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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 ASDs has exploded, so has the interest in applied behavioral analysis, a therapeutic treatment approach that has been repeatedly demonstrated to be effective in helping children with autism.
There are other populations who benefit from applied behavior analysis programs as well, including people who have mental illnesses, geriatric patients suffering from dementia, people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury and people who have diagnoses of other developmental disabilities.
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Individuals seeking to work in the ABA field must first have an applicable behavior analysis degree. Due to the rise in popularity of this therapeutic approach, there are many options for degrees, from paraprofessionals to those working towards a degree from one of the many applied behavior analysis graduate programs.
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, carefully documenting behaviors. She will also conduct a series of interviews with the caregivers, health professionals, teachers, parents and others who have important roles in the person’s life. She will then use the data derived from her objective observations to create an applied behavior analysis program treatment plan that encourages the development of prosocial behaviors.
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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 and decisions that are based on outcomes.
Discrete trial training involves breaking down a goal into its individual, much smaller achievable pieces. Each individual piece is then taught to the child/client by providing them with a cue, waiting for a response and then giving a reward when the response given is the desired one. 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 gestures, modeling, verbal reinforcers, positional reinforcers and physical prompts.
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, where he 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. Reinforcements can be positive or negative. 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, as 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 and will then include those reinforcers in the ABA therapy plan, making adjustments as necessary.
Many analysts use a strategy in which they provide the most obvious prompts during the early discrete trial training sessions, then 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.
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.
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 to allow 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.
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, making 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 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 undergraduate degrees in special education, social work, applied psychology, rehabilitation or behavior analysis. They 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. It is important coursework towards a behavior analysis degree includes behavioral statistics, neuroscience and computer science in addition to psychology, behavior analysis, education or rehabilitation courses.
Just as there are a number of different degrees that can lead to a career in applied behavioral analysis, likewise 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 accredited, ranked well and that allow for greater flexibility. Getting a degree from an ABA master’s programs 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, allowing 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, or even if you’ve chosen to pursue a degree from one of the many online ABA master’s programs, 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. 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 behavioral analysis, most states now require an examination to obtain board certification as an applied behavioral 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
A person who completes a degree in applied behavioral analysis has multiple career options. They can work in therapy centers, homes, schools, clinics, hospitals and other settings where minimizing problematic behaviors while increasing the performance abilities is important.
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 observed so an effective comprehensive treatment plan can be developed and implemented by all members of the team.
If specializing in autism, the applied behavioral analyst often will work one-on-one with the child and parent to help train the parents in the intervention strategies to 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 necessarily should be people who are compassionate, good communicators, objective, good observers and be willing to work with people who have severe behavior disorders. It can be very satisfying to help someone improve his ability to function in social settings, and 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.