Recommended Reading:

VB -MAPP assessment tool

ABLLS-R assessment tool

AFLS assessment tool

The Practical Functional Behavior Assessment


There are many commercial assessment tools out there that are purchased and utilized by ABA practitioners, typically at the BCBA level (BCBAs typically are the ones conducting new client intake). 

Often when I work with supervisees (meaning individuals pursuing BCBA certification) or very new practitioners, they have many questions about Assessment. Such as, which tool to select for which client, pros and cons of each tool, what materials to use (particularly if the employer does not provide assessment kits), differences between assessing a younger child vs a young adult or adult, differences in assessing in the home vs community settings, etc. And of course, varying funder requirements will also influence which assessment tool is selected and even how much time is allowed to conduct an assessment.

In summary, the questions focus on "HOW". How do I pick the best assessment, for this client, in this particular setting, to gain the most helpful information?


Because at the end of the day, that IS the point of assessment: to gain valuable and salient information about the client that will guide programming and determine which goals to prioritize for treatment. 


Putting aside the specific options for a moment, the key characteristics of a quality client assessment will include the following: 

  • A variety of methods across both direct and indirect observation, interviews, checklists, tests, and/or direct skill probing to identify and define targets for intervention 
  • The priorities and areas of concern of the client, client caregiver/parents, or other caregivers close to the client
  • Record review of pertinent files or reports
  • Selection & measurement of goals
  • Problem behavior identification, measurement, and assessment

The assessment process is an absolute necessity to beginning treatment with any client. Regardless of age, setting, areas of concern, treatment model, etc., without proper assessment the intervention isn't likely to be effective or achieve true long-lasting change.

More important than the specific tool to select, is the ability to conceptualize treatment and prioritize goals. Assessment tools do have characteristics in common, and a big one is the assessor must already have an understanding and knowledge of capturing client attention, delivering the SD, prompting and prompt fading, data measurement, and conducting a thorough interview to gather important information about client functioning. For this reason, although some organizations will assign non-BCBAs to conduct assessments it is critical that the assessor (regardless of certification level) have the appropriate skillset and training to administer an assessment.

It is also important to recognize that the client's needs should guide assessment tool selection, and not just the tools that are available, the BCBA preference of tool, or other non-critical decision factors. Many organizations may only have 1 or 2 assessment tool options, which would then mean the clients served would need to be narrowed to the ones most appropriate for the assessment tools (e.g. if an organization does not have an appropriate assessment tool for early intervention, then early intervention clients should not be admitted). 

Lastly, let's not forget that completing a thorough assessment is meaningless if it isn't then connected to goal setting. What was the point of identifying barriers to learning, maladaptive behaviors, and skill deficits impeding daily functioning, if these goals never show up in the treatment plan? Or are never addressed in therapy? It is possible to overfocus on the assessment tool to the point that important, necessary daily life skills get neglected. For example: assuming that because a client has "filled" an assessment grid, they are now done with therapy/have no further need of intervention. 

If the assessment (when I use the word "assessment", I mean a combination of record review, interview, observation, and direct skill probing) identifies Gross Motor Skills, Manding, and Vocal Imitation as areas of significant concern, then programming for those areas should be reflected in the treatment plan. The absence of this, is often seen in "cookie-cutter interventions". Cookie-Cutter interventions can be recognized by their disconnect from the individual priorities or high need areas, and by their generic replication across multiple clients. While it is true that many clients with no prior intervention will present similarly (may share struggles with social skills or toileting), this is not the same thing as saying "Here are the 10 goals I select for ALL 5 -year- olds", or "Here is how I teach Toileting for ALL toddlers". If ABA is not customized and individualized, it isn't really ABA





 
*References - 

Cooper, Heron, & Heward (2014). Applied Behavior Analysis




*Awesome Resource - 










 Recommended Reading (seriously, go read this now): Autism & ABA & A$$holes




ABA peeps: Do you want to be a good Behavior Analyst? Or a Great Behavior Analyst?


'Behavioral Artistry' as described and defined in the 2019 Kevin Callahan et al. article, is the difference between being a practitioner following learned "recipes" or paint-by-number strategies, and a creative, passionate clinician, qualitatively better at their job.

We know the process of obtaining the BCBA credential: verified coursework, hands-on practical supervised experience, and passing a rigorous exam (www.Bacb.com). Completing these steps to satisfaction will yield a BCBA.

But will that BCBA be....pleasant? Professional? Funny? Warm? Engaging? Enjoyable to work for? Caring? Empathetic? Socially Mature? 


Does it matter what we know (skillset), if the experience of working with us/for us is terrible?

I'm going to answer for everyone and say: No.


If you have been working in this field for some time and have not come across the stereotypical "cold, robotic" BCBA, then how exciting for you. Unfortunately, your experience of not working for or with this type of person does not deny their existence. I have worked for quite a few arrogant, rude, empathy-deficient BCBA's, and have also helped fellow BCBA's (and myself) to self-correct when that good ole' bedside manner needs a realignment.

This is a problem.

It's a problem because BCBA's most often fulfill a role focused on people, and socially valid behavior change. People need to like us, in order for services to be most effective. People need to listen to what we have to say, value our recommendations, and trust our data in order to yield any results.




As a BCBA, do your supervisees enjoy working for you? Are they having a pleasant experience being supervised by you? Do your clients enjoy seeing you show up at their school, home, or clinic? Do the client parents or families enjoy working with you? What about your colleagues, the leadership over you, or other professionals you interact with to do your job (educators, SLP's, OT's, physicians, etc.)? Beyond data sheets, reports, and graphs, what is the qualitative experience people have when they encounter you at work?


Basically, the big question here is: **What are the behaviors that make some BCBA's better than others?**

The concept of Behavioral Artistry was developed out of a need to address the interpersonal behaviors of Behavior Analysts (which ones are most needed? what happens when they are lacking?), and directly tie those behaviors to clinical outcomes. In case you missed that---> insufficient interpersonal skills can have negative impacts on treatment delivery, and client success. See why this topic is so important? 


BCBA's with better interpersonal skills (as measured by specific behavioral characteristics), LOOK better when doing the job. They laugh more, they smile more, they pay attention better, they listen more carefully, they are more objective, they are more creative, they are optimistic, they are persistent, and other people have a better experience working with them. 

I always find it so odd that in a role where many of us are working to help our clients be more flexible (Super Flex, anyone??), as BCBA's we can be some of the most rigid and inflexible clinicians, when compared to other disciplines. Why is that? Who exactly does that benefit??


In 2016 Leaf and colleagues examined the pervasive use of ABA in autism treatment, and pondered ways behavioral interventions could become less effective:

"A danger inherent in any large scale, quickly growing area is a loss of focus on meaningful purpose, process, and outcomes. In the field of ABA, this might translate into dogmatic lack of attention to clinical significance, selection of impractical procedures, ritualistic data-collection, over-abundant use of off-putting, dehumanizing terminology, disregard of logistical realities, and insensitivity to consumer issues"

 Any part of this quote sound familiar? Or like anything you've experienced at work? Particularly in the current climate of the ABA industry, where Big Business can be more focused on profit than quality.


Behavioral Artists are best viewed as organically talented BCBA's (meaning their greatness is more about who they are, than what they know)  who consistently demonstrate specific interpersonal characteristics such as the following:

  • Likes people: is able to establish rapport; demonstrates concern; wants to facilitate positive change;

  • Has “perceptive sensitivity”: pays careful attention to important indicators of client behavior that may be small, subtle, and gradual;

  • Doesn’t like to fail: sees difficult clients as a personal challenge to overcome, and as an opportunity for the client to succeed;

  • Has a sense of humor: recognizes and accepts that much in the educational and human services professions is bizarre, illogical, and humorous;

  • Looks “for the pony”: is optimistic and sees behavior change in a “glass half-full” context; always believes programming will be successful; is less likely to burn out;

  • Is thick-skinned: doesn’t take negative client actions towards herself or himself personally; maintains objectivity and positivity; and

  • Is “self-actualized”: does whatever is necessary and appropriate to facilitate and produce positive behavior change; is not under audience control; is creative


If we want to be great clinicians (which...… why wouldn't we want to be great?), then the measuring stick used needs to go far beyond goals mastered, assessment grids completed, and billable hour quotas met. Productivity does not equal excellent interpersonal skills.

The measuring stick used must include qualitative measures, such as client feedback, supervisee feedback, warmth, and compassion.



References:

Callahan, K., Foxx, R. M., Swierczynski, A., Aerts, X., Mehta, S., McComb, M. E., Nichols, S. M., Segal, G., Donald, A., & Sharma, R. (2019). Behavioral Artistry: Examining the Relationship Between the Interpersonal Skills and Effective Practice Repertoires of Applied Behavior Analysis Practitioners. Journal of autism and developmental disorders49(9), 3557–3570

Leaf JB, Leaf R, McEachin J, Taubman M, Rosales S, Ross RK, et al. Applied behavior analysis is a science and therefore, progressiveJournal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2016;46:720–731.


Are All BCBA's Robots or Just Mine?


Providing Compassionate Care 





 


Source: www.PatrickMulick.com


Punishment- A consequence that happens after a behavior that serves to reduce the likelihood of that behavior happening again.  


Teaching - The process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and intervening so that they learn particular things.


Got it?

Good.



"Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:

  1. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day)."

Source-  www.CDC.gov


It is part of the diagnostic criteria for Autism to struggle with Rigidity.

What is Rigidity? It is an inflexibility, an inability to tolerate change or unexpected events, to varying levels of difficulty.

This is something many of my clients struggle with, and it can be quite life impacting in negative ways. Issues around rigidity can affect the school day, relationships/social ties, life at home, transitions, community integration, and vocation/employment success (for older clients).


Some examples can include:

- Difficulty tolerating a change in teacher

-Difficulty staying calm if something breaks, loses power, or the battery dies

-Difficulty staying calm if mom or dad drive past Wal-Mart but we don't go inside 

-Insistence on the same routine every day, Monday-Sunday

-Refusal to change eating habits, clothing choices, etc., from one day to the next

-Difficulty sleeping if traveling, away from home, or the bedtime routine is different


As rigidity is a core characteristic of Autism, treating or intervening on it must be approached carefully. The goal should not be to turn an inflexible person into a flexible person. The goal should be to help the learner adapt to an ever-changing world that will NOT stay constant, and increase the learners coping skills to accept what they cannot control. 


To a degree, most of us are creatures of habit. We buy a certain brand of makeup, we brush our teeth a certain way, we park in the same place when we go to work, we always sit in the 2nd row for our college lectures, etc. It isn't inherently a problem to like sameness and predictability in your life.

But.


This does become a problem when the reaction to the routine being disrupted, is explosion, aggression, self-harming, etc. For example, I have specific restaurants where I order the same thing every time I go. If I went one day and that item wasn't available, I'd be dissapointed, annoyed... I might even leave and go eat somewhere else. But I would not become a danger to myself or others, and I would not perseverate on that annoyance for hours or days.

So how do we help our clients, students, and loved ones calmly accept life's inevitable changes?

ABA provides many, many strategies to teach flexibility and tolerance to change. Let's discuss a few:


  1. What are we teaching instead? This should be priority #1, it is truly that important. We cannot just rip away established patterns and rituals, we have to first identify the replacement behavior(s). This could include teaching the ability to request ("I wanted the red cup"), to wait ("We will go to Wal-Mart, but I'm stopping at Wendy's FIRST"), to self-manage anger and disappointment ("I can see you are angry. Let's do our deep breaths, okay?"), and/or to problem solve ("Oh no, your tablet's battery died. How do we fix that?").
  2. Do we have rule out for underlying issues? It is not uncommon that Autism co-occurs with other diagnoses. Is the learner just "rigid", or are they OCD? Or struggling with an undiagnosed Anxiety disorder? 
  3. Intentionally, and systematically, introduce change. I work with so many families who try to skirt this issue by avoiding changing things in their child's environment, giving in to the rituals, even driving out of the way in the community to avoid passing places that will trigger the child. I know this seems like the easy way to manage this problem, but in reality it will make things worse. It is almost presenting a lie to the learner to act as if nothing in their environment need ever change. That just isn't real life. We need to help the learner by introducing small, intentional changes (start super small) and then helping them tolerate that change. Speaking of tolerate....
  4. Help the learner develop a "plan of action" when they are triggered. This will be highly specific to the individual learner, so I cannot give a recipe for this. What is most important is to utilize function based intervention to teach a strategy to the child for de-escalation. For example: When there will be a substitute teacher at school, inform the learner. (If possible) Talk about how they feel about this change. Empathize with their distress, and do not minimize it. Engage in action steps such as pacing, squeezing a stress ball, humming, and deep breathing with closed eyes. Remind the learner of the things they can control/the things that are unchanged. For example: "I know you're angry that Mr. Walker is not here today. That's disappointing. We can go in the hallway and take a break, and when we come back in you let me know if we're doing our writing journal or sight word folder first. Okay?".
  5. In Step # 4 I referenced "Empathy". I know it can be frustrating and stressful when your client/child/student explodes over a moved seat, a different bowl at breakfast, or a broken toy. You might think "WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL?!". Well, do you like change? If we're honest, most of us do not like unexpected, unrequested change. It makes us angry, and we feel annoyed. So even if you can't fully relate to the size of the explosion, you can relate to the feeling, right? That "relating" is empathy. Put yourself in the learners shoes, and treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were that upset and agitated.




**More resources below:


Rigid Eating Habits

Food Selectivity

Inflexible Thinking

Use Inflexibility to Teach Flexibility

SuperFlex Curriculum

Intentionally Changing Routines

Poljac E, Hoofs V, Princen MM, Poljac E. Understanding Behavioural Rigidity in Autism Spectrum Conditions: The Role of Intentional Control. J Autism Dev Disord. 2017 Mar;47(3):714-727. 



 




A current criticism of the ABA field/industry is that as more and more investors come in, expand existing companies, and open new and large, multi-state companies, quality assurance is decreasing.

 

How are we intentionally and systematically evaluating the effectiveness of treatment, client outcomes, and individual client response to intervention? Not just at a large, across clients level, but for each individual case/client/treatment plan (e.g. "For THIS specific client, was treatment effective?").

 

There has been criticism aimed at ABA that it doesn’t work, lacks large group data comparisons, is only effective with specific ages/ability levels, or is less effective at lower treatment hours. (See recommended reading below for more on this).

 

Sometimes this criticism is in itself, flawed and misinformed. Such as many funders viewing “successful treatment” as reducing or eliminating common Autistic characteristics, i.e. Stimming. Ethically, a qualified BCBA or practitioner will not intervene on a behavior unless there is a demonstrated clinical need to do so. The goal of ABA is not “normalization”, so if we are measured by a “normalization” measuring stick, then yes…. We will fail.

 

But, in other instances the criticisms about our field need to be heard, and embedded into how we practice.

For example, when an organization is reporting on “client success rates”, common variables that are included are things such as: amount of time from 1st parent contact to services starting, how much of the insurance authorization is being consistently utilized, how many states is the company in/what is the new market expansion rate, etc.

But what about: Are the caregivers/parents satisfied with treatment outcomes? Measuring social validity of the specific strategies and techniques used? And very important--à What does the actual client receiving services have to say about it? Is their experience of ABA positive? Negative? Do their own self-determination goals and life needs factor in to the ABA treatment plan? Was the client consulted and collaborated with as the treatment plan was being compiled?

And, oh yes: Are we measuring practitioner satisfaction rates? At the direct staff and supervisory level? If you think revolving door RBT’s, burned out BCBAs, and underpaid and undervalued practitioners will have no effect on the quality of treatment provided to consumers, you are living in a fantasy world.

 

I see few outcome measures like this in the field, but I do see more of this starting to happen. Starting to become more prevalent at both the practitioner, and the organizational level. Which is wonderful. There are some companies out there working very hard to go against the tide, and to stand out from the pack.

 

We have to look beyond progress to goal mastery/completed targets, and completing the assessment grid, to evaluate if our services are truly effective or not. And by “evaluate”, I mean putting on our clinical hat and collecting the data, examining the data, making decisions based on the data, and letting the data guide how we do business and serve consumers, day in and day out.

We have to look beyond just decreasing and increasing behaviors, because did we decrease/increase the behaviors most salient to the individual receiving services? Or to their parent? The word “effective” can encompass multiple complex variables, which means it will require input from multiple sources (funders, caregivers, clients, practitioners, and organizations/agencies).

 

We have to #DoBetter both as practitioners, and as organizations. There is far too much at stake here for the clients we serve, the families we support, the stakeholders we report to, and the public perception of our field.

 


*Recommended Reading:


"Does ABA Therapy Really Work?" 

"Why is ABA Therapy not working?" 

"When ABA Therapy Isn't For You"

'US Govt. Reports that ABA doesn't work

"Parent Perceptions about ASD Influence Treatment Choices"

"Why Caregivers discontinue ABA"

"An Evaluation of the Effects of Intensity and Duration on Outcomes"

"Systematic Review of Tools to Measure Outcomes for Young Children with ASD"

"What is Social Validity?"

'ASD Intervention: How do we measure effectiveness?'

'The controversy over Autism's most common therapy'






Today's QOTD is an amazing & fun discussion that I had the privilege to join, with the dope people over at: "ABA Inside Track".

"Special interests" are what we used to refer to as "obsessive interests/ritualized play/info dumping" or restrictive, repetitive interests or conversation topics.


If you are an ABA peep, or a caregiver of an Autistic, then you know exactly what I'm referring to. For non-Autistics, it can be hard to understand the intense interest (often to the exclusion of other important tasks and activities) in Toy Story, or Thomas the Tank Engine, or obscure 1970 bands, or construction sites, or objects that spin, or Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.


A unique special interest is an item, show, song, toy, etc., that sparks a very intense, and very elaborate fascination. If there is a toy or figurine, then ALL the figurines must be purchased. If there is a DVD or TV show, then the ENTIRE show must be watched, with 0 interruptions. If the interest is a place or location (such as a special interest of watching garbage trucks), then we MUST go watch the thing, at the place, right now.


There is an urgency to special interests that makes it difficult for teachers, therapists, caregivers, to transition the individual to other activities, or away from the special interest.


So how do we deal with this?


Well, the old way is to try to remove or lessen the fascination. To try to block or put away the interest, particularly if it isn't "age appropriate". To say "no, not right now", or "we're done with that", or "stop talking about that".


But is that the way we should approach this? Is that helpful or healthy, long term? And what does that say to the person with the special interest? Who may not cognitively understand why we CANNOT watch elevator videos on YouTube all day, every day.


Instead, let's talk about ways to include, embed, and incorporate special, unique interests into everyday life. Into instruction, into therapy, into school, into intervention. Think it can't be done?


Well, research would disagree with you. ;-)


Take a listen! This is good stuff.



ABA Inside Track Podcast, Episode 160










*Recommended Reading:


Autistic 'Obsessions' and Why We Really Need Them








I don't work with adult clients often, but I do regularly work on life skills/building independence, and pre-vocational training stuff with children and adolescents.


The thing about adulting is that trying to shove a bunch of information and life lessons into your grown child is a bit too late. Especially if we're talking about Autistic adult children who may or may not ever live independently, may or may not hold down steady jobs/have a career, and may or may not attend college or technical school.


Wayyyy before you think you need to start teaching this stuff, is when I recommend teaching this stuff. :-)


For any parent, its a hard thing to look at your 10 -year- old and start thinking about teaching them to do laundry, independently grocery shop, change a flat tire, or shop online. But, if you expect your child to do all these things one day as an adult, then yes, absolutely start teaching it early.

Your teen or adult child can start learning today, to do things like:


  1. Personal care/Hygiene/Grooming
  2. Shopping & Money Management
  3. Electronic Use & Internet Safety
  4. Vocational Training (*which should be a natural extension of interests, hobbies, or strengths)
  5. Driving or Navigating Public Transportation
  6. Time Telling/Time Organizational skills
  7. Employment Seeking (resumes, interviews, etc.)
  8. Self-Advocacy/Assertiveness ---- probably my #1 Adulting 101 skill to teach


For children with disabilities (not just Autism), it may take more time, more repetition, and more real-world practice for these skills to be taught. Which means starting sooner rather than later is the way to go. Think about your own adulting for a second-- when you first left home, did you know how to scramble eggs without burning them? Or manage a credit card responsibly? Or negotiate with a pushy salesman when buying a used car? If you answered "yes" to these questions, then you were far superior to most of us! 

The reality is that whether your child will ever be able to live separately from you or not, as a parent I'm sure you want to help them be as independent as possible, and be able to make decisions about their life/have a say in their own life. Teaching some common 'Adulting 101' type of skills can be the way to do this, and be sure to combine that instruction with actual real world practice. Despite what we may like to think, school will not teach our children everything they could possibly ever need to know by graduation day. Nope.


What do I mean by real world practice? Well, I've worked with high school age clients before who received vocational/life skills training at school, or through a special program that helped them get part-time jobs. The problem was, these skills didn't generalize outside of those settings. If Charles learned to cook chicken breasts at school with Ms. Larson, that did not automatically mean he could cook chicken breasts at home, with Mom and Dad. If Kacey helped out in a local daycare classroom every Tuesday afternoon, that didn't not mean she could successfully baby-sit her younger brother at home.

Like any other skill, life skills need explicit, intensive instruction, as well as multiple generalization opportunities in real world situations. Multiple generalization opportunities means that the instructor/supervisor needs to differ. The setting needs to differ. The materials/items used need to differ.

Don't just teach your child to wash/load the dishes at home. Let them practice at the neighbor's home, at Grandma's house, etc. The steps of the skill will vary a bit as it is generalized across opportunities, and that's a good thing! There are very few adulting tasks that are done the exact same way, every time. We also know that many Autistics lean towards rigidity and sameness of routine, which can be a good thing or can be highly detrimental to learning if it gets in the way of doing something differently. For example, if the sink, dishwashing liquid brand, or the equipment used (e.g. type of dishwasher) change, can your child still wash the dishes?


It is hard to look at your children when they are young and know with certainty what their future holds. That has nothing to do with Autism, I think any parent would agree with that. Since we don't know what the future will bring, it makes sense to start preparing our children for an uncertain future now.


You may be wondering, "How young is too young to focus on this?". It may surprise you to learn that I start teaching life skills (Adulting 101) with clients as young as 2 or 3. Yup, its true. 

A toddler can learn to clean up their toys. A toddler can learn to put their empty cereal bowl in the sink. A toddler can learn to pour their own juice. A toddler can learn to put dirty clothes in a washer, or pull clean clothes from a dryer. Why not?? If your children are young and you don't know where/how to start with this, just start with teeny-tiny baby steps:

  • Let your child help as you complete household chores.
  • Slow down before leaving the house, and let your child put their own shoes on, or put their own coat on, or grab their own bookbag.
  • Cooking is a life skill. As early as you can, introduce no-heat recipes such as making a sandwich or fruit salad.
  • When in public settings, help your child pay for their own meal, or hand the cashier money for purchases. Let your child place items on the conveyer belt at the grocery store, or teach them to shop by giving them a visual grocery list.
  • Allow older children to have some responsibility for younger children. Let your 6 -year-old help you care for the 1-year-old.

There are SO many resources out there for teaching life skills and increasing adaptive functioning. This doesn't need to be hard or overwhelming! 
Ask your child's therapists for help and ideas, or talk to their school and see if there are any specialized trainings, classes, or programs available for students on the Spectrum. Most school districts have far more programs and community connections than most parents know about.


You got this!



RESOURCES- 



Essential for Living  Assessment Tool





Organization for Autism Research: Transition to Adulthood

The Life Skills Lady

Transition to Adulthood Research Findings


 




As an industry, ABA is a billion dollar market with large, multi-state, companies becoming more and more common in the US. 

There are many reasons for this massive boom, such as the increasing visibility of ABA as a career field, which drives more people to pursue credentialing and certification, and ultimately to seek ABA employment. The insurance mandates across states has also led to this boom, with more and more people now able to access ABA treatment through their insurance plans (removing cost as a barrier to treatment). ABA as an industry has become very attractive to investors and equity firms, which means more businesses and clinics being opened, or existing businesses and clinics expanding and multiplying. Lastly, the increase of ABA services outside of the world of Autism has led to an overall increased demand for/awareness of  BCBAs, with clinicians moving into areas such as criminal justice, the business world, education, geriatrics, and policy change. 

Unless you live in a very small town (or outside of the US) you've probably already seen ABA businesses and clinics pop up in your community, with a more aggressive presence than before.  

As a clinician, it can be a dizzying process to look at the  vast array of ABA employment options out there and choose the best place to pour your time, energy, and talent into, day after day after day. 

This specific question of "Where should I work?" is something I've posted about multiple times (see here, here, or here).


We talk about clinician burnout, we discuss the problematic high turnover rates in this field, but where are the resources to help clinicians weigh their employment options to select a reputable, ethical, and professional organization to work for?


Beyond just tips and commiserating by swapping stories of companies from hell, I'd like to offer some actual evidence- based action steps (see sources below), to help when it comes to scrutinizing an employer pre-hire, successfully navigating The Contract, and enjoying where you work!

What in the world was the point of all those college courses, 2am study sessions, supervision hours, and textbook paper cuts, if you're just going to get up every day to "clock in" at a company you loathe? Why work somewhere where all you are viewed as is a means to billable hours? That makes no sense at all.


Before jumping into some red flags of unethical organizations, I want to emphasize the importance of the pre-hire process. From that initial email or phone call, all the way up to the point where you sign your name on the offer letter or contract, you should be evaluating that employer just as much as they are evaluating you. It should be a mutual process, or dance, of "Show me what you got". For example:

Who owns the company? (super important question to ask these days) How many BCBAs are in leadership positions? How long has the company been around? What is the mission statement or company vision? How about the company culture? How reasonable is the clinical workload? How much of the work day is paid time (billable hours vs non-billable time)? Why did the last person in this position leave? What is the staff turnover rate? How is value demonstrated to employees, in tangible and concrete ways that are NOT tied to meeting productivity quotas? How does the company make diversity and inclusion a necessity, not just at the practitioner level, but at the executive level as well? Is work-life balance a buzz word, or actually attainable at this company? 


Also, we live in the Jetsons age. Your entire life is on the internet. If you think that interviewer is not looking you up before the interview, you are delusional. Have you looked the organization up online? Have you read over the company reviews, written both by consumers and by employees? Have you searched for any lawsuits/legal action, or ethical investigations the company was involved in? You should.



Identifying Unethical Organizations


  • Pre-Interview/Interview process - Organization does not or cannot provide clear, logical answers to persistent applicant questions, supervision and training as described is insufficient/does not meet best practice standards, cannot explain/no process of onboarding new hires, poor management of client health records (HIPAA concerns), scope of competence is not a consideration when staffing cases, both a very brief or a drags on and on interview process are not good signs, beware of recruiters who make grandiose promises during pre-hire (get it in writing), vague or shifting caseload expectations, cannot explain efforts/no efforts made to accommodate the diverse cultures of client population

  • Evidence Based Practices- Organization promotes/advertises or clearly offers non-behavior analytic services while claiming to be an ABA agency, unethical practices or non-evidence based procedures are observed or discussed (e.g. BCBA supervisor implements Floortime with clients), executive level staff lacks BCBA's or clinicians, minimal to no understanding of Behavior Analytic Code of Ethics, clinical competency is not considered or critical to caseload assignments (e.g. brand new RBT's are placed on high intensity cases), clinical supervision and training is too minimal for RBT's to refine their skillset

  • High-Quality Service - Workload expectations are unrealistic to an amount that impacts clinical quality (e.g. Supervisors carrying huge caseloads), clinician mentoring and emotional support is replaced by micromanagement (incessant "check-ins" that are only focused on productivity), job description is unrealistic/multiple jobs crammed into one position, treatment hours are mandated regardless of client need (e.g. push for "40 hours a week" for all clients), "cookie-cutter" treatment planning, lack of parent training/caregiver involvement in treatment, no company policy or procedures for gaining parental adherence to participation guidelines, no company policy or procedures for families who frequently cancel/show up late/"no show-no call", unethical and/or unprofessional behavior is being modeled by senior or executive level employees (e.g. BCBA supervisor is dating his RBT supervisee), ethical conduct is not taught, expected, or maintained by the organization, company online presence/website is heavy on outdated, Ableist, or anti-Autistic language such as "cure", "recovery", "suffering with Autism", or "saving" children

  • Non-Certified Supervisors or Owner - While not automatically a red flag, the supervisor/owner must be knowledge of the Code of Ethics, must understand that credentialed and certified employees are required to practice ethically, must demonstrate understanding of appropriate clinical caseloads, clinical supervision, and clinical training, must be committed to clinicians practicing within competency,  and must not attempt to make clinical/treatment decisions due to not being qualified to do so

  • Contract Terms - Offer letter or contract contains terms, restrictions, or information never previously mentioned or explained during pre-hire (e.g. "surprises" in the contract), information that was verbally stated is not put in writing/not in the offer letter or contract, highly restrictive and punitive non-compete or non-solicitation clauses that prohibits the employee from reasonably working in the field during, or post-employment, length of employment conditions that require the employee agree to work at the organization for a specific amount of time ("handcuffing" employees to the organization), requirement to sign any document after accepting the position (e.g. 10 days after signing offer letter, only then is employee asked to also sign a non-compete agreement), huge bonuses/perks/incentives that only kick in after a specific duration of employment (indicates the company has high turnover rates), being offered an independent contractor position if you are a RBT or BCaBA (you cannot work independently)

**References:


BHCOE Position Statement on Non-Compete Agreements


Brodhead, M. T., & Higbee, T. S. (2012). Teaching and maintaining ethical behavior in a professional organization. Behavior analysis in practice5(2), 82–88. 


Brodhead, M. T., Quigley, S. P., & Cox, D. J. (2018). How to Identify Ethical Practices in Organizations Prior to Employment. Behavior analysis in practice11(2), 165–173. 


Brown, K.J., Flora, S.R. & Brown, M.K. Noncompete Clauses in Applied Behavior Analysis: A Prevalence and Practice Impact Survey. Behav Analysis Practice 13, 924–938 (2020). 


Kazemi, E., Shapiro, M., & Kavner, A. (2015). Predictors of intention to turnover in behavior technicians working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 17, 106–115. 


Rubenstein, A. L., Kammeyer-Mueller, J. D., Wang, M., & Thundiyil, T. G. (2018). “Embedded” at hire? Predicting the voluntary and involuntary turnover of new employees. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40, 342–359. 

 Yup, pretty accurate.




Need more tips? Well, if you want a surefire way to generate clinician burnout, be sure to hire highly qualified, intelligent, and experienced practitioners, and then micromanage them to death.

Lather, rinse, repeat.


 *Recommended reading: What to expect from a BCBA



If you are unfamiliar with ABA services, you may first hear about it as a recommendation post-diagnosis. Or, from a school system recommending behavioral services. Or, you might seek out an ABA provider if persistent, challenging, or harmful behaviors are happening in your home, in the community, or at your child' school.


For most people, the process of starting up ABA services will involve multiple steps, an extensive timeline, and lots & lots of paperwork (seriously.... a mountain of paperwork). To briefly summarize, the child must be diagnosed, an ABA provider must be found/identified, an intake assessment must occur, insurance authorization has to happen, staff must be assigned to the case, and only then do services actually begin. I would say a best case scenario would be all of that occurring within 1-2 months. Unfortunately though, best case scenarios don't always happen.


Just like there are valid, honest reasons why ABA therapy isn't for everyone, there are valid reasons why starting services with the ABA agency/clinic up the street isn't the best idea. Sometimes it will make much more sense to work with a solo practitioner/BCBA.

If you aren't familiar with the title BCBA, a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst is someone trained in the science of Behavior Analysis, holding a Masters degree or higher, who has gone through roughly 1-2 years of highly regimented supervised experience and passed a rigorous exam. BCBAs can practice independently, so this means you do not need to go through a company or agency to work with one. Similar to physicians, BCBAs have specialties. All BCBAs will possess a standard skillset/range of knowledge on behavior, but the specialty will be a combination of an individuals post-certification experiences and training. For example, some BCBAs specialize in feeding disorders. Others have worked with early intervention populations exclusively, and others focus more on OBM (Organizational Behavior Management) rather than special needs populations. 


For most families, it seems like a simple equation: need ABA services ---> call up a local company ----> start services. But, there are some scenarios where this would actually be a bad idea:


  • Brief or Short Term Consultation - Most ABA companies are focused on servicing clients needing intensive, multi-year therapy for many hours each week. If you have a specific behavioral need or only need short term help, it actually would be faster, and simpler, to just work directly with a solo BCBA.  And on that note, lets talk about speed of services starting up....

  • Delay to Onset of Services - I regularly talk to families who are sitting on wait lists to access services. Or, their child completed an initial assessment with a company, but they haven't heard anything for 30, 60, days and counting. There could be many reasons why you experience a significant delay to start services, but the most common reasons would be staffing (no available staff), and funding issues (problems with getting services authorized or company is not in network with your insurance provider). If you need help now, I strongly suggest contacting a solo BCBA rather than a company/agency.

  • Wanting Highly Experienced Staff - As part of my role, I regularly conduct intake assessments with families new to ABA. Many times they will ask me if I will be the one working directly with their child, and I then explain that ABA treatment utilizes a tiered-service delivery model. In a tiered model, the supervisor/BCBA is usually the most degreed and experienced person on that case. The individual working directly with the client, is usually called an ABA Therapist, or Registered Behavior Technician (if they are credentialed). The education and experience of the direct staff can vary, and a high-quality company will have a rigorous training and onboarding process for direct staff before they can work with clients (a poor quality company will not). If you want Masters degree level clinicians working with your child, that can be hard to find at a company. 

  • Rural/International/Low Supply Area - I have worked privately with families as a Consultant for many years. The main reason why these families chose to hire me instead of going to a company/agency, is because in this was not an option for their area. Some of these families lived in very rural areas with no ABA providers for miles. Others lived outside of the US, where knowledge of ABA can be minimal or absent. For others, there were TONS of ABA companies in their area. The problem with that though, is that high demand can = insane wait lists. I'm talking sitting on a wait list for 1-3 years. In these situations, it makes far more sense to work with a solo BCBA via Telehealth/technology. I do not recommend sitting on a wait list for any significant length of time without also pursuing other options.

  • No Diagnosis/Non-ASD Diagnosis - In most states that have Autism mandates for insurance coverage, a diagnosis of Autism is required to receive ABA treatment. If your child is not diagnosed, you're stuck on a wait list just to get a diagnosis (which can happen), or your child has a non-Autism diagnosis, then you may not be able to receive services from an ABA company. Not all companies accept private pay clients, especially the very large ones. In this situation, it would make more sense work with a solo BCBA.

  • Funding Issues/Insurance Issues - Similar to the above point, there can be challenges with accessing ABA therapy through your insurance. For some, a high annual deductible must be met before insurance will kick in. Or, per session co-pays might be very high (keep in mind there will be multiple sessions per week). Sometimes the insurance may cover an amount of ABA that is very minimal, or does not allow for quality supervision of treatment. I have worked with families  where due to their specific insurance plan, I could only see them once a month. That is not enough for high-quality services. 

  • Language Barriers - If you live in an area where that predominate language is not your first language, you may experience a barrier to accessing treatment. For example, many families in Atlanta speak Chinese or Spanish as their first language. But not all ABA companies in Atlanta have Chinese or Spanish speaking staff, or translators available. So what does this mean? It means it can be challenging to initiate services, participate in assessment, and understand what is going on in therapy. If this is your situation, you may want to find a solo BCBA who speaks your first language for ease of understanding and communication. Another bonus is this BCBA would be able to provide translated documents and paperwork to you, in your dominant language.

  • Professional seeking Consultation - Lastly, what if you are not a parent seeking services for your child, but rather a related professional who wants to collaborate with a BCBA? Maybe you are a teacher, SLP, Psychologist, or PT, and you have a particular client/student with challenging behaviors and need some help. This is not a scenario that would be appropriate for calling up an ABA company. It would be far more feasible (and faster) to locate a BCBA and ask about individual consultation. Keep in mind that ethically, the caregivers of the specific client must consent to this consultation as well.



There will be exceptions to all of the points above, depending on the area where you reside, the funding sources available, the quality of local providers, and your specific behavioral needs. 
For example, it is often more difficult for parents of older children or adults to access services. Also, not all agencies accept all insurances. Or maybe your current ABA provider seems to have a revolving door of staff, and just when you acclimate to the team members: they change. These are all scenarios where you may want to consider private consultation.

Just keep in mind that if services in your area are lacking, full of impossible waitlists, or if you have funding challenges, you do have other options available to receive ABA intervention for your child.



*Resources:





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