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5 Areas of Specialization for Applied Behavior Analysts

Just like the medical field has dozens of specialized jobs to choose from, and someone with a degree in education can choose from a wide-array of job-types that fit their education and experience, there is also more than one specialized area that applied behavior analysts can work in. Being an ABA is not simply for those who want to work in the home or in a classroom with a client. They have many options. 

Applied behavior analysis was defined in 1968 as the scientific study of human behavior. It involves the application of practical interventions, based on learning theory, to influence and develop constructive behaviors within a society. Today, applied behavior analysis is a growing field of study at the forefront of understanding human behavior and social activity and treating a variety of behavioral disorders that are receiving increasing amounts of attention in the United States. Along with other disciplines in the field of psychology, applied behavior analysis represents a rich and highly rewarding set of career opportunities with lots of potential to make a powerful, positive impact in peoples’ lives.

Here are five areas of specialization within the practice of applied behavior analysis that offer steadily increasing potential for professional success:

  1. Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor
  2. Applied Behavior Analysis Therapist
  3. Residential Applied Behavior Analysis
  4. Developmental Applied Behavior Analysis
  5. Forensic Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor

Educational professionals are often overlooked in lists of viable careers, but in a growing field like applied behavior analysis, the instructor’s position can be a rewarding specialty in itself. Applied behavior analysis instructors are needed not only to teach the discipline at the college level but to provide ongoing training to professionals at hospitals and other institutions. Instructors make frequent advancements in the field, which can be presented at annual conferences, workshops, and seminars, and they enjoy significant opportunities for professional recognition and upward mobility.

An example of a portion of a position description for an ABA instructor has been taken from the Brooklyn Autism Center

  • Instructors are responsible for teaching students one-on-one applied behavior analysis utilizing various evidence-based methods including but not limited to discrete trial training, behavior chaining procedures, incidental teaching, implementing behavior plans, recording and graphing data, creating and maintaining stimuli and other duties as needed.
  • Instructors assist in the implementation of programming in a range of areas including: peer integration, social interaction, communication, academics, self-help skills, gross-motor skills, language, functional living skills, behaviors management and recreation/leisure pre-vocational skills.
  • Instructors assist in the implementation of data collection systems that measure student progress in each of the above areas. They participate in clinic (parent/teacher) meetings to review student progress, programs, procedures, teaching techniques, administrative matters, etc.

For applied behavior analysts who have experience in the field and would like to go on to teach others at the collegiate level, this seems like an interesting and beneficial career choice. 

Applied Behavior Analysis Therapist

An applied behavior analysis therapist is specifically trained to help encourage socially constructive and adaptive behavior through positive and nurturing reinforcement. Opportunities for therapists with a specialization in applied behavior analysis can be found at hospitals, universities, schools, and in the private practice field. This is a rewarding and fulfilling profession that offers significant compensation and ample professional recognition.

This area of specialization is probably what you generally think of when you think of an applied behavior analyst. They work in all types of environments and with children and adults. 

Duties and responsibilities include:

  • Initial interview and assessment
  • Set short and long-term goals
  • Conduct treatment sessions
  • Engage patients and family
  • Track and encourage growth
  • Identify improvements
  • Condition negative behaviors
  • Work in different situations
  • Train others
  • Assist with home life

Residential Applied Behavioral Analyst

Not all opportunities for employment within the psychiatric field involve hospitals or schools. There are many types of institutions which see to the needs of patients in the long term. Residential applied behavior analysts are highly sought after in supportive housing programs for people with mental illness and other disabilities, as well as drug addiction treatment and recovery programs and facilities for abused foster children. The prison system and the juvenile offender system are also in need of dedicated specialists to help reform criminal behavior and reintegrate one-time offenders with the rest of society.

For example, applied behavior analysts can work with children in a mental health facility in order to help them learn skills while simultaneously teaching parents or foster parents; then when the child returns home from the facility, the analyst can help the child generalize the learned skills in the home and out in the community. 

Helping a child (minor or adult) with a mental illness, disability, or addiction can be scary and confusing for parents. Applied behavior analysts work as the middleman/woman to help those in residential settings reintegrate back home and into society. 

Children who were fostered and are moving into a new home to be adopted face many challenges, as do the adoptive parents.  An applied behavioral analyst can assist with building trust, confidence, and a positive connection between child and parent. 

Family cooperation is listed as an ABA benefit for adopted children

“Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of ABA is that it involves the entire family. This provides opportunities for family bonding, which is so crucial in adoptive families. It provides the sense that the entire family is the client, rather than singling out the adopted child (something they have experienced quite enough of). It allows the family to learn to provide the help and support their child needs, easing the eventual transition out of therapy.”

The other benefits of using ABA with foster and adopted children include the use of positive reinforcement, it is an intimate and intensive approach unlike some others, it helps with increasing and encouraging social skills, and it is a good way to prepare students for school. 

Developmental Applied Behavior Analyst

An applied behavior analyst with specialized expertise in developmental psychology can work with children or adults who have developmental disabilities. In many cases, a developmental ABA would be contacted if a parent is worried about their child who seems to be missing developmental milestones typical for that child’s age. Many children with autism have developmental disabilities as well; however, not everyone with a developmental disability has autism. Early intervention is key, so if you suspect a child to have a developmental disability, please reach out to their parent or school psychologist. 

Some things that a developmental applied behavior analyst can work with their clients on are:

  • Evaluating and observing the child in their natural environment at school and at home.
  • Observing specific aspects of development such as speech and language skills, fine and gross motor skills, social skills, eye contact, self-help skills, and academic skills. 
  • Determining interventions for observed deficits based on data.
  • Helping train teachers and parents on interventions.
  • Following up with family to monitor progress.

Forensic Behavior Analyst

Forensic psychology is the science of profiling offenders and victims, in the hopes of identifying patterns that will lead to a break in an otherwise difficult case. Law enforcement agencies at every level of government in the US employ specialists with applied behavior expertise for this purpose, and the discipline is increasingly popular with military authorities as well, as modern methods of waging war and tracking down terrorist organizations bear many traits in common with traditional police work.

Applied behavior analysts can look at the behavioral patterns of an offender, or a series of victims, and develop profiles that incorporate information from a wide variety of disciplines; they can tell law enforcement where a person comes from, what age they are likely to be, their ethnic background, or how one victim relates to others in a series, as a few examples. The specialization is extremely prevalent now, and opportunities for individual accomplishment and advancement are many.

An example of how ABAs are put to work in the area of forensic behavior analysis comes from Applied Behavior Analysis Edu.

“For most behavior analysts, the antecedents and behaviors are observable and the consequences adjustable. For criminal behavior analysts, only the behaviors are clear. The analyst formulates theories of antecedent and consequence to explain the evidential behaviors in an attempt to predict things that could help give some indication as to who the perpetrator is:”

  • Employment situation and type of job
  • Family status and background
  • Personal tics and preferences
  • Hobbies and formative experiences

What a difference you could make as a forensic behavior analyst! 

As you can see, the range of job types you can have as an applied behavior analyst is so very broad. Working in a school with students with ASD versus working on crimes with law enforcement and detectives are quite different; yet, both specializations require similar education, knowledge, and experience in the field. 

Read what behavioral analyst Jennifer Klapatch Totsch, Ph.D. BCBA-D has to say when she is asked what she does for a living…

“I dreaded being asked what I do for a living; quite simply, it was extremely effortful on my part and was primarily maintained by negative reinforcement. But now, the function has changed for me. My intended effect on the audience is no longer to merely provide a job description, one adequate enough to satisfy them and move on in the conversation. Now, my intention is to inspire and intrigue, to get them thinking differently about all things behavior, from the minute to the complex. Really, to get them thinking differently about the way our world turns, because that’s what hooked me.”

READ MORE about how to become an applied behavior analyst! 

“Regardless of where you practice or the types of clients you treat, it’s almost universally expected that you meet a few specific qualifications to be hired on at a clinic or school district, or even to practice ABA independently:”

  • Earning a qualifying master’s or higher degree in behavior analysis, psychology, or education.
  • Gaining real-world experience through a supervised practicum or fieldwork
  • Passing the national certification exam to qualify for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) credential
  • Obtaining a state license if your state has a licensing requirement in place for ABAs

If you feel as if this may be the route you want to go, search for programs in your area and get started! There are so many wonderful and life-changing opportunities in the field of applied behavior analysis.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

Updated February 2021

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