So, you’re curious about ABA — what is it? Who can it benefit? Will this therapy help you, or hurt?
There is no one answer — but, if you have a question, I am happy to answer you directly. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you’re comfortable with it, leave a comment on this page. I’ll do my very best to respond within 24 hours, 7 days a week. I will likely not have the perfect answer — but I can more than likely point you to someone in your area that can and answer general questions. I cannot provide specific therapy services online — that would be irresponsible — but I can answer questions about ABA and whether or not behavioral therapy might be a good fit.
Behavioral therapy is based, at it’s core, on evolutionary science — you know, like Charles Darwin, genetics, that kind of thing. The basic premise is that natural selection helps organisms adapt to their environments in many ways. You know, the whole “giraffes with longer necks get more food — over time, longer necks become a trait common to Giraffes.”
Behavioral therapy is a science predicated on the notion that human learning is sensitive to forces that are very similar to the evolutationary forces of genetics. There is a tremendous amount of research to support this — humans learn to do specific behavior in a specific context as a result of the consequences of those behaviors. It’s a simple, well-studied concept that has been applied in sports, medicine, with college students, with children with autism, for NASA scientists, and in artificial intelligence.
Behavior analysis is best suited for circumstances where a person needs to learn a new skill.
The “learner” can be a single person, a group of children in a classroom, a group of employees at a Fortune 500 company, a neighborhood, or a person who belongs to a group that find learning skills more challenging than most.
The “skill” can range from reducing the number of cigarettes smoked, increasing the quantity of items recycled in a neighborhood, or learning to wash your hands. Behavior analysts are also the leaders in training the next generation of behavior analysts, as you might imagine.
They tend to work with children with autism, as that is the sector in our industry with the most expansive need. We also work in hospitals with patients who need help learning to adhere to a new diet or medicine regimen, or with individuals with traumatic brain injuries.
Some behavior analysts work in social and cultural areas, such as local or regional governments.
Also, a lot of behavior analysts find themselves working with companies who want to improve employee performance — this is particularly nice for employees, as one of the nice things about behavior analysis is that it is based on positive reinforcement. I heard a fantastic story from a behavior analyst working for a factory manager — they set up a system to improve employee performance, and as part of their analysis, discovered that the employees were most (as a group) motivated by getting to end their shifts early. Meeting production and safety goals resulted in ending their shifts early. Over time, the plan became one of the more productive in the company, and the CEO came to visit. Upon arriving, he was shocked to discover that the employees were not at the job site during business hours, and immediately began to chew out the plan manager.
Unfortunately, this type of reaction is not uncommon in behavior analysis. A good system that benefits both the learner and their community (in this case, the learner being the employees and the community being the company owning the factory) is not always favored by persons in power, or by the social conventions we are all accustomed too.
The same story plays out in our school system — kids will learn or fail to learn, and the children who fail to learn are frequently characterized as having a bad background, uninvolved parents, or a learning disability.
The philosophy of behavior analysis is that we must look at both the learner and their environment to understand behavior change.
Behavior changes as a result of changes in the environment. If behavior is not changing in the desired direction, the behavior analyst looks at both the learner’s history as well as the characteristics of their environment. We avoid things like “diagnoses” as first-level analyses for why an individual might behave the way they do. Instead, we prioritize observable events in the environment — the antecedents (what comes before) and postcedents (what comes after) for the behavior of interest.
Check out the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) who describe behavior analysis thoroughly on their page, located here.