10 Myths of Applied Behavior Analysis

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

President, bSci21Media, LLC

Applied Behavior Analysis has seen enormous growth over the past 15 years due to its successes in the areas of autism and developmental disabilities.  ABA is unique in that it’s analytic goals are the prediction and influence of behavior.  With goals such as those, behavior analysts are primarily concerned with one thing and one thing only — behavior change.  

What may be surprising to some is that the pragmatic goal of behavior change is quite unique among the social sciences.  Most other approaches seek “understanding” and regard it as something other than behavior change.  To behavior analysts, however, you “understand” behavior to the extent that you can predict and influence it.  Moreover, the very definition of behavior is more broad than most other fields — even the so-called “mental” events are regarded as behavior.  ABA is a science of action — behavior analysts take what others think of as “things” (e.g., states of mind, traits, etc…) and reconceptualize them as actions nested in a context (e.g., instead of “memories” behavior analysts talk of “remembering”; instead of “traits” behavior analysts talk of “stimulus generalization” etc…).
Guess what, this approach has paid off big time.  ABA is the treatment of choice for autism.  Nevertheless, the field is not without critics, and the National Autism Network lists ten myths of ABA that we will summarize below.
Myth #1: ABA is not a scientifically proven form of therapy for autism.
The evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of ABA.  In fact, over 550 peer-reviewed studies have been published demonstrated the effectiveness of ABA with individuals with autism.  ABA is the most established autism treatment by insurance providers, and is endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General, The National Standards Project, and The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. 
Myth #2: ABA therapy is a new treatment for autism.
ABA as a field has been around since the 1950s and saw major successes with autism starting in the 1970s with the pioneering work of Ivar Lovaas.  
Myth #3: All ABA programs are the same.
ABA is a science of individual behavior.  This has been true since the earliest days of B.F. Skinner’s “cumulative records,” and has been a distinguishing feature of the field ever since.  Behavior analysts take a route that is different than most others in the social sciences — instead of learning a little about a lot of people in large groups, behavior analysts learn a lot about a few individuals at a time.  The latter is in line with the pragmatic goals of behavior change.  In the practice of ABA, every case is different because every individual is different — has a different history, family life, school situation, likes and dislikes, etc…  Thus, every Behavior Support Plan is customized to each individual’s unique life situation.
Myth #4: ABA is composed of solely table work/sitting.
Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is certainly one approach used in ABA, but it is not the defining feature.  For example, incidental teaching or “natural environment training” includes working with the individual as they go about their day.  In these cases, behavior analysts will provide prompts, reinforcers, activity schedules, modeling, etc… in the moment, when the skills are most needed.  Each approach has its place.
Myth #5: ABA therapy is only for children with autism.
Applied Behavior Analysis has documented applications across a wide spectrum of behavior including Organizational Behavior Management, environmental sustainability, and many others.  Just check out the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and Behavior & Social Issues to see for yourself.

Myth #6: ABA therapy promotes robotic language/behavior.
Behavioral rigidity is one of the characteristics of autism, and many mental disorders.  ABA treatments seek to overcome rigidity by teaching multiple exemplars and teaching for generalization to the real-world situations relevant to the individual.  In the beginning of a program, responses might seem overly simplified and therefore “robotic” but you need behavior to work with, and those skills are eventually built up and transferred to naturalistic settings in a functional manner.

Myth #7: Anybody can direct an ABA treatment program.
If your state covers ABA treatment, it must be overseen by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).  BCBAs undergo a long course sequence in many aspects of ABA, in addition to a lengthy (1500 hours) supervised fieldwork experience.

Myth #8: Children must undergo 40-hours of ABA therapy a week to achieve a positive effect.
The length and intensity of any ABA program is dependent upon the individual and his/her baseline behavioral state.  As mentioned above, the key feature of ABA is it’s focus on individuals, rather than groups.  ABA is not a one-size-fits-all treatment.

Myth #9: ABA programs institute punishment in their teaching procedures.
In the early days of ABA, punishment was used more often but today positive reinforcement is the overwhelmingly dominant mode of behavior change.  Punishment might be used in rare cases, for example, to prevent serious self-injury to oneself, but reinforcement can be used in a given situation, it will be.  If punishment is absolutely necessary, reinforcement procedures targeting alternative behavior should be in place concurrently.

Myth #10: ABA uses bribes consisting of food and toys to manipulate children’s behavior.
There is a difference between bribes and reinforcers.  Reinforcers occur after a behavior and are specifically geared to increase a particular type of behavior.  Bribes, on the other hand, are made before the person engages in behavior and are often times directed at the person rather than his/her behavior.  Moreover, bribes connote immoral or illegal behavior.  Regarding reinforcers, food is a particularly useful reinforcer at the beginning of an ABA program, especially if the individual is a child and/or has little to no language skills.  However, pairing the food with other things, such as social praise, allows those things to become reinforcers themselves and gives you more to work with. 
To read more about these myths, visit the National Autism Network.

Do you encounter these or other myths in your work?  Let us know in the comments below!  Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox! 

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

14 Comments on "10 Myths of Applied Behavior Analysis"

  1. The response to Myth #5 seems disingenuous and in denial of reality. ABA is, quantitatively and qualitatively, nearly exclusively in assessment and treatment of problem behavior of children diagnosed with DD. Yes, there are journals on other topics that are quite active and successful, but what percentage of ABA do they make up?

    • My colleagues and I utilize ABA to address problem behavior and train obedience in pets, and the field of applied animal behavior is growing. Additionally, as a substitute teacher, I often see ABA methods employed in classroom management.

  2. Only a speech language pathologist can treat proper language development. Someone only trained in ABA cannot.

  3. This is an excellent piece on debunking these 10 myths of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

    Unfortunately, the previous comments (by Anonymous and Mcg779), which are both in agreement with these myths, are siding against science. All the claims by bSci21 in debunking these 10 myths are supported by actual science, not opinions. This is evident in that bSci21 provided credible resources throughout the post.

    Regarding Myth #5. ABA uses scientific principles of behavior to teach new behaviors and skills; ABA does not exclusively discourage and reduce problem behaviors.
    The definition of “behavior,” put simply, is anything we “do.” Walking, talking, jumping… those are all behaviors. They are not, however, necessarily problem behaviors. These examples are also not exclusive behaviors in which only people with autism or developmental disabilities (DD) can do. Therefore, these examples of behaviors have nothing to do with autism, and thus, indicate that ABA can be used outside of autism. We all behave; and all behavior is lawful.

    Regarding the inability of someone trained in only ABA to promote proper language development: As mentioned above, talking is a behavior. Communication behaviors are referred to as “verbal behavior” in the field of behavior analysis. Individuals trained in ABA can, and most certainly do, work on language development.
    It is correct to state that an individual trained in only ABA, and not speech-language pathology, has not learned the specific formations of the mouth or exact phonetics. It is incorrect to state that an individual trained in only ABA, but not speech-language pathology, cannot work on language development.​

  4. Lots of good information here, but I would offer the following friendly amendments:
    Myth #2 – The first applications of behavior analysis to autism were not done by Lovaas in the 1970s, but by Charles Ferster, Mont Wolf, and Todd Risley in the 1960s.
    Myth #4 — “Discrete Trial Training” is a misnomer, and is not an “approach.” Rather, discrete trials are just one of many types of procedures for arranging behavioral contingencies. They have a long history in experimental psychology and the experimental analysis of behavior.
    Myth #7 — Not sure what you mean by a state “covering” ABA services, as there are many sources of government and private funding for those services. Laws as well as the policies of some health insurance companies require that ABA treatment plans (not “behavior support plans”) be developed and overseen by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Licensed Behavior Analyst (where there are licensure laws), or a licensed psychologist with training and competence in behavior analysis. The supervised experience requirement to be eligible to take the BCBA exam can be fulfilled either through supervised fieldwork of 1500 hours, or one of two types of university practica comprising fewer total hours but more intensive supervision.

  5. In my experience and what I read. The explanations to each support ABA science data. I would ask “what is going on with the child?” “Applied” should be coined “controlled” as the student is receiving a pre-prescribed behavior change. I’ve seen too many ABA programs meeting the needs of the program and not analysing why the behavior exist. Changing behavior for the success of ABA is not learning who or what the student needs. The program/environment must change to meet the needs of the student not changing the student to meet the program/environment.

    • ABA is already doing that. Behaviour plans are made to specifically support a child’s needs where they are lacking, whether it is eye contact or social skills or self-injurious behaviours to address those behaviours. The student may or may not change but they are developing skills so they can live life in the future independently, without support and ABA is the only supported method of doing so. This is done through functional assessments, observing the child in the natural environment and hypothesizing what could be a function of the behaviour. Furthermore, functional analyses can be done in a controlled lab environment to demonstrate that the true function is identified and is what provokes the behaviour. Behaviours plans are made according to these pre-intervention analyses. Applied is used as behaviour analysis is applied to humans and this is not control as it is applied to real life situations where different things can happen and you can’t control them.

  6. I disagree that #9 is a myth. Time out from attention, response cost, etc. are useful, often necessary tools in behavior change. I’d like to see the word “punishment” shed its bad guy image. Why don’t we put more effort into clarifying what punishment actually is and isn’t (and how it can complement positive reinforcement) and less effort on trying to convince people that we don’t use it?

  7. Martin Scherer | December 31, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Reply

    Why do these myth exist and why do they appear to apply only to ‘autism’?

  8. Great points in general Todd. Although I understand the basis of debunking is from the field of autism. When debunking, let us not forget where the field of ABA had its greatest and initial influence – DD population and IDEA 1997 (schools) – specifically the advent of functional analysis and all is empirically derived and function based treatments, with hundreds of published studies in its support. About 10-15 years ago, once insurance started to cover ABA therapy for kids diagnosed with autism that presented with challenging behavior and/or skills deficit, ABA assessment and treatment naturally shifted towards that, no problem. Great. But let us know leave out all the good work in FA and DDpopulation that has been done. Functional analysis is still critical to autistic children presenting with problem behavior. Thus, with regard to #5 – include FA and its success with the DD population (including kids with DD not diagnosed with autism!). As for #9 – read Brian Iwata’s 1988 JABA publication on use of default technology. The whole movement of less use of restrictive procedures and LRA owes it to advent of functional analysis that made SR+ procedures. Why not add that in #9? You only have to go read JABA, BAP, RIDD to find out tons of evidence on less reliance on restrictive procedures, exactly germane to your argument to #9.

    In retrospect, I am from the old school ABA, from 1990. I have seen ABA and all its glory in the assessment and treatment of severe behavior disorders, but that minimized the role of functional skills. Now since the past 15 years the shift is towards assessment of skills deficit (VB-MAPP, ABLLS-R, AFLS, etc). Great. Why not equally emphasize both? Why shift so far to the other extreme as to not mention FA and all it success to the treatment of behavior disorders? As I still understand, “Assessment” distinguishes behavior analysis from behavior modification. But assessment should be equally devoted to finding out the cause of problem behavior as well as the cause of skills deficits, not one over the other.

  9. There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to applied behavior analysis. I think it’s silly to assume that all applied behavior analysis programs are the same. There are so many different people involved with so many different tactics!

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