Applied behavior analysis, or ABA as it is called by those who practice it, is a rapidly growing discipline that uses a natural science approach to bring about socially significant changes in an individual’s life and in the world at large. The field’s strength lies in the systematic collection and analysis of data to validate incremental improvements in observable behavior.
Changing Lives Sue, a profoundly mentally retarded woman who has spent her life in an institution, is another client who has benefited from behavior analysis therapy. At 35, she spent her days engaged in self-injurious behavior and appeared most comfortable when she was physically restrained. Dr. David Pyles, who serves as chief of behavior analysis for
“It’s an area with endless applications... It can and should be used in any aspect of life that involves human interaction. Any time that behavior is important
and change is valued, ABA is the way to go.” Known best, and practiced most, as a treatment for individuals diagnosed with autism, ABA has found a home in fields as disparate as the brain injury rehabilitation that Dr. Mozzoni practices, sport psychology, organizational management, regular and special education, gerontology, health and fitness, gambling addiction, crime and delinquency, sex therapy, neuroscience, animal behavior, and more. “It’s an area with endless applications,” Dr. Joe Layng, senior scientist and co-founder of Headsprout, a Seattle-based company that has used ABA techniques to make dramatic improvements in the fundamental academic skills of some 300,000 children, says. “It can and should be used in any aspect of life that involves human interaction. Any time that behavior is important and change is valued, ABA is the way to go.”
the Illinois Division of Developmental Disabilities, used an ABA technique called fading (gradually removing a desired stimulus) to bring about the behavioral changes he sought. He replaced constraints with wrist weights, which he only allowed Sue to wear when she was not inflicting injury on herself. “It took a while but she eventually learned that when she just cooled her jets she could enjoy wearing the weights, which evidently provided a stimulus that she liked,” Dr. Pyles says. He then began reducing the size of the weights and eventually replaced them with a sweat band, which in turn gave way to a bracelet. He describes it as a classic ABA scenario that ended Sue’s self injuring and her need for restraints. Although behavior analysis has roots deeply entrenched in psychology (psychologist B.F.
Skinner developed the set of principles that frame behaviorism), ABA differentiates itself from the social science base of its mother discipline. ABA practitioners agree that the precision with which they collect and analyze data that documents behavioral changes makes the field more analogous to the “hard” sciences such as biology, physics, or chemistry. A common criticism of the field involves the perception that behavior analysts don’t share their clinical psychology colleagues’ interest in what a client feels. “We get a bad rap for ignoring emotions and feelings,” Dr. Rachel Tarbox, associate professor of Applied Behavior Analysis at The Chicago School, says. “We don’t ignore them, though. We treat feelings and emotions as behaviors.” Behavior analysts, she explains, take the perspective that prevailing environmental conditions need to be analyzed with respect to their effects on human behavior. “By manipulating these behavior-environment contingencies, we can bring about robust behavioral changes, which in turn, lead to individuals living happier and more productive lives,” Dr. Tarbox says. As lead ABA faculty at The Chicago School’s Los Angeles Campus, Dr. Tarbox finds that many of her students have entered the field with the goal of working with children with autism. It is as a therapy for this disorder that applied behavior analysis has received the most attention. “ABA techniques, when provided consistently and intensively as early intervention, can—and do—virtually eliminate the diagnosis of autism