Applied behavior analysis (ABA) support services are available in schools, hospitals, mental health centers, correctional facilities, and other places outside of a therapist’s office.
Licensed clinical therapists trained in offering ABA support services will find a wide range of employers in need of their services to help children, students, employees, seniors, and other members of the community who are seeking treatment.
What Types of Disorders Do ABA Therapists Treat?
Like other forms of therapy, ABA is based on the concept that individuals learn behaviors from their environments. Unlike psychoanalytic, humanistic, and other insight-based therapies, ABA and other behavior therapies are action-based: New learning is intended to supplant the current learned behaviors that contribute to a person’s difficulties.
ABA support services promote social skills, reading and other academic activities, punctuality, hygiene, housekeeping, and basic job responsibilities. ABA has been used to treat children and adults with autism, help seniors cope with diminished or altered physical and mental abilities, and teach coping skills to people with chronic mental or physical health conditions.
As Kendra Cherry explains in Very Well Mind, ABA and other behavior therapy approaches have proved to be effective in treating phobias, anxiety and panic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Therapists also widely use ABA to help people suffering from grief, stress, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts. Use of behavioral techniques in treating depression, schizophrenia, and other serious mental illnesses is suitable only as an adjunct to other treatments as directed by a medical doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist.
Many ABA support services focus on helping people who are battling with substance abuse and addiction. ABA therapists teach life skills that assist people in recovering from addiction so they can return to their careers and re-establish relationships with family and friends. Other ABA professionals treat a particular segment of the population, such as children, teenagers, veterans, people with disabilities, or the elderly.
What Are the Settings in Which ABA Therapists Find Employment?
ABA therapists work in a variety of environments. This is evident in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook’s breakdown of the largest employers of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors:
● 19 percent: outpatient mental health and substance abuse facilities
● 17 percent: individual and family practice
● 11 percent: residential mental health and substance abuse facilities
● 11 percent: state, local, and private hospitals
● 9 percent: government
The BLS forecasts that employment in this job category will increase by 23 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is much faster than the 7 percent average growth rate predicted for all occupations in that period. Trained ABA therapists can find employment opportunities in hospitals, mental health centers, residential care facilities, and schools, among other settings.
Hospitals’ ABA support services aim to enhance a patient’s quality of life. In hospital settings, an ABA therapist’s duties often entail managing team meetings to ensure that trained staff and family members are consistent in their application of the program tailored to the individual. Therapists employed by hospitals are also likely to be working with medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other trained health care professionals on a regular basis.
After the therapist determines the behaviors that a patient needs to change, he or she sets goals, decides how to best measure the patient’s progress toward those goals, teaches the patient the new socially beneficial behaviors while discouraging their negative counterparts, and assesses whether any modifications to the treatment plan are necessary. Interaction with the patient occurs within the hospital setting and after release in other locations, or via the internet or other method.
Community Mental Health Centers
A common work setting for ABA therapists is a mental health facility that offers outpatient services, medication management, case management, and community treatment assistance. Many of the centers are operated by local governments and work under contract with mental health service providers to help clients find employment, enroll them in day program services, and refer them to residential care facilities when required.
The duties of ABA therapists in community mental health centers are similar to those of therapists in hospitals, particularly because of the emphasis on working as a member of a team of health professionals and support staff. In mental health centers, however, ABA therapists’ work also includes a social services component, as these professionals strive to improve the mental health of the community in addition to individuals in need. They may also work more frequently with walk-in patients in mental crisis, often via mobile units that have made on-site determinations about their mental health.
Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities
In a residential care facility, ABA therapists tend to work more closely with individual patients, who live in the home for a set period. The interaction between a therapist and a patient in a nursing home or assisted living facility will likely comprise a combination of individual therapy, often with the participation of health care providers or family members, and group therapy, which aims to teach social skills from the perspective of social learning.
While many of the duties of ABA therapists in residential care facilities mirror those of therapists working in hospitals and outpatient settings, there tends to be more intensive behavioral coaching, or “life coaching,” in such environments. For example, therapists in nursing homes and assisted living facilities target specific behavior goals for patients to achieve. Such settings are also noted for their ability to improve modeling and other methods of reinforcing positive behaviors.
Schools and Universities
ABA support services in academic settings help students to adopt positive behaviors while they are in familiar environments, such as their homes, schools, and communities. In the 1990s, therapists initially applied ABA to children with autism in clinical settings, but ABA experts now agree that behavioral programs to treat autism and overcome other behavior challenges are more effective in environments in which children are comfortable, such as familiar classrooms and in home settings with people they know.
ABA therapists in schools collaborate with teachers, administrators, and other education professionals. They work directly with students in one-on-one sessions but also supervise group therapy activities to help reinforce positive behaviors in social situations. In school settings, ABA therapists emphasize the need for data collection, as teachers commonly address negative behaviors in the classroom without recording them. Often, students with autism or other conditions related to behavioral challenges will have teachers trained to meet their specific educational needs.
Intervention by trained therapists early in an autistic child’s education increases the likelihood of the child “outgrowing the diagnosis entirely,” according to ADDitude magazine. While the goal is to have students in the mainstream, it can be counterproductive to do so before the child has learned what the magazine calls “age-appropriate skills” from a trained ABA therapist.
Therapists commonly provide ABA support services from a home-based or private office. Private practice ABA therapists meet regularly with individuals, families, and other groups, whether weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Many therapists and patients perceive these sessions to be more effective because the one-on-one attention of the therapist provides insight into behaviors, feelings, and relationships.
ABA therapists with their own practices are responsible for the management and record keeping required for any small business. Their duties pertaining to patient care are similar to those of ABA professionals working in hospitals, outpatient and residential facilities, and schools, as they, too, are part of a team that may include medical doctors and other health professionals, as well as social workers, employers, educators, and local government officials.
The employment options for ABA therapists continue to expand as behavior modification techniques are applied in new settings. One of the newer ABA support services roles is as a certified personal trainer helping people meet personal and professional goals, whether related to physical fitness or earning a job with higher pay and more responsibilities. Other ABA professionals find work as occupational therapists in hospitals, schools, and residential facilities, where they help patients regain physical and mental abilities.
Among the less conventional career choices for ABA therapists are positions such as certified alcohol and drug counselor, owner or director of a child care center, special education teacher, animal behavior consultant/trainer, and human resources manager, especially when an individual has also earned a master’s in business administration. As professionals find more and more settings in which to apply behavior therapy, the career opportunities for ABA therapists will continue to grow.