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.
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@example.com.