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If dress/appearance has never come up as an issue for you, or any of your ABA supervisees, then gold star for you. 
For my experiences though, I have been on both sides of this sometimes awkward coin. I have been the ABA therapist showing up for work in questionable attire, and I have been the supervisor having to talk to a therapist about his or her choice of clothing.
Some employers will hire you and just expect that you KNOW how to present yourself professionally. Then there are employers who will make dress expectations clear, such as with an employee dress code. But what if you work independently? Or what if the supervisor over you is just too uncomfortable to bring this up? What if the parent disapproves of your wardrobe, but never says anything?

What can make this topic tricky is that as an ABA professional, you don’t have a “9-5”. Yes, you may literally work a schedule from 9am to 5 pm but you know what I mean. Your work setting could be extremely casual (as in parents opening the door in their pajamas kind of casual), your colleagues or clients may never say anything about your appearance, and you may or may not have received professionalism training during your supervision process. OR, maybe no one has brought this up with you because you’re the boss. Yes, I have had a few situations where my boss was the one who dressed inappropriately. How do you tell your boss to iron their shirt??

If this whole topic of presenting yourself professionally was never discussed with you, allow me to give you a few helpful pointers. If you can, I recommend incorporating this information into the company dress code policy.

Cons of too formal – As the clinical supervisor, I often am dressed a bit more formally than my staff. I don’t work 1:1 with clients, and when I visit homes I may be coming from a meeting, a child’s school, etc., so it’s rare for me to be in jeans. However, when first meeting a client or a new supervisee, or with certain types of families, it can come across as cold or intimidating if you consistently show up perfectly coiffed. You may find that your staff have a hard time speaking openly with you during a session, or avoid asking you to model techniques if your dress is a bit too fancy. Definitely something to consider, since building rapport with the family and staff is an important part of your job.

Cons of too casual – On the flip side of showing up to supervise a session wearing a business suit, is showing up a bit too relaxed. Flip flops? No. Caps or baseball hats? No. Strapless shirts or spaghetti straps? No. I work with a lot of staff who are 20-something college kids, and I really emphasize with them the importance of treating their job like …. a job. I know you play with awesome kids all day, but you are still at work. If you could easily go from a therapy session to the beach or a nightclub, I suggest rethinking your work attire.

Who is your client/What is the work setting – It’s important to think about the problem behaviors your clients exhibit when you are selecting work attire. To put it simply, once you have a client yank your earrings out of your ear you learn not to wear your flashy jewelry to work.   Depending on your work setting, your attire may need to be more business (like at an ABA clinic) or more casual (like if you see clients in home). You want to mimic the attire of the people around you. If everyone at the clinic wears closed toe shoes, then you should too. Or if the family never wears shoes in their home, odds are they don’t want you walking all over their carpets with shoes on either. If you occasionally accompany your client into the community (e.g. church), then your attire may need to change just on those days.

Do you work 1:1 with clients? – If your role as an ABA professional includes working directly with the clients, then you have to evaluate if your work attire is appropriate for: bending down, bending over, climbing, squatting, jumping, running (can you catch an eloping child in those wedge sandals?), sitting in child size chairs, etc. Try these different activities before leaving the house, and if any of these movements are uncomfortable or reveal too much skin then you need to rethink your attire.

Scrubs/Yoga pants – The main problem with scrubs is some parents don’t like it. I have had parents say to me that it made them feel like the staff viewed their child as a “patient”, and not a “client”. But, I get it. ABA staff wear scrubs or yoga pants/workout clothing because its comfortable, and they don’t want to get saliva, blood, urine, or mucous, on their nice clothes. However, if your yoga pants are so snug that your underwear is visible, or if you consistently wear a sports bra to work, be aware that this could be deemed inappropriate depending on the setting. Same goes for your super comfy

Perfume/cologne/scented lotions – I love my perfume (!), so this is a tip I share from personal experience. The family or your client may dislike whatever strong fragrance you choose to wear, and if your client cannot communicate they may have no way of telling you this other than problem behavior. My advice is to skip the scents when you are working with sensory sensitive individuals, especially if they can’t tell you “Your cologne is giving me a headache”.

Time to get super real for my last tip: the way you present yourself can cost you work

You may think that's unfair or judgmental, but it’s true. Very recently I saw this happen with one of my staff, where the family requested a different therapist because they strongly disliked her work attire. I have also seen fellow BCBA’s get passed over for opportunities, because they don’t present themselves well-- they come across as disheveled, or messy.
Your appearance does play a part in how clients perceive your level of professionalism. If you feel that you perform your job well and have solid clinical knowledge, then why would you let your wardrobe take you out of the game? If you follow the tips I have in this post, you should have no issues with being incorrectly perceived as unprofessional.

**Resource: Here is a general and very basic dress code I have used in the past.

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If there was one blanket statement I could say to any family starting ABA therapy services that would sum up in a nutshell what to expect moving forward it would be: Input Equals Output. Or, put simply “You get out what you put in”.

Two examples that illustrate this concept nicely are crash/fad diets, and cramming.

Fad diets are usually cheap, promise quick results, and have very simple instructions like “Eat 2 apples every day at noon for 3 weeks and drink 3 glasses of water”. Once you follow the easy directions for a short period of time, BAM, you are supposed to drop some serious weight.
Cramming can take many different forms, but usually is a fast and last minute way to prepare for a test or exam. Late as in, quickly reading over your notecards as the exam is being handed out. Funny thing about cramming though, while you may be able to hold on to the content long enough to take the exam, a few days or weeks later that information is gone.

In various ways over the years, I have seen families approach ABA therapy like it’s a fad diet, or like they are cramming for a final. Quite predictably, the results have been disastrous.

ABA therapy is an individualized and high effort intervention methodology that requires highly trained individuals to oversee and/or implement in order for it to be effective and long lasting. So re-reading that sentence, if you approach ABA therapy with a fad diet mentality is it likely to be effective? No. How about long lasting? No.  This could look like: lack of progress, initial progress and then progress stalls out, slow or minimal progress, or variable progress/inconsistent gains. I was talking with a parent recently who told me her son had been receiving ABA therapy for months with no gains/changes. That struck me as extremely odd, but also very illogical. Would you stick with a diet plan for several months if you hadn’t lost a single pound? No, right? Then why would you continue with a therapeutic intervention that had no observable benefits?

If you are a parent who has been on the ABA train for a while now, you can probably look back at when things started and be amazed at how little you really knew about ABA therapy. The crazy thing about this intervention is you CAN see or bring about amazing progress while simultaneously understanding little about the process. Entry level direct staff can be taught to implement very sophisticated programs and behavior plans that they may not understand very well. So to a point, of course I don’t expect families to be ABA experts as soon as I meet them.

Sooner rather than later, as the parent you do need to increase your knowledge base of the therapeutic program you are now participating in. See how I did not say “your child is participating in”? Unless you are new around here (which if you are, Hi) then by now you should know that ABA therapy is not a spectator sport. It’s not watching your child disappear behind a door with a bubbly therapist for 2 hours, and then walking the therapist to the door and going on with the rest of your day. It’s not having a vague idea of what your child is working on, or glancing at the behavior plan once or twice.

If your child is receiving ABA treatment, regardless of the setting (classroom, in home, clinic based) then what you have done is volunteered for a training program. I bet you didn’t even know that! Yes, it’s quite true. You have volunteered to participate in a rigorous and comprehensive training program where both you and your child will learn new skills, learn new ways to understand behavior, and learn new ways to interact with each other. Think of the ABA professionals as your coaches, and you and your child are teammates in this training program.

So as a brand new volunteer participant (your uniform is in the mail) in this rigorous training program, what can you expect moving forward? Super glad you asked:

  • It won’t be easy- Hey, nothing worth having is easy right? Just remind yourself of that when it gets rough. Throw “easy” out the window, and embrace “challenging”. ABA therapy does not have to be hard, but it will likely be very challenging. More for you than for me. Why? Well, I don’t have the same emotional attachment to your child as you do. I also don’t have the same learning history with your child as you do. This means your child will give me less pushback, and it also means I am less bothered by their crying or tantrums. I know that on the other side of those problem behaviors are opportunities to learn to communicate, to learn to self-manage, and to exceed expectations. So I can push through initial difficulty in order to have future success. Can you?
  • No shortcuts- Think about those 2 examples again, of fad diets and cramming. Did you keep the weight off from that fad diet you tried? What about the cramming, can you still name all the US state capitals? No? Yeah, unfortunately shortcuts don’t tend to offer much longevity. I have yet to meet a family who says to me “Tameika, I want my child to learn to communicate, have less tantrums, and use the toilet…….for 6 months”.  The techniques and strategies the ABA team tells you to implement were selected because they are effective. Not necessarily because they are fast.
  • Expect your questions to generate more questions- If I may speak for all the BCBA's out there for a moment, we really are not trying to be difficult when we respond to your question with more questions. It’s just that we need a TON of information about the behavior in order to give you an action plan. For any given behavior, there could be 500 variables maintaining it, especially if it’s a behavior I have not actually seen the child exhibit. So its very typical that a parent will ask what seems like a very simple question, such as “How do I get him to stop (insert behavior here)”. It’s also very typical that the BCBA will respond with something like “Well what does he usually do before that? What about after? What time of day does this usually happen? How do you respond? Uh huh, and then what does he do?”, etc.
  • Expect your questions to generate more work – I know, now it IS starting to sound like we are just intentionally being difficult. Let me explain: when you approach the ABA team and ask for help/ask for their advice, what you are actually asking is “Coach, please show me how I can fix this problem”. Any question I get from a client is likely to lead to a new skill acquisition program, additional parent training, or a revision to the current behavior plan. The theme here is that I cannot just answer your question, I have to show you how to improve the situation.

**Recommend Reading-
Now that you know how much work therapy is, need to know how long that work is required? See How Much Therapy?

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