Guidelines for Consumers when Considering
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Services
Behavior Analysis Taskforce
Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD A PARENT'S GUIDE TO APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS (ABA).
Parents usually seek Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services if their children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum, have intellectual/developmental disabilities, or chronically behave in ways that limit their emotional, social, and/or academic growth.
ABA can help your child do better with school tasks and language skills by teaching him or her more appropriate social, motor, and verbal behaviors. ABA can also help your child get along with other kids, make friends, read faster, and take better care of himself/herself. ABA does this by helping you closely measure and monitor behaviors, as well as those events that precede and follow them. By teaching you to use things like attention and other rewards, psychologists help you to apply the principles of behavioral psychology to your child’s behaviors. You become better equipped to replace those that interfere with learning and social interactions—to teach your child more effectively how to use language, relate to other children, and integrate into his/her everyday world. .
Children with autism respond particularly well to an ABA approach, as they often need help to stop problematic behaviors such as hurting themselves through banging their heads or picking their skin, destroying things, hurting others, flapping their hands, or running away. A psychologist who is competent with ABA will help your child with autism reduce those behaviors through teaching skills like expressive communication, understanding everyday routines, and coping with transitions and change.
Our guidelines will help you find a psychologist who competently provides ABA, and may have non-psychologists ABA providers who work either under their supervision or collaboratively with them.
ABA began with the work of several psychologists and a Russian physician. Here are some highlights:
- Ivan Pavlov: A Russian physician, Pavlov published studies about 100 years ago on how people’s reactions are learned—and made famous “Pavlov’s dog.”
- John Watson: Credited with defining behaviorism in psychology.
- B.F. Skinner: While a psychology faculty member at different universities, Skinner is considered to have created what we now call ABA.
- Donald Baer: A leader in developmental psychology, Baer (in 1968) published the basic definition of ABA still used today:
- Behavior Analysis is the science of behavior. Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree (Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968/1987).
Many professionals deliver competent ABA services. Psychologists can bring special training and qualifications to the child and the family. For example, sometimes you might find yourself gravitating back to old strategies that didn’t work. Psychologists can help you understand how family dynamics or unhealthy ideas could be contributing to difficulties using ABA in everyday situations. For example, psychologists can help you manage the anxiety you feel when taking your child to a place that has proved challenging in the past—say the grocery store or a park. Psychologists can show you that when you begin to worry about what is going to happen, the anxiety gets in the way of using your new ABA skills—and can help you with other strategies that will reduce your worry and enable you to use those new skills.
Psychologists with competencies in autism are equipped to confirm or make the diagnosis of autism, or to help differentiate autism from other problems. Psychologists are trained to assess your child on the whole, looking at all possible diagnoses to help get the right kinds of services—even when ABA isn’t the best option.
When your child needs help with interfering behaviors and significant problems learning everyday skills, you can be overwhelmed by the different treatments you hear about. It would be easy to become confused about what ABA really is. To make things simpler, here is a list of ABA features that you should expect to see:
- Real-Life problems: Psychologists make sure that the ABA plan focuses on behaviors and situations that make a difference in the every-day life of the person being treated. ABA focuses on changes that make the person’s life better off if treatment works.
- Measurable behaviors: Psychologists make it clear, in easy-to-understand terms, that the ABA plan focuses on behaviors. ABA requires that you understand what behaviors will change, and how the change is measured. ABA plans also include ways to make sure that behaviors are measured consistently, or in a reliable way.
- Behavioral analysis: Psychologists use clear ways of showing that the ABA intervention made a difference (rather than something else). There are two basic ways to analyze the effect of an ABA intervention: “withdrawal” and “multiple-baseline”. These two methods are fairly complex, and can’t be adequately explained in this document—but psychologists should be able to explain which one is being used, and what it will look like.
- Behavioral “technology": Psychologists should explain to you exactly what behavioral techniques will be used in the ABA intervention. The explanation must be clear enough that, with some guidance, you can do the ABA intervention on your own. Look for specific details on what is being done to change behaviors.
- Behavioral concepts: Psychologists should teach you not just what to do, but why you’re doing it. ABA interventions in the real-world improve parenting or teaching skills by helping you to better understand what triggers behaviors and how to use consequences to learn new behaviors, strengthen existing behaviors, or change interfering behaviors. For example, if you pay attention to someone’s behavior, psychologists help you understand that you’re socially rewarding that behavior. Typical terms like “reinforcement schedules,” “prompting,” “fading,” “thinning rewards,” “extinction,” “chaining,” “discriminant stimulus,” and/or “generalization” should all be explained clearly to you.
- Important changes: Psychologists work with you to make changes that are big enough, and important enough, to be worth the effort. When the intervention plan is written, make sure that you’ve been asked about what’s important, and how much change is needed to be really helpful. ABA interventions are effective when they make a real difference.
- Durability: Psychologists should explain how the ABA intervention can be used to make changes last, even after the intervention is finished. Durability includes not just lasting changes, but ones that show up in different situations. For example, if the ABA intervention creates better social skills, those social skills should be there after the plan ends, and those skills should work even in situations that weren’t a part of the original plan.
- Graphics: Psychologists should provide you with graphs that help you understand the ways the ABA interventions make a difference. The graphs usually show behaviors going up (or down) when the ABA strategies have been implemented. Be sure the psychologist explains terms like “baseline,” “A-B-A design,” etc. so that you can make sense of the graphs.
- Evidence-based: Psychologists should review with you studies in the past that show how the ABA plan is based on scientific evidence. You should have confidence that science is the basis to believe that the ABA interventions have a strong likelihood of working.
Apart from being satisfied by the presence of the features listed above, there are certain credentials that Psychologists and other mental health practitioners acquire, that can help you decide if that individual is competent in ABA. For example, the American Board of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology (ABCBP), a part of the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), awards board certification to psychologists, including those with ABA competencies. Contact www.abpp.org to see if your psychologist is Board Certified, by the ABCBP.
Some psychologists choose to become certified by a different board, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). The BACB certifies professional behavior analysts, and some of those are psychologists. Those psychologists will be called Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA). Both ABPP and BCBA credentials are based upon assessments of competencies and meeting certain educational and training requirements.
Some ABA-competent psychologists completed their formalized training and licensing before the current training programs or certifying boards existed. But, even if that’s the case, ABA-competent psychologists should be able to show you how they developed their skills. A great way to know if a psychologist is competent to practice ABA is to ask about their education, training, and experience. Many psychologists have chosen not to seek advanced credentials such as board certificates, but they may still possess the competencies in ABA to provide it as a service.
Your state/provincial licensing board may also assist you to see if psychologists have documented competencies in ABA. Some states and provinces require psychologists to list competencies such as ABA, and most evaluate a psychologist’s education, internship, and/or post-doctoral residency.
Board certification is voluntary for psychologists and it is important to note that board certification is not the only way to demonstrate competence in ABA. Many psychologists have not become board certified, but are competent in ABA. Only a careful review of the psychologist’s knowledge about ABA, training in ABA, and experience in using ABA can really tell you if they know how to do ABA. Ultimately, you must evaluate the psychologist.
As ASPPB’s primary mandate is to assist member regulatory boards/Colleges to fulfill their role of public protection, we are unable to offer provider referrals. We do suggest that you take the following steps:
1. Check to see that the provider you are considering has a license and no history of discipline by going to the ASPPB website and using the “Look Up A License” feature.
2. Check your state, provincial, or national psychology organizations (APA, CPA) for locator services that can help you find a licensed psychologist with the right area of specialty.
3. If you experience difficulty, you may also contact the state or provincial regulatory body through the ASPPB website to find out how to contact a specific state, provincial or national association.
(This list is not exhaustive. ASPPB expressly does not endorse nor support any of the following resources. These resources are provided purely for additional information to the reader)
APA’s Policy on Psychologists and ABA
APA Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct Related to Competency (Standard 2)
American Board of Professional Psychology
APA’s Commission for the Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology (CRSPPP)’s Description of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology
Division 25, American Psychological Association
Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology Specialty Council
Guidelines for Cognitive Behavioral Training Within Doctoral
Psychology Programs in the United States: Report of the
Inter-Organizational Task Force on Cognitive and Behavioral
Psychology Doctoral Education (Accepted by the Council of Specialties in Professional Psychology)
Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies’ Special Interest Group on Behavior Analysis
Association for Behavior Analysis International
Behavior Analyst Certification Board
Association of Professional Behavior Analysts
Drs. Baer, Wolf and Risley’s article that defined ABA