The challenges of working in ABA - ABA Therapy for Autism
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The challenges of working in ABA

Written By: Tabitha J Kirby, MA, BCBA, COBA

Working in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is not for everyone. The ABA field is rapidly expanding, and ongoing research provides ABA clinicians with increasing options for positive ABA treatment approaches. Even though the number of those certified through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) (BCBA-D, BCBA, BCaBA, RBT) continues to grow, the prevalence of children diagnosed with Autism grows at an even faster rate. A fast-growing population in demand of services can cause some growing pains for businesses and some significant challenges to those working in the field. Despite its challenges, many clinicians become extremely dedicated to this field. How? Knowing what to expect and how to properly deal with these challenges is the key to becoming successful in the ABA field.

The Challenges

As the front-line staff, Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT) have the daily task of implementing treatment and behavior plans, and they are in a position to have the most effect on the clients they serve. An RBT must have a true comprehension of the treatment approaches they are using in order to facilitate the most change for their clients. Children with Autism learn best with consistency, and regardless of the client’s age range, the day-to-day implementation of treatment is the most vital role. However, many applying for these positions have no idea what they are getting into. Being charged with applying such a variation in techniques that are then individualized for treatment proves very challenging. RBT’s must be able to learn quickly and be able to make clinically sound split-second decisions. If working in-home, RBTs must learn these techniques and implement them with high validity without having other staff to observe regularly and without much managerial oversight.

Additionally, the in-home RBT must successfully navigate a fine line between professionalism and friendliness in a way that meets the strict ethical guidelines of the BACB. Abstaining from dual relationships with parents and strict adherence to HIPAA is new to most RBT’s and these things feel unnatural. They must find a balance between their job as an RBT or ABA technician and also being friendly enough that a family feels comfortable with a stranger in their home for so many hours each week.

Moreover, RBTs may have to manage challenging behaviors that they’ve never seen before and use interventions that aren’t natural to assume. Most people have not experienced the difficulties children with autism have with communication, behaviors, or social interactions. Many of these children may not even accept being touched or played with in the way other children do. People with autism can exhibit aggressiveness or property destruction and each instance must be handled in the way that their specific Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) requires. Each BIP is developed only after an ABA-certified supervisor completes a Functional Behavior Assessment. Data Analysis directs the interventions, which are tailored specifically to each client. Strict adherence to the BIP and accurate data collection is both vital to successful behavior change – things that many people may not have done prior to joining the field of ABA.

BCBA-D’sBCBA’s, and BCaBA’s, whether working for a company that provides in-home services or for a clinic/center, have to face the challenge of high caseloads coupled with low hours available to spend on each case. Doing effective ABA therapy takes time and skill. Clinicians at this level must rely heavily on the clinical observations and data of RBTs, parents, and/or therapists in other fields in order to make intervention decisions. In all settings, effective time management is key to fulfilling the job responsibilities in an ideal manner. It is quite challenging to resist the lowering of expectations and properly juggle all of the competing tasks in order to fulfill the duties and keep the hours provided to a level that is covered by funding sources while maintaining the maximum quality of services.

The role of a supervisor over an ABA program for a person with Autism requires knowledge and skill in a myriad of topics. An ABA supervisor must understand developmental and age-appropriate norms as well as pre-requisites and skills needed in all areas (social, communication, motor, daily life, etc.) of functioning. Additionally, they must be able to implement multiple teaching techniques, communicate clearly through written and verbal communication, select and use appropriate skill assessments, and be able to model all interventions with every client on their caseload.

Work-Life Balance

Regardless of staff level or role, daily work stressors and required flexibility within the world of ABA can be very tiring. Finding a way to create a work-life balance that enables you to provide self-care and step away from the demands of work-life can be very challenging. Going home and leaving unfinished tasks at work is something that many in supervisory roles have a difficult time doing. Families of clients served can also need direction during times that staff are not on duty. Setting boundaries of when you are available and not available to respond to work-related texts, emails, and voicemails is a necessary limit many find hard to navigate. A bad day at work for an RBT or BCBA will look much different than most jobs. It is typical to have days with every client participating in high levels of challenging behaviors. The importance of not taking those behaviors personally is one of the hardest parts of these jobs. Lastly, it is common to receive a high level of feedback throughout each day, no matter your role in the field. This feedback is absolutely necessary to truly become a skilled professional in ABA and to provide the consistency between team members that is needed for success. It is uncommon to receive such frequent feedback elsewhere and is hard for many to not take it personally.

The Reward

Successfully working with children, youth, and adults with Autism promises to keep you on your toes and keep your mind agile if you let it. There is never a dull day at work, and the benefits far outweigh the challenges! The fulfillment of hearing a child say their first word, helping a youth fill out their first job application, or watching an adult independently wash a load of laundry for the first time far outweighs the challenges you might face as an ABA clinician. Some might even see challenges as minor hurdles that are stepping stones to growth and becoming immersed in this field full throttle. Take time to discuss your challenges with your new co-workers, especially your supervisors. Make sure to let them know what level of support you need to successfully learn the field of ABA and make a positive difference in the life of a person diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). By joining this field, even if just for a short while, you will learn skills that will benefit you throughout your entire life.

If you are interested in a job in ABA or want to learn more about what it is like to work in the ABA field, please reach out to us on our careers page.

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