Many families receiving a diagnosis of autism for their child find themselves faced with a plethora of new vocabulary related to finding treatment: behavior analyst, BCBA, ABA Therapy, BCaBA, applied behavior analysis. If you’re feeling like all of these terms and acronyms are enough to make your head spin, you’ve come to the right place. Today, we’re going to decode this new language.

What is behavior analysis?

Behavior analysis is the scientific study of behavior and environment interactions. It can be used to explain or predict the behavior of humans or animals.

What is applied behavior analysis?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the application of principles of learning to everyday problems. It can be used in a variety of settings to improve behavior including job performance, adaptive skills, language development, communication, and leisure activities. Behavior Analysts are people who have been trained to use learning principles to alter behaviors so that they will occur more or less often and to teach new skills. Because this work is based in the scientific method, behavior analysts learn to look objectively at behavior and to use data to make decisions.

ABA has often been applied to individuals with autism. There is much evidence to support the effectiveness of ABA for children with autism, but sometimes ABA is mistaken for specific methods or treatments. For example, the Lovaas Method or discrete trial training (DTT) is sometimes thought to be the only therapy available from behavior analysts. In fact, ABA, sometimes referred to as ABA Therapy, includes a much broader range of treatments that utilize systematic application of behavior principles, ongoing measurement, and control over other factors that could impact a person’s behavior.

How do I find a behavior analyst?

Individuals with education and supervised experience in applied behavior analysis qualify for a certification in this discipline. A person with a master’s or doctoral degree who meets the credentialing requirements and passes an exam becomes a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA or BCBA-D). The certification board ensures that all BCBAs complete an accredited course sequence and have a minimum number of supervised experience hours working in the field, so, it’s best to seek out a behavior analyst with this credential.

Registries of certified behavior analysts can be found at bacb.com and via other state and local organizations (e.g., washingtonautismadvocacy.org). These resources can help you find a behavior analyst in your area who is board certified. Other organizations (e.g., Autism Speaks, Families for Effective Autism Treatment of Washington) provide resource guides that list providers and organizations across disciplines but including behavior analysts. If you use one of these sources of information, you can ask providers directly for their credentials when you call to learn about their services.

Washington State does not currently license behavior analysts. This means that titles such as “Behavior Analyst”, “Behavior Specialist” and similar are not legally protected and can be used by anyone. However, the committee that oversees board certification (www.bacb.com) actively protects the terms “Board Certified Behavior Analyst” (BCBA), BCBA-D), “Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst” (BCaBA), and “Registered Behavior Technician” (RBT). Look for these credentials when choosing ABA therapists. 

What will the BCBA do?

A behavior analyst can conduct an assessment, develop treatments and monitor their implementation across a range of individuals, skill areas and behaviors. A professional behavior analyst will consult with colleagues or seek supervision when they encounter a case or population that is dissimilar from their past experience. If your child is working with a behavior analyst, the BCBA should always be concerned with your child’s ability to use new skills or demonstrate higher or lower rates of particular behaviors in multiple settings and across many people. This usually requires time spent with you as a parent practicing new ways to manage your child’s behavior with the behavior analyst’s support. Be sure to ask your BCBA questions about their work with your child, what skills they are teaching, and how those skills will support your child’s long-term growth. You can also ask your behavior analyst to teach YOU how to teach your child new skills!

What is a BCaBA?

A BCaBA is a person who is credentialed by the same board as the BCBA, but with different eligibility standards and a bachelor’s degree. A BCaBA must work under the supervision of a BCBA.

For more information on applied behavior analysis, ABA Therapy, or behavior analysts, check out the following websites:

The Behavior Analysis Certification Board

The Association for Behavior Analysis International

Or, look for these books:

Leaf, R., Taubman, M., & McEachin, J. (2008). Sense and nonsense in the behavioral treatment of autism: It has to be said. New York, NY: DRL Books.

Newman, B., Reeve, K. F., Reeve, S. A., & Ryan, C. S. (2003). Behaviorspeak: Glossary of terms in applied behavior analysis (ABA). Dove and Orca.

Also, check out our previous blogs on ABA:

What is ABA Again?

Disruptive Behavior and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism and Tips on Hiring In-Home Behavior Staff