By Harla B. Frank, M.S., BCBA
bSci21 Contributing Author
I think when one becomes identified with a label, that’ll become all anyone sees – the expansiveness and breadth of the ‘all who you are’ suddenly hidden from view. Kurt Muzikar
Kurt Muzikar is a young man diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); prior to the publication of the DSM-V, his diagnosis was referred to as “Asperger’s Disorder.” His message in the quotation above clearly expresses his displeasure with labels and the way these labels can influence others’ perceptions of, and expectations for, the individual. Labels can serve to limit that which is labeled. This has become a problem for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), as it has for individuals with various diagnoses. Behavior analysts are now seen, almost exclusively, as therapists for those “on the Spectrum.” However, in the past, this was not the case.
An examination of articles in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA), from 1970-2016, shows the progressive increase in behavior analysts’ focus on the diverse characteristics of ASD. Conducting a simple Boolean search for the keyword, “Autism” and “Autistic,” had the following results:
The steady increase of articles in JABA focused on ASD corresponds with the reported therapy activities of behavior analysts. The Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA) conducted a “Professional Employment Survey,” in 2014, in which 69% of respondents reported that the primary focus of their ABA services were with those diagnosed with autism (2015). The increased demand for ABA therapy for this population correlates with the increase in diagnoses. For those children born in 1992, by 2000, 1 out of 150 were diagnosed with ASD (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], n.d.). For those children born in 2004, by 2012, 1 in 68 children had been diagnosed with ASD (CDC, n.d.). Other factors have contributed to the growth in behavior analysts’ clientele among this population, such as the growing coverage, among insurance companies, of ABA therapy and advocacy by parents and advocacy groups, such as Autism Speaks and Autism Society. Due to the increased provision of ABA services to this population, there has been a subsequent growth in data showing the effectiveness of ABA therapy in increasing socially significant behaviors and reducing behaviors that interfere with an individual’s success, which, in turn, fuels further growth in service to this population. In effect, the growth in diagnoses required increased ABA services, which resulted in data that proved the effectiveness of ABA. The demonstration of the effectiveness of ABA with this population has benefited our field, but it has also, inadvertently, narrowed the focus of our services.
Many college students entering ABA programs have the impression that behavior analysts work exclusively with those diagnosed with autism. In fact, the National Autism Network lists the belief that “ABA therapy is only for children with autism” as 5th on its list of “Top 10 Myths about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)” (n.d., para. 6). While those in the field of ABA should be proud of this growing body of evidence of effectiveness in increasing needed skills and reducing interfering behaviors in individuals diagnosed with ASD, it is important to inform the public that the principles from which we derive our methods of practice can be applied to a wide variety of societal and human issues.
Burning Glass Technologies (BGT), in partnership with the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), conducted a study to determine the demand for “credentialed behavior analysts in the United States” and the skill sets that were desired in these professionals (2015, p. 2). The study, which included the years 2012 through 2014, found that the demand for behavior analysts doubled during the time of the study, and the industries that had the highest demand included Health Care, Education Services, and Social Assistance Services (Burning Glass Technologies [BGT], 2015). Occupations within these broad categories include counseling; teaching (both K-12 and higher education); education administrators; and managers in developmental disabilities organizations (BGT, 2015). The skills required of the successful candidate included experience in treatment planning; data collection; therapy; case management; employee training; as well as experience in working with those diagnosed with ASD (BGT, 2015). The dramatic increase in demand for behavior analysts in these broad occupational categories are cause for celebration, and the demand for our versatile skill set is not limited to the previous categories.
The behavior analyst has keen observation skills – is analytical – logical – purposeful – disciplined – and ethical. These characteristic attributes make the behavior analyst a valued member of many fields, such as organizational behavior management; behavioral gerontology; animal training; and forensic behavior analysis (Applied Behavior Analysis EDU, n.d.). The behavior analyst works to identify the probable function of behavior and the variables that serve to trigger and maintain it. The skills needed to identify behavioral functions and design and implement interventions that will change behaviors in desired ways are skills that will benefit children and adults diagnosed with ASD; those impacted by traumatic brain injury; organizations needing increased productivity to maintain growth; and societies struggling with poverty, crime, and a variety of other social ills. While we should be pleased that our science has benefited the lives of those diagnosed with ASD, we must continue to expand the application of behavior analysis to improving the lives of all individuals and our society. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia states, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” Perhaps we have momentarily forgotten how large our science truly is.
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Applied Behavior Analysis EDU. (n.d.). Careers in applied behavior analysis. Retrieved from http://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/careers/
Applied Behavior Analysis EDU. (n.d.). Careers in forensic behavior analysis. Retrieved from http://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/forensic-behavior-analysis/
Association of Professional Behavior Analysts [APBA]. (2015). 2014 U.S. professional employment survey: A preliminary report. Retrieved from http://www.apbahome.net/member-profile.php
Burning Glass Technologies. (2015). U.S. behavior analyst workforce: Understanding the national demand for behavior analysts. Retrieved from http://bacb.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/151009-burning-glass-report.pdf
National Autism Network. (n.d.). Top 10 myths about applied behavior analysis (ABA). Retrieved from http://nationalautismnetwork.com/about-autism/autism-treatments/top-10-myths-about-applied-behavior-analysis.html
Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA earned her Master’s degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, from Florida State University. Since receiving her certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2007, she has worked primarily with children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, but has also worked with adults with a variety of diagnoses and needs. She has served as an expert witness for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in the Colorado court system and has had the privilege of providing “ABA approaches” training to foster care staff and families.
Since 2010, Harla has taught ABA course sequences, as well as general psychology courses, for Kaplan University. Currently, she also contracts with a pediatric home healthcare company in Denver to provide ABA therapy to children with a variety of diagnoses. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.