Applied behavior analysis:

A resource for intellectual and developmental disabilities

Special Needs Resources
Amanda E. Guld PhD, BCBA-D

Over the past 10 years, we have seen a significant increase in the incidence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the United States. In 2002, one in 150 children was diagnosed with autism; in 2006, one in 110 children was diagnosed with this complex condition. Experts note that the incidence continues to rise today, while medical, educational and clinical professionals work to identify the causes for autism. image

As families and society search for answers, key clinical resources have emerged. Research has indicated that the most successful method for addressing the behavioral deficits and excesses of autism is the discipline of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Behavior analysis is not a new science, but its application has been demonstrated to be extremely effective in a variety of areas, especially in the field of autism and intellectual/developmental disabilities. (e.g., Lovaas, 1987; Howard et al., 2005; etc.).

What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied Behavior Analysis (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2008) is an entire discipline, a science, in which a variety of individualized teaching strategies and interventions can be used to increase appropriate behavior and decrease inappropriate behavior that creates a meaningful improvement in the individual’s life. ABA utilizes objective data collection and systematic environmental observations to evaluate the effectiveness of every teaching strategy or intervention used. The value of ABA lies not only in its immense variety of applications, but that it is evidence based. Hundreds of peer-reviewed research articles have demonstrated the effectiveness of behavior analytic teaching strategies and interventions. In a world where much is unknown about autism, there are many pseudoscientific interventions and false cures. Time is a valuable resource, especially in the treatment of intellectual and developmental disabilities. Research has shown that large improvements can be made if interventions are started early. Therefore, evidence-based procedures are a crucial starting point.

Applied Behavior Analysis as a scientific discipline can be a strong resource for individuals diagnosed with a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities and related challenging behaviors. ABA can be utilized to increase adaptive, positive behaviors while also decreasing problem behaviors common to a variety of developmental disabilities, including autism. For example, teaching strategies based on behavioral principles (e.g., shaping and chaining) can be used to teach self-help skills such as toileting, showering and dressing. ABA can also decrease negative behaviors like aggression, self injury, property destruction and stereotypic behavior. Specific interventions based on the principles of behavior, such as differential reinforcement and functional communication training, can be used to decrease disruptive behaviors while teaching and increasing adaptive replacement behaviors. This creates not only a meaningful improvement in the individual’s life, but often produces improvements in the lives of their family and caregivers as well.

The Role of the Behavior Analyst

A behavior analyst scientifically studies behavior and looks closely at the role the environment plays in affecting behavior. Many behavior analysts do research either in basic (i.e., studying the principles that create change in behavior over time in controlled settings) or applied topic areas (i.e., studying the change in behaviors to inform clinical application to improve socially significant behaviors). Others may focus on applying the principles demonstrated in research to clinical problems important to society. In other words, many applied behavior analysts apply the science of behavior analysis and the theories of behaviorism to improve behavior by modifying the environment.

Behavior analysts who practice clinically may work to improve a variety of socially significant behaviors. The potential for applications of behavior analysis are as limitless as the number of behaviors society finds important to change (these can range from effective staff training to increasing recycling). Applied Behavior Analysts may work to increase seat belt use on the highway, treat children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, develop smoking cessation programs, treat individuals diagnosed with depression, increase organizational effectiveness in schools and companies, or a variety of other important problems. In fact, we often apply the principles of behavior analysis, without even systematically planning to do so, in our everyday lives (from directing a family member to pick up their laundry to getting a talkative relative to call you less).

The Benefits of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst®

Given the variety of behaviors that ABA can be used to change, it is important to find a qualified behavior analyst, especially when behavior change goals are complex. Any time we look for a professional or specialist, we want to ensure we find someone who will effectively solve our presenting problem. Whether seeking a physician, dentist or therapist, we look for an expert with education and experience in their field, preferably with credentials meeting specific professional and quality standards. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board has developed the only national certification that credentials behavior analysts which is recognized and supported by the field of behavior analysis. The certification has three levels: bachelors level (BCABA), masters level (BCBA) and doctoral level (BCBA-D). Each requires a degree in behavior analysis or a related field, graduate level coursework in behavior analysis, a specific level of supervised, clinical experience, and the passing of a comprehensive exam. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board has pre-approved a number of graduate training programs, indicating their course sequences meet the coursework requirements for the certification.

The certification is designed to ensure that certified behavior analysts have knowledge in many of the basic principles of behavior analysis. It is important for consumers to know the background and education of a professional to determine the areas in which they specialize. The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) has established standards for accreditation of graduate and undergraduate training programs in behavior analysis. Knowing the certification status, the degree program from which the behavior analyst graduated and their specific areas of experience will help parents, teachers, and caregivers determine if a particular behavior analyst is qualified to change a specific behavior.

There are a number of resources available to review additional information about ABA and the Board Certification in Behavior Analysis. The Association for Behavior Analysis International website ( houses a variety of information including a list of accredited graduate programs in behavior analysis, information about the field, upcoming conferences, peer-reviewed journals and many other useful resources. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board website ( displays information regarding the certification process, maintaining certifications and a published list of certified behavior analysts by geographic area. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis publishes peer-reviewed research articles about the application of behavior analysis to socially significant problems. Behavior Analysis in Practice is a peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles relevant to the clinical practice of behavior analysis.

(Email to request reference information for this article.)Dr. Amanda Guld is a staff member at Melmark, a not-for-profit organization that offers a full range of human services for children and adults with special needs. Melmark provides evidence-based, behavior-analytic services to children and young adults with autism and related challenging behaviors. Melmark, in collaboration with Temple University, offers a graduate course sequence designed to meet the BACB coursework requirements. For more information, visit
Comments & Ratings

  6/18/2012 7:26:33 PM

New Comment 
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