desired response without needing the prompt. Prompting should be gradually faded out over the shortest period of time possible.
Decisions that are based on outcomes
Underlying the philosophical therapeutic approach of all applied behavior analysis programs is that it is always based on objective, observable data. After being carefully collected, this data then drives the ABA therapy. Observations and data are constantly taken throughout the ABA therapy, and the strategies are adjusted accordingly. For instance, if the child begins by responding to a prompt in the desired manner 40 percent of the time, the ABA therapy might then focus on increasing successful responses to 80 percent or more, setting incremental goals.
How Long Does ABA Take to See Results?
Traditionally, applied behavior analysis programs have been provided for 25 to 40 hours a week. There is a current trend to use this component in a shorter weekly time schedule of between 10 and 15 hours. This allows time for other types of interventions and therapies, such as occupational and speech therapy, providing a wrap-around approach to address multiple co-occurring issues.
This method may also include relationship development intervention, or RDI, especially for children with autism. In RDI, children are taught how to appropriately socialize with their peers. It is relatively new and still in the process of development.
Read more about the History of Autism Treatment.
The TEAACH Method
Another related therapeutic approach often used in schools is the TEAACH method. This involves using a structured day designed according to the way in which people with autism think. It makes activities more predictable and easier to understand. With this approach, an individualized educational plan is created that is used in lieu of a standardized curriculum. The child’s physical environment may be structured in such a way as to make the tasks easier to grasp. Visual supports, such as black and white pictures and other high-contrast drawings, are often used to make the desired response easier to understand.
The Current Trend
The most current trend is to use a combination of these research-based approaches. All of them have been demonstrated to be successful. People who intend to pursue an applied behavioral analysis degree will most likely use a combination of them in their practice.
People who are interested in applied behavioral analysis as a career have several different degree paths from which they can choose. Many applied behavioral analysts first pursue an undergraduate degree in an area like:
- special education
- social work
- applied psychology
- behavior analysis
Aspiring applied behavior analysts then go on to graduate school and complete either a Master’s degree, such as a masters in applied behavior analysis, or a Ph.D. Coursework towards a behavior analysis degree includes:
- behavioral statistics
- computer science
- behavior analysis
Just as there are a number of different degrees that can lead to a career in applied behavioral analysis, there are several different ways to complete a degree in a relevant subject area. While students can certainly choose to attend a brick-and-mortar institution, there are also good online schools that are:
- ranked well
- allow for greater flexibility
Earning an ABA master’s degree online might be a good option for a working adult, for example. A third option is a hybrid program, a combination of online courses and traditional college attendance. Many brick and mortar universities offer such hybrid applied behavior analysis programs. These allow a large component of coursework to be completed in an online environment while requiring practicums and other such activities to be completed in the traditional school setting.
When trying to determine which school to attend, it is important to look at the school’s accreditation and ranking. Preferably, both the school and the actual program will be accredited. The U.S. Department of Education maintains an accreditation database which is a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies. The best schools that offer ABA programs hold regional accreditation recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. These organizations include:
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission
- The Higher Learning Commission
- The Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- The New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institution of Higher Education
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
After determining accreditation, it’s wise to consult a few different rankings of schools and degree programs. For example, someone looking for information about ABA master’s programs might want to look at the degree program rankings provided by U.S. News & World Report and Forbes, as well as many other independent and reputable entities.
After graduating with a degree in applied behavior analysis, most states now require an examination to obtain board certification as an applied behavior analyst. Most certification levels require a graduate degree, such as a masters in applied behavior analysis. And some professionals may opt to go beyond an applied behavior analysis master’s and obtain a doctoral degree.
Further Reading: Behavior Analysis Certification
How Do I Get Certified as an ABA Therapist?
There are five main types of certification for individuals in the field of applied behavior analysis. These include:
- Registered Behavior Technician (RBT)
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
- Autism Certificate (AC)
- Certified Autism Specialist (CAS)
The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) offers three of the most well-known credentials in the industry. When you see a job posting that requires an individual be “ABA Certified,” it likely means that they hold a certification through the BACB. These certifications include the RBT, BCaBA, and BCBA.
Registered Behavior Technician (RBT)
An RBT provides ABA services under the supervision of a BCBA or BCaBA. An RBT does not need a college degree but they must have a high school diploma or equivalent. They also complete 40 clock hours of training and must pass a competency exam.
Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)
A BCaBA is an undergraduate degree-level certification. A BCaBA cannot practice ABA independently. They work under the supervision of a BCBA. A BCaBA must have:
- A bachelor’s degree
- At least 15 hours of behavior-related coursework
- Work experience under a BCBA
Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
The BCBA credential is a graduate-level certification. BCBAs hold a graduate degree in an approved area with a specific amount of behavior-related coursework. They also have experience working as a behavior analyst. BCBA’s can supervise BCaBAs and RBTs. They can conduct behavior assessments and develop treatment plans for their clients.
If you are considering the BCBA certificate, there are two ways to meet the coursework requirement. These include:
- Earning a degree from an ABAI accredited or recognized behavior analyst degree program
- Completing the Verified Course Sequence verified by the ABAI which meets the coursework requirement
Certified Autism Specialist (CAS)
A Certified Autism Specialist works with individuals with autism spectrum disorders. The CAS credential is offered through the Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. To be eligible for the CAS credential you must have:
- a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of professional experience or a master’s degree and two years of experience
- pass an autism competency exam
The CAS certificate is a great supplement to a BCBA for individuals who primarily work with individuals with autism.
Autism Certificate (AC)
The Autism Certificate recognizes professionals who provide services to individuals on the autism spectrum. An Autism Certificate is beneficial to a variety of individuals who work in the fields of:
- in-home care
- community services
You must be employed in a role that serves individuals with autism and pass a competency exam.
A person who completes a degree in applied behavioral analysis has multiple career options. They can work in a variety of settings including:
- therapy centers
An ABA therapist can work in almost any setting where they can use their skills to help an individual minimize problematic behaviors while increasing their performance abilities.
See: ABA Specialties for all the areas in which applied behavior analysis is being utilized.
Most applied behavioral analysts work as members of comprehensive teams of professionals. The role of the applied behavioral analyst is to provide expert information to the rest of the team regarding the behavioral patterns they observe. They help create an effective, comprehensive treatment plan that can be implemented by all members of the team.
Some behavior analysts choose to specialize in the treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorders. These applied behavioral analysts often will work one-on-one with the child and parent. They help train the parents in the intervention strategies they use to encourage functional behavior. In mental health settings, the behavioral analyst may work with psychiatrists and other doctors to determine ways to encourage the patient to take medications as prescribed. Board certified applied behavioral analysts also may supervise a team of board-certified associate behavior analysts who provide the one-on-one therapy.
A career in applied behavioral analysis can be both challenging and rewarding. People who become behavior analysts should be:
- good communicators
- good observers
They must be willing to work with people who have severe behavior disorders. It can be very satisfying to help someone improve their social skills and their ability to function in social settings. A career in applied behavioral analysis can provide that sense of accomplishment.
Applied Behavioral Strategies, “Basis of ABA,” http://www.appliedbehavioralstrategies.com/basics-of-aba.html, Retrieved Aug. 18, 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2010,” http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6302a1.htm?s_cid=ss6302a1_w, Jon Baio, EdS, March 28, 2014.
Florida Association for Behavior Analysis, “Careers in Behavior Analysis,” http://www.fabaworld.org/careers-in-behavior-analysis/, Retrieved Aug. 18, 2015.
UNC School of Medicine, “TEAACH Autism Program,” https://www.teacch.com/about-us/what-is-teacch, Retrieved Aug. 19, 2015.
U.S. Department of Education, “The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs,” http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/Search.aspx, Retrieved Aug. 19, 2015.
U.S. News & World Report, “Best Online Programs Rankings,” http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education, Retrieved Aug. 19, 2015.
U.S. News & World Report, “Best Graduate Schools Rankings,” http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools, Retrieved Aug. 19, 2015.
WebMD, “Autism Therapies: ABA, RDI, and Sensory Therapies,” http://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/autism-therapies-aba-rdi-and-sensory-therapies, Retrieved Aug. 19, 2015.