Bread and Butter Should Not Be a Meal: Three Reasons ABA is Stuck in DD

Flickr: Hernán Piñera

By Tom Buqo of

bSci21 Contributing Group

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) has become best known in the United States for the treatment of intellectual and developmental disabilities with a particular focus on autism spectrum disorders. This isn’t news for anyone in the field.

The fact that a presentation at ABAI 2013 was titled “ABA Outside Autism” (Schlinger, Friman, & Alligood, 2013) should indicate how infrequently ABA is utilized to treat things other than autism spectrum disorders. Similarly, papers like “Beyond Autism Treatment: The Application of Applied Behavior Analysis in the Treatment of Emotional and Psychological Disorders,” (Ross, 2007) note that behavior analysts have often struggled with applying the science to other disorders.

Ross draws attention to a major philosophical issue regarding language, which I share as well. However, I would also like to address some pragmatic reasons behavior analysts have not been treating disorders outside of developmental disabilities:

Focus on language. Clinical work is rife with imprecise and unscientific language, which Ross refers to as euphemisms. Behavior analysts approach their work with the goal of precisely defining specific behaviors.

Yet Ross proposes a key and succinct solution when working with emotional and psychological disorders and how behavior analysts can communicate within existing clinical frameworks. He writes, “It does not necessarily mean abandoning these euphemisms, but simply defining what they mean for a particular person by describing the behaviors that lead to that label for that particular person” (p. 534).

Professional and political issues. Anyone with exposure to the field of emotional and psychological disorders know that many professions seek to treat these problem behaviors. As with any field with multiple professions doing similar work, political and competitive issues arise.

Despite the proliferation of behavior therapies in the market (as well as the proliferation of people claiming to perform “behavior therapy” when they may or may not), behavior analysts have had less impact directly. This is for myriad reasons (e.g., misconceptions about behaviorism, behavior analysts desire to break away from mainstream psychology) that are beyond the scope of this article. However, I will say this: behavior analysts may be able to survive such pressures when effective results speak for themselves.

A seemingly greater need. Throughout history, great harm, discrimination, and mistreatment has been afflicted to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These have ranged from systemic abuses to sociocultural prejudice. Behavior analysts have seen amazing success when working with these people who have faced huge historical barriers.

Therein lies why behavior analysis must continue to help people with these barriers but also why it must expand its scope. Ross states “I believe that it is imperative that behavior analysts move beyond autism and apply our technology to a broader range of conditions.”  The success of behavior analysis in treatment of autism must be expanded, as its efficacy is something that should not be kept to one realm.

Let us know what you think about these issues in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Schlinger, H.D., Friman, P.C., Alligood, C.A. Professional Development Series: ABA outside autism. Symposium at the 39th Annual Association for Behavior Analysis International Conference. Minneapolis, MN. May 27th, 2013

Ross, R. K. (2007) “Beyond autism treatment: The application of applied behavior analysis in the treatment of emotional and psychological disorders. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 4(3).

brohaviorFollowing graduation from Master’s programs many behavior analysts find themselves in a cold dark world where they are searching for the light of peers that share their approach to the subject matter of behavior. One online group called Brohavior (derived from “brotherhood”) has recently created a refuge for behavior analysts looking for the light in order to continue their own development. The group aims to create a collaborative environment where students of behavior analysis are exposed to and pursue behavior analytic literature, philosophy and research that is outside of the scope of the BACB-approved course sequence.  To view the biography of any Brohavior writer, please visit

7 Comments on "Bread and Butter Should Not Be a Meal: Three Reasons ABA is Stuck in DD"

  1. For real though | August 12, 2015 at 9:28 am | Reply

    It’s hard to expand the field when our educational curricula are based exclusively on one topic for one population. Anyone learning ABA with an interest outside the norm is basically flying solo with no professional support. There are behaviorally oriented people out there but they would never explicitly associate with the rest of us for this reason.

    • Hi! If you’re interested to explore other applications of behavior science I’ll tell you what’s worked for me. When I was in grad school in an ABA program I established a practicum site with a the sustainability department at my school. It was pretty easy. I went to the director and applied some clinical interview tactics that quickly revealed their main barrier to progress was their issues with human behavior. I did my thesis and practicum work on environmental sustainability. Upon graduation, I joined Now I’m a pretty active member with them and I’ve joined the Behaviorists for Responsibility SIG where we are working diligently to systematically increase the focus of behavior analysis back to social issues on a large scale. Those are just my individual experiences. Perhaps by sharing this I can give you just one example on how a single behavior analyst can branch out.

  2. I am glad that my coursework for certification is not focus only on ASD.
    But when I am looking for experience in the field, the only jobs I can find are about children with ASD.
    I am a Licenced Psychologist in Italy and I strongly believe that BA could be used in many and many areas, not only disorders (for examples, personal wellbeing, work out, changing habits, studying bettere,…).

  3. I am currently interested in applying behavior analysis in the field of health and fitness. Populations I think about are overweight people at risk for weight related health issues, athletes, body builders, personal trainers, and those who simply want to get in shape and lead a healthy, active life. Ive found a handful of BCBAs with side businesses as wellness coaches, but there are not nearly enough of us in this particular field to represent applied behavior analysis. it’s been difficult connecting with other behavior analysts interested in this area.

  4. What are we, chopped liver?
    I know this is an issue for the ABA profession, and hear it discussed often over here in the UK too, but sometimes it does come across as ‘autism is just the bread and butter work, we want something more’. This is a bit hurtful to us autism parents patiently bigging up the profession and either paying for (or lobbying for the state to pay for) ABA wages. Not a major gripe, just a thought: don’t diss the core market!

  5. I completely agree. The science of human behavior is so powerful, and it should be used across every context that deals with humans. Unfortunately we are a newer field coming up against people who have specified training like I/O psychology, kinesiology/employee wellness, or counseling. It seems like our field is at the same time trying to gain ground as well as become more specialized through the BACB regulations. I wonder how that will impact our reach as professionals.

    On a personal note, I have not found a way to make money in ABA outside of ASD. And while I love my job and the young adults I work with, it has never been my career goal to work with this population. I’ve searched for OBM opportunities, including contacting the network, but the jobs just don’t exist where I live.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.