Clinical Responsibilities of Applied Behavior Analysts
Initial Interview and Assessment
Set Short and Long-Term Goals
Conduct Treatment Sessions
Engage Patients and Family
Track and Encourage Growth
Condition Negative Behaviors
Work in Different Situations
Assist with Home Life
Applied behavior analysis is a field of study that has changed many lives. In this field, knowledge of human behavior is put to use to help those who struggle with negative behaviors. There are many methods of applied behavior analysis, as well as many types of people that it can help. Below we have ABA therapist job descriptions for those interested in this career, as well as a brief note on ABA therapist education. (The note on ABA therapist education can be found under ABA therapist job description #9, “Train Others.”)
Therapists who are licensed and qualified to practice applied behavior analysis (ABA) can choose to work with people, primarily children and youth, who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many professionals deliver this kind of care within the context of an autism clinic.
An autism clinic is a client-oriented organization that caters specifically to patients with autism. ABA therapists take on a number of duties and job responsibilities in these clinics depending on their experience and qualifications. Some eventually adopt management or administrative positions after years of practical work with clinic patients.
Both seasoned ABA therapists and those new to the field can expect to spend much of their time in direct relationship with their clients and their families. When choosing a field to pursue, and particularly when considering the world of applied behavior analysis, one might wonder “what exactly does an ABA therapist do?”
This article deals specifically with an ABA job description when choosing to work in an autism clinic. Some ABA therapist job responsibilities are the same no matter the work environment. Alternatively, there are some parts of ABA therapists’ jobs that are unique to work within the walls of an autism clinic.
ABA Therapist Job Description #1:
Initial Interview and Assessment
This is usually the first step for an ABA therapist when receiving a new client. The ability to comfortably interview and accurately assess patients is an essential skill for any ABA therapist and behavior analyst.
Autism is considered a spectrum disorder, and so there are many degrees and types of autism. Each diagnosed person faces their own set of challenges resulting from the condition. The needs of a client on one end of the spectrum will be vastly different from those on the other end of the spectrum, and the ABA therapist needs to take this into account.
Some individuals have what is called high functioning autism, also called Asperger’s syndrome. This condition does not affect the individual’s intellectual capacity; however, as with other forms of autism, it makes it difficult for them to read social cues. On the other end of the spectrum, about forty percent of those with autism are nonverbal. Children with autism often struggle with self-harm, as well as with biting, kicking, or scratching others. These behaviors can be helped by ABA therapists.
This is why therapists conduct detailed interviews as well as create written assessments which establish a baseline to measure the efficacy of future treatment. This stage also allows the therapist to start building trust and familiarity with their patient, which is essential for any sort of long-term relationship. It is often necessary, depending on the age of the patient as well as other factors, to speak with parents or guardians in this interview as well.
ABA Therapist Job Description #2:
Set Short and Long-Term Treatment Goals
Compared to other disciplines within the field of psychology, ABA places a strong emphasis on measurable variables and quantifiable progress. ABA therapist education stresses the importance of goal-setting. ABA is a science-based approach that deals with the “why” behind behavioral issues. It then uses that information to attempt to retrain behavioral patterns. Board certified behavior analysts and ABA therapists work directly with patients, as well as with families or caregivers. Together they can identify priority behaviors that they will need to address first.
When there are socially significant behavioral issues that are particularly disruptive, like inappropriate verbalization or deficiencies in personal hygiene, these are usually a good place to start, according to the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD). Some examples of areas where ABA therapists may set goals are related to mealtime practices and manners, specific areas of basic personal hygiene, or knowing how to appropriately respond when being addressed.
When taking a specific behavioral pattern and separating it from behavior as a whole, it becomes easier for the ABA therapist to assess improvements. For board certified behavior analysts, even the smallest improvement is considered significant when it comes to these problem areas.
ABA Therapist Job Description #3:
Conduct Therapy Sessions
ABA therapists in a clinic also spend a significant amount of time planning and conducting individual therapy sessions with clients. This is the primary setting for ABA therapy for clients with autism. These interactions can range in length and take different forms depending on the needs of the patient. Each patient’s individual assessment can help determine both the length and frequency of these sessions.
The frequency of ABA therapy can range from only a few hours a week to up to 40 hours per week. ABA therapist sessions can last for just one hour or sometimes even up to four hours. Sessions may primarily revolve around conversational therapy or focus more on direct behavior modification through discrete trial training (DTT), which targets a specific desired response. DTT isolates specific behaviors and uses basic conditioning techniques, like positive or negative reinforcement, to help patients develop more productive responses.
ABA therapists will often use play therapy during their one-on-one sessions, particularly when working with younger clients. Therapy sessions are also a good time to work on gross motor skills. An ABA therapist must be willing to adapt as necessary, so that the therapy sessions are adequately meeting the ever-changing needs of the client.
ABA Therapist Job Description #4:
Engage Patients and Family
Participation in autism clinics is usually completely voluntary. This means that ABA therapists also need to make an effort to connect effectively with patients and their families. Behavior analysis requires consistency and commitment in order to yield optimal results. This means that keeping participants engaged and returning on a regular basis is of utmost importance to the ABA therapist. Behavior analysts also need to help families and caregivers learn about autism and how life at home, school or with friends can impact its development. The focus of ABA therapy at an autism clinic often has to do with behavioral issues and challenges presented in everyday life. Consequently, the connection between in-clinic learning and outside behavior is key.
ABA therapists constantly modify the therapy based on current needs and goals. Therefore, ongoing communication with families is the only way for this to consistently work. This is particularly true for many of the patients in an autism clinic. These patients tend to be either young, or in need of significant support from family members to go through their day-to-day life. Without the help of family members, the patient may not be able to effectively and accurately portray information and progress.
ABA Therapist Job Description #5:
Track and Encourage Growth
Much like the initial assessment, ABA therapists need to keep detailed notes and records regarding patient progress. Building a detailed file over a period of weeks or months provides much deeper insight into a patient than a single interview. Therapists must leverage this knowledge and information to track individual progress and evolve treatment strategies to accommodate these changes.
They can also use this information to help patients note and appreciate the progress they’ve already made through therapy. There are many tools currently available to assist ABA therapists in keeping track of data. This could include curriculum plans, progress charts and graphs, and many other forms of data related to each client and their individual needs.
This is an important part of the therapist’s job, in part to avoid discouragement. The ABA therapist deals with behavior, which can only be improved one step at a time. This can be discouraging to the ABA therapist, the client, and the client’s family. Although progress may be made quickly at times, at other times the patient may seem to be getting nowhere or even to be moving backwards. In order to avoid discouragement over this state of affairs, it is important to keep records and see where the client has been.
In addition, keeping records is important because it allows the ABA therapist to see which ABA methods are working and which ones are not. That way they can tailor what they do to best fit each particular client. Another reason that it is important to track growth, as listed below, is to identify improvements.
ABA Therapist Job Description #6:
An ABA therapist is responsible for identifying any improvements in the client’s behavior. They usually accomplish this through regular meetings in which they talk with their clients and the loved ones of that client. Therapists need to make sure that the client made significant improvements in key areas.
The very nature of ABA therapy makes behavioral improvement fairly easy to identify. The goal of ABA therapy is often to retrain negative behaviors. The scientific approach and goal-oriented therapy allows for attainable objectives and notable improvements to be recognized. If, over time, therapists are not seeing improvements in the focus areas, then adjustments to the treatment plan will need to be made.
ABA Therapist Job Description #7:
Condition Negative Behaviors
Therapists work with their ABA clients to make sure that they understand certain behavioral and developmental challenges and what they can do to correct those behaviors. With each case, a therapist would need to identify specific negative behaviors to target, and come up with a plan to change these behaviors. This can include positive reinforcement in which the therapist rewards the client for acting in a specific way based on his or her goals. For example, if the client frequently talks back to the therapist during a therapy session, the therapist can reward the individual when he or she remains quiet during the session. It may involve some positive reinforcement: giving the client a small treat or giving him or her a few minutes of playtime.
There are times when an ABA therapist uses negative reinforcement, but this occurs fairly infrequently. This reinforcement system clearly pairs a behavior with a consequence. For example, as in the example above, a child might constantly talk back to the therapist during a training session. Negative reinforcement would mean that there would be a negative consequence–for example, a favorite toy being put away–each time this happens.
Consistency is essential when working to retrain negative behaviors. Therefore, it is important that if a negative behavior is mentioned as a possible consequence, the therapist must go through with it. Otherwise, the negative reinforcement will become completely meaningless. When ABA was first being developed, negative reinforcement was used as often as, or more often than, positive reinforcement. However, over time, the focus has shifted to positive reinforcement.
ABA Therapist Job Description #8:
Work in Different Locations and Environments
We have been primarily dealing with the job description of an ABA therapist at an autism clinic. However, there are other settings that an ABA therapist may find themselves in. These settings could include clients’ homes and schools. When in this situation, the therapist would be responsible for following any of the rules that those locations have, as well as making sure that their clients follow the same rules.
Therapists may need to work with coworkers or other students/family members in those settings, too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those in the ABA field are recreational therapists who can also work in government agencies, hospitals and nursing homes. When thinking about work in the field of applied behavior analysis, it is beneficial to consider which environment would be preferred.
ABA Therapist Job Description #9:
In order to become an ABA professional, an individual must go to school and get a college degree in the field. They then must take and pass a licensing exam. Those in leadership positions are often responsible for the training of those in the early stages of their ABA therapist education. This could include either students or ABA therapists in the first stages of their career.
There are several levels of certification for ABA therapists once they complete ABA therapist education. The most basic level requires only a forty-hour training period and is called a Registered Behavioral Technician (RBT).
The next level up, for those with a bachelor’s degree, is a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA). Then, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst designates those with a master’s degree who have passed the certification requirements. Finally, the BCBA-D designation is available for those with a doctoral degree.
All of these designations are granted by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). It is also important to check if there are additional licensure requirements for the state in which one plans to practice. Some states require only that the individual be certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, but others have other requirements.
A lead or head therapist with strong ABA therapist qualifications, such as being certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, can train college students working part-time on how to handle the needs of those with autism and related conditions. Interns would need similar guidance.
The lead therapist can also make sure that lower-level employees know what to do when a client has a tantrum or similar situations arise. Sometimes, the client’s parents might ask them to do things outside of their duties, such as watching other kids in the home. A lead therapist can advise younger colleagues on how to respond. This part of the ABA job description would only apply to those who have been in the field for a long time and been certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.
After many years of experience as an ABA therapist, it may be beneficial to move on to a management or administrative position. In this case, training others would very likely be a big part of the job description.
ABA Therapist Job Description #10:
Assist with Home Life
Helping with the client’s home life is a major duty of an ABA therapist. Clients with Autism Spectrum Disorder face as many problems at home as they do at school. Interpersonal relationships with friends and family are often difficult to navigate for those diagnosed with autism. Common household duties and normal personal hygiene responsibilities are often especially challenging for those on the autism spectrum.
Therapists can help them to create specific, reachable goals regarding how they want to interact with their siblings and parents. They can also make plans and goals for how they should act in various situations at home. This could include things such as problem-solving strategies for conflict or planning a specific routine to follow. These changes can help improve the overall quality of life for both the client and their family. This is another reason why keeping open the communication doors with a client’s family is an essential part of succeeding as an ABA therapist.
Applied behavior analysts and those looking to enter the field who are interested in clinical work can start building their professional skills while still in school. Internship and other employment opportunities are extremely valuable. They allow students to get a clear perspective on their prospective career path. While specific responsibilities depend on the individual organization, most ABA therapists can expect to perform many of these same basic duties mentioned above in any autism clinic that they may find themselves in.