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 What Does it Mean to Be a Behavior Analyst or to Do ABA?

- Monday, February 15, 2010
Behavior analysts take many different paths to get to the point in their life where they decide to pursue behavior analysis as a career. Some take a few psychology courses as an undergrad that have a behavior analytic focus, some want to work in another setting (mental health, nursing homes, businesses, developmental disabilities) and then are exposed to how effective behavior analysis is, and the list goes on. I personally, took psychology classes and was drawn to Cognitive Behavioral Psychology because it was the only type of therapy that seemed effective and I was additionally fascinated with the field of autism. Originally, I didn't want to go to graduate school at the Florida State University to learn behavior analysis, I wanted to learn about how to more effectively work with children diagnosed with autism. My professors constantly reminded me that I was not in an autism program I was in a behavior analysis program. I consider myself extremely fortunate that THIS was the type of program I was in. Some college programs do not have this focus, they are other programs: special ed, developmental disabilities, general psychology, etc that add in a behavior analytic component. But FSU'S program was a Behavior Analytic program that taught about the various applications of behavior analysis. I am often astounded and baffled when I meet fellow behavior analysts working in the field of autism who literally do not seem to have a clue about behavior analysis. I know that they are well intentioned and probably came from the same path in life as me: working with children diagnosed with autism. However, they somehow missed out on learning a VERY important component of being a behavior analyst: using behavior analysis to develop programming. Some of the people are "experts" in the Lovaas Method, or Verbal Behavior Approach, or Pivotal Response training, or using the ABLLS but throw something at them that is a little different from how they were originally trained and they have no clue what to do. This is NOT a behavior analyst. 

So what does it mean to be a behavior analyst and to do ABA?
First let's start with the definition of behavior analysis:
Behavior analysis is a science that studies behavior. Behavior analysts focus on finding and using the best techniques to increase, decrease, or otherwise change behavior based on the needs of the client/parent. 

The theories, principles, and techniques researched in behavior analytic research can be applied to a plethora of settings, populations, and situations. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Bailey at FSU was "If it moves, we own it." Basically meaning behavior analysts literally can work in any situation where behavior occurs. That doesn't necessarily mean they should or will work in those situations....but they could. Additionally, they should only work with populations in settings where they received training or be under direct supervision of someone who has training in that area. For instance, my primary area of training is with children diagnosed with autism or developmental delays so if I wanted to work in a nursing home, I would need to be supervised by a behavior analyst that has training with this population. 

Merging behavior analysis with autism 
I have noticed two trends for working with autistic children:
1. A behavior analyst who assesses the child using direct observation, parental report, specific assessments such as the ABLLS-R, VB-MAPP, Lovaas Approach etc, functional assessments, environmental assessments, and any other pertinent information or assessments. The behavior analyst then uses this information PAIRED with the latest research to develop the child's programming
2. A behavior analyst is trained to use a specific assessment/protocol such as the ABLLS-R, VB-MAPP, Lovaas Approach, Verbal Behavior Approach, etc and then the behavior analyst uses this protocol to design the child's programming.

Trend 2 is completely lacking when it comes to actually applying behavior analysis and making use of behavior analytic principles in the child's programming. Someone cannot just use an assessment or protocol that was designed by a behavior analyst or behaviorally oriented person and say they are doing behavior analysis. Conversely, if someone uses a "developmental" protocol or programming protocol that was not designed by a behavior analyst and does not have research to support it; as long as they pull from this programming and apply it in accordance to the behavior analytic research, they ARE doing behavior analysis. 

It is important to note that when working with a population such as children diagnosed with autism, the behavior analyst must become an expert in analyzing behavior and if they are developing the child's programming an expert in program development for children diagnosed with autism. There are hundreds of programs, protocols, and resources to use when teaching children diagnosed with autism and if the behavior analyst is developing programming as well as assessing the child from a behavior analytic perspective, then it is on them to learn about these approaches even if they don't use the approaches. 

A good behavior analyst will look at a child's strengths and weaknesses and develop the child's programming by:
*Assessing the deficits from a behavioral perspective (do the prerequisite skills exist, is the child attending, is the child motivated, does the material need to be presented differently, are there environmental factors that are impeding learning, etc),
 *Determining how to make use of the strengths when teaching,
*Draw from the relevant behavioral research, assessments, and protocols AND
*Draw from autism specific resources.
For example if I have a client who is not motivated and not attending to the task, then it is my duty to: 
*Determine how to increase the child's motivation and how to increase attending. I will do this by: 
*Looking at behavioral research on motivation and attending, 
*Looking at protocols/programming that designed for autistic children that have specific ideas/programs for increasing motivation and attending, and
*Assessing the child's lack of motivation and attending to determine where the exact deficits lie (is the child motivated for an item, but loses interest once a demand is placed?, does the child have free access to all items so it is difficult to have the child "work" for an item, will the child attend to preferred items but not common items?,etc). 

I would then pull all of this information together to design the child's programming.
Additionally, while working with a child, if the child starts to engage in a novel behavior such as hitting their head, it is my responsibility as a behavior analyst, to analyze why this behavior is occurring. I shouldn't just guess and put forth a general plan for responding to the behavior. I need to collect data and determine what the antecedents and consequences are, I also need to make use of the research when designing the behavior intervention plan. 

A Behavior Analyst is...
*A behavior analyst is someone who collects information about a child's behaviors, skills, strengths, weaknesses, and environment
*A behavior analyst is someone who uses information collected from the assessment to develop an individualized plan for the child using behavior analytic principles and techniques
*A behavior analyst is someone who constantly assesses the child and modifies programming based on the child's performance. If a child has difficulty with a task, the behavior analyst immediately determines why and modifies
*A behavior analyst is not automatically an expert on autism
*A behavior analyst is not someone who just uses one protocol, assessment, or approach when working with autistic children. Instead the behavior analyst researches the BEST methods to use with the child based on the research
*A behavior analyst is someone who follows the Behavior Analysis Certification Board's Code of Conduct
*A behavior analyst is an analyzer, modifier, and researcher and this should be reflected in their work.

My basic point for behavior analysts out there  is to be a behavior analyst first and foremost. If you took the time to earn your certification, make use of your degree and the knowledge that you have about behavior analytic techniques and principles. If you do not approach your client's programming from a behavior analytic perspective and you get stuck in following a certain approach, protocol, or assessment, then you might as well not be a behavior analyst. On the other hand if you are going to work with autistic children, learn about the plethora of assessments, protocols, techniques, and approaches that are available to you so that you can develop the BEST program for your child. 

For more information on what it means to be a behavior analyst, I highly recommend checking out this book:How to Think Like a Behavior Analyst

Taraya W commented on 02-Dec-2013 01:40 PM
Thanks so much for giving all of this wonderful information on ABA. I am about to start an AbA grad program at Nova southeastern University and I love getting as much information from professionals as possible.

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