The Benefits of ABA and Occupational Therapy

ABA in Conjunction with Occupational Therapy

As one of the only reliable, evidence-based techniques proven to help manage a wide spectrum of behavioral disorders, applied behavior analysis (ABA) is often used in conjunction with occupational therapy.  Both therapies can help patients improve their overall quality of life.  ABA and occupational therapy are also used in autism treatment.

ABA Therapy vs Occupational Therapy

There is a significant crossover between the role of occupational therapists and applied behavior analysts.  They have similar priorities and methodologies of their treatment. However, behavior analysis is only one of many different professional practices that occupational therapists may integrate into a treatment plan depending on the needs and goals of their client.

Related resource: Top 15 Best Online Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

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ABA and Occupational Therapy Basics

There are differences in ABA vs occupational therapy.  Perhaps the most notable difference between the fundamentals of ABA and occupational therapy are the priorities and objectives of treatment strategy. Occupational therapists typically focus on the acquisition of specific skills or abilities.  These can include:

  • activities of daily living
  • fine motor skills
  • social skills
  • emotional regulation

An occupational therapist sets secondary objectives and milestones leading up to the ultimate goal of skill acquisition. The scope of OT treatment is usually confined to the activities and environmental factors that are relevant to the specific goals of the therapy.

By comparison, behavior analysts tend to address the fundamental environmental and psychological factors that influence the patient’s actions.  Those in therapy progress steadily from small to broad activities. ABA is often applied to achieve specific goals, like mastery of personal hygiene habits or improved social interactions.  It does so by pinpointing and addressing root causes behind problematic behavior. Applied behavior analysts help patients overcome personal obstacles that can impact virtually every aspect of their life.

Expanding the Scope of Therapy with ABA

Many occupational therapists seek consultation and intervention services from ABA professionals as part of a broad treatment plan. Conventional behavior analysis serves as a practical and reliable solution for a range of behavioral issues that complicate the patient’s ability to fully participate in therapy. ABA benefits include:

  • improved communication skills
  • appropriate play skills
  • reduction of maladaptive behaviors

Occupational therapists may integrate behavior analysis sessions on an as-needed basis as they make progress towards the ultimate goal of skill or sufficiency acquisition.

Comprehensive occupational therapy can include a full examination of environmental factors influencing a client.  According to The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), this can include factors in their:

  • home
  • school
  • social life

This level of personalized care integrates well with ABA.  The basic practices of behavior analysis are useful for managing behavioral concerns in almost any context. These practices are often rendered on an in-home basis as well as in clinical and communal environments.

Benefits of Mutual Approach and Practice Methods

While there can be some complications when integrating specific ABA methods with an ongoing occupational therapy program, the two practices actually share many key features. Both are highly goal oriented.  This helps therapists quantify results and create an accurate roadmap towards success. The ability to measure progress is necessary for applying scientific methodology to improve treatment over time. A synergy between the two practices provides therapists with a powerful and effective tool for helping their clients achieve major life objectives.

Common Practical Applications

As its name suggests, one of the primary purposes of occupational therapy is to help people acquire practical or vocational skills. However, this type of therapy can also revolve around learning the essential activities of daily living (ADLs). Sessions to develop basic motor skills, like controlling finger movement, is just one example of an application for ABA in an occupational therapy setting. Increasing the patient’s ability to better control muscle movement is an essential step in acquiring more advanced skills, like operating household devices or writing.

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Much like the field of behavior analysis, occupational therapy also has a wide range of potential applications for people of all ages and physical ability levels. In most cases, the overall direction of a treatment plan is guided by input and feedback from patients as well as their close family members. Many behavior analysts and occupational therapists work with children and young adults who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.  Others help impaired adults adapt to a new lifestyle.

Working in Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists, as well as assistants and other team members, are usually at the center of any occupational treatment program. While some therapists are also fully qualified and certified to conduct ABA sessions, many work with consultants or have dedicated behavior analysts on their staff. Since there is some overlap between ABA and occupational therapy, team members must communicate with each other.  They must develop a mutual plan centered around the client’s needs. This means that all members of the therapy team must make compromises so they can all work together comfortably.

Recommended Education and Career Preparation

Anyone interested in pursuing a career path oriented towards occupational therapy or applied behavior analysis can explore their options as they pursue an undergraduate degree. In addition to coursework, students can seek volunteer positions, internships and other entry-level job opportunities to gain first-hand experience in their chosen field. There is a lot of flexibility and overlap between degrees.  Pursuing a double-program in both behavior analysis and occupational therapy may also be a viable option.

Students and new professionals who want to become fully certified in either field must complete a relevant graduate program before seeking additional licensing.  Certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) can be a great career boost for behavior analysts.  High-level management, research and educational positions usually require applicants to possess a doctorate in addition to substantial experience and demonstrated success in the field.

Professional Demand and Job Outlook for OT vs ABA

There has been an increasing demand for qualified occupational therapists over the last few years.  This trend is likely to continue in the decade ahead. In fact, the total number of jobs in the profession is expected to increase by 14% between 2021 and 2031.  This is much faster than the overall average, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also reports that practicing psychologists, including behavior analysts, also enjoy a favorable job growth outlook during the same period.

There is little doubt that ABA is an essential component of almost any type of occupational therapy treatment program. Its versatile nature makes it an indispensable tool that therapists can use to reliably curb problematic behaviors and encourage positive ones. Qualified practitioners of applied behavior analysis have plenty of opportunities to use their skills in conjunction with occupational therapy to help patients develop a more productive and satisfying life.