equate ABA with electric shock therapy and similar painful, or humiliating, responses. “There are people who criticize us for being overly harsh,” Dr. Adams says. “While there were early researchers who incorporated mild punishers into their research, we use a much softer approach now—with children, it’s always play based. It incorporates the natural environment and is based on positive reinforcement.” Dr. Tarbox puts it more simply. “ABA is all about getting the good stuff and avoiding the bad stuff,” she says. The bottom line, behavior analysts agree, is that ABA works. Its focus on collecting and analyzing precise measurements at every juncture ensures that if a change in environmental stimulus is not working, it can be changed immediately. “We can often tell within three days if a procedure is working,” Dr. Merbitz says. “The last thing we want to do is to prolong an ineffective treatment. When our data tells us that we’re not achieving the results we want, we make changes and continue to record our data points. Our decision-making is based, at every step along the way, on the behavior we observe in the person we’re treating.” Dr. Merbitz, a former tenured professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, joined The Chicago School in 2003 to spearhead the institution’s response to the mounting need for ABA professionals. The M.A. in Clinical Psychology Applied Behavior Analysis Specialization, which was launched the following year, is one of only two approved
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fine-tune ballet movements, see thousands through popular weight-loss regimens, and serve as the springboard for workplace wellness programs. “It’s more of a blended area than other ABA applications are,” says Dr. Amanda Adams, who teaches in California State University-Fresno’s behavior analysis program and is active in the Sports, Health and Fitness Special Interest Group of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI). “It’s incorporated into many areas but the people who practice it most often do it as a hobby—maybe coaching a child’s soccer team.” She adds that no university programs offer a specialization in this application of ABA. “When you see the techniques used in gyms and wellness programs, they’re usually not overseen by someone who has been trained specifically in ABA. A workplace wellness program is probably run by a registered dietician—it would be great if you could find someone who was both a dietician and a BCBA, but that doesn’t happen very often,” says Dr. Adams, who, as a certified yoga and kick-boxing instructor, has used her skills to increase compliance in exercise routines. Despite the proliferation of ABA applications, it is a science that struggles with misconceptions and, occasionally, controversy. The fallacy that behavior analysts cite most frequently is the belief that it is a treatment that is grounded in negative—and sometimes harmful—punishment techniques. There are those, they claim, who
ABA By the Numbers • I n eight years, the number of Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) has increased more than ten-fold: from 535 to 5,951. • 9 5 % of BCBA certificate holders live in the United States. • 1 92 ABA programs are offered by 136 universities, including 29 outside the U.S. • Behavior analysts with BCBA certification currently practice in 27 non-U.S. countries.
university- or professional schoolbased master’s-level programs in Illinois, and enrolls about 50 new students each year. A companion doctoral program, introduced in fall 2008, is the only one of its kind in the state. Both degree options are also offered at The Chicago School’s Los Angeles Campus where the Psy.D. program has the distinction of being the only ABA doctoral program in the world designed for fulltime working professionals. There seems to be little doubt that ABA will continue to grow as an area of expertise. As the need increases—and the alarming ascent in autism diagnoses is just one factor contributing to this trend—there will be an escalating demand for BCBAs. Concurrently, behavior analysts are finding new potential for application of their skills in every corner of life. “The sky’s the limit,” Dr. Pyles says. “The world is a big place for us. We can’t fix everything with ABA but we won’t stop trying.