What is Applied Behavior Analysis? The Field, Education and Opportunities

The term ‘applied behavior analyst’ may connote, to the uninitiated, an ‘analyst’ or ‘shrink’. One may picture a therapist taking notes while the patient delves into conscious and unconsciousness motivation. But a behavior analysist is not a psychoanalyst. Applied behavior therapists count behavior specialist B.F. Skinner among their many influences. Applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, is a unique discipline, one that draws from education as well as clinical psychology.

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Applied behavior analysis has application for a wide variety of populations, including those whose skills aren’t at the level to benefit from psychoanalysis or cognitive therapies. Many applied behavior analysts work with children and young people who have autism. Some work with individuals who have other developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges. Services may be delivered in clinics, residential homes, or schools – or in the client’s own home.

Some clients have focused ABA plans: for example, compliance with dental treatment, development of self-care skills, or establishment of instruction-following. The treatment team may seek to lessen particular problematic behaviors, including self-harm and socially inappropriate behaviors.

Some clients, including many children with autism, receive comprehensive plans; this can translate to 30 or 40 hours a week of therapy. Early intervention may increase IQ and global functioning.

Clients typically receive ABA through a tiered delivery system. The behavior analyst will be in charge of higher level tasks such as analyzing environmental influences and preparing treatment plans. Technicians may carry out much of the treatment plan. It may take many repetitions to develop a single skill.

Education and Credentialing

Applied behavior analysts have education at the master’s level. In many states, they are required to hold certification through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). The individual state will determine who is, and is not, required to hold this credential and what additional requirements, if any, must be met.

In order to be eligible to sit for the certification examination, a person must have a specific body of knowledge and must have completed a practicum or supervised work period. Students typically complete a six-course sequence that includes mandated instructional hours in all areas identified by the BACB. The program may include a practicum or intensive practicum that is BACB-approved. Not all schools that offer the course sequence offer the practicum, however. Some professionals complete longer supervised work periods outside academia.

A student who does not already have a master’s will take the course sequence as part of a master’s program. The program has some discretion with regard to electives or other requirements that will “round out” the master’s. The name of the degree is sometimes a clue as to the focus. Some programs award a Master of Arts or Master of Science; others offer a Master of Education (M.Ed.). A M.Ed. may offer additional coursework applicable to education. In some cases, a student who pursues a M.Ed. will earn a master’s in special education. A student who is coming from outside the educational arena may find this advantageous.

Finding a good match, though, isn’t all about whether a program is housed in a psychology department or a college of education or even the level of support it offers in achieving professional credentialing. Individual practitioners have their own philosophical bents. This is also the case with schools.

Career Opportunities

PayScale has reported average earnings of about $50,000 for practitioners with less than five years on the job, about $65,000 for those with ten to twenty years of experience.

Applied behavior analysis is enjoying increasing recognition as a profession with many states now licensing practitioners. A number have passed legislation just in the past five years. Massachusetts recently joined the ranks of those states that license. In 2017, Washington State will.

There have been victories, too, in ensuring funding for children who require applied behavior analysis. The courts determined that Florida could not deny ABA to Medicaid-covered children for whom the treatment was determined to be “medically necessary” on the basis that it was experimental (https://www.autismspeaks.org/advocacy/advocacy-news/order-directing-florida-medicaid-cover-aba-upheld-appeal).

As demand is rising, so, too, the number of qualified providers is rising. To have the most career prospects, one will need a strong resume and the kind of skills that people talk about.