Defending Your  Right to Advocate for Behavior Analysis

Motivator Spotlight Feature of the Month
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ABA is a very new profession!  Really, in the grand scheme of things, it is still in its infancy. And as infants we can learn much from our older siblings. Did you know that in the early stages of psychology, psychiatrists fought against its inception as a profession? Here is a short timeline taken from History of Clinical Psychology as a Profession in America (and a Glimpse at its Future) – Benjamin (2005) [i].

  • Prior to the 20th century, Psychiatrists were responsible for the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness – generally in asylums or hospitals (starting in late 1700s)
  • 1844 – the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane was formed and they changed the name to the American Psychiatric Association in 1921
  • 1892 – American Psychological Association founded
  • 1909 – Freud visits America and “talk therapy” was popularized; it took another 50 years or so that “couch psychology” became the prototype
  • Just as with early behavior analysis, “No certification or licensure laws existed to define the training or practices of these individuals, and there were few laws to protect the public from fraudulent practices.”
  • “Clinical psychologists battled psychiatrists for much of the last half of the twentieth century to win their place in professional practice on such issues as licensure, insurance reimbursement, hospital privileges, and the independent practice of psychotherapy. They won some of those battles because clinical trials research indicated that doctoral-level psychologists could do the work as well as their medical counterparts in psychiatry.”
  • 1917 – Psychiatric community calls for an end to clinical psychology saying psychologists could use their assessment skills in advertising and sales, but not in clinical work. There was a sustained period of growth of applied psychology after WWI.
  • 1945 – Connecticut becomes first state to license psychologists
  • 1946 – APA created an accrediting system for clinical psychology and psychology programs received funding from the government
  • 1953 – APA publishes Ethics Code
  • 1963 – President Kennedy signs the Community Mental Health Centers Act to establish Community Mental Health Centers to manage cases on an outpatient basis (deinstitutionalization)
  • 1977 – Missouri becomes the last state to license psychologists

To compare:

Activity Psychology Behavior Analysis
Formed an Association 1892 1974 (ABAI) [ii]
Published an Ethics Code 1953 1999 (BACB’s Conduct Standards and Procedures for Appeals)
First License 1945 (Connecticut) 2009 (Oklahoma) [iii]
Last License 1977 (Missouri) Expected 2041 (if the timeline matches psychology)

So how do we get there? Here are 5 steps you can take.

Do Your Research

In order to advocate, you have to be knowledgeable of the current laws in your area and the priorities of the persons with whom you are speaking. Your state ABA organization or APBA (Association of Professional Behavior Analysts) should be able to bring you up to date on the laws in your area. Many state associations have professional lobbyists working on their behalf. It is each practitioner’s responsibility to know the laws that affect him or her. Hint: it goes beyond licensure!

If you are talking with legislators, be sure to do your homework and understand their priorities. What bills have they sponsored lately?  What types of events do they do? What causes are close to their heart? If you can tap into something that is important to them, you may be able to make a connection and have a powerful ally.

And any time you want to work to change the law, be sure to work with your state organization (if you have one) and not against or solo. Don’t make life harder for other behavior analysts by going rogue!

Take Responsibility

There have been a lot of claims about ABA in social media and other channels. Many of the claims are inaccurate, but some are quite valid. Take a look at your practice. Are you causing trauma? Use social validity measures and actively seek out the opinions of the population that you are treating. This most certainly does not mean to rely less on the science of behavior analysis, which is well proven and has a plethora of research backing it up. However, knowledge of the science is power and with power comes responsibility. The main goal of an ABA practitioner is to help individuals achieve meaningful outcomes and improve their quality of life, [iv] and that is something worth advocating!

Communicate Effectively

The education of a behavior analyst does not generally include how to disseminate or communicate information about our science and profession. But we can use our knowledge of behavior analysis to help us become good disseminators. In his article, Ten Rules for Discussing Behavior Analysis [v], Thomas Critchfield tells us to plan our own behavior to support behavior change. He recommends in talking with non-behavior analysts, our behavior should be what the other person needs to better understand. He also reminds us that behavior changes gradually; “the idea that a single rebuttal of a mischaracterization will make everything right is folly.” Finally, he declares that skills become more fluent with practice – including your skills in communicating about and disseminating behavior analysis.

Go Beyond Autism

It’s no secret that most behavior analysts work in the field of autism. In fact, ABA has almost become synonymous with autism in the last several years. Trump and Ayres [vi] discuss the impact this has on our field in their 2019 article, Autism, Insurance, and Discrimination: The Effect of an Autism Diagnosis on Behavior-Analytic Services. While there are many reasons why the two have become linked (including research, advocacy, and legislation), it is necessary for behavior analysts to go beyond autism if our profession is going to flourish in the future. However, we can take a page from the book of autism advocates as they sure know how to get results!

Get Involved

This brings it back to you. What will the profession of behavior analysis – our profession – look like in 10, 20, 50 years? What do you want it to look like? Behavior analysis needs advocates like you if it is going to survive in the future. So get involved today by joining your state ABA association and offering to help, actively meeting with your legislators, meeting with non-behavior analytic organizations about what behavior analysis is and what we do, going to high school and college recruiting events, and continually striving to use the best of the science. Because if you aren’t at the table, then you may just be on the menu!

[i] Benjamin, L.T. (2013). History of Clinical Psychology as a Profession in America (and a Glimpse at its Future). Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 42(1), 57–71.



[iv] Attributed to Dr. Jose Martinez-Diaz

[v] Critchfield, T.S. (2014).  Ten Rules for Discussing Behavior Analysis.  Behavior Analysis in Practice, 7(2), 141-142.

[vi] Trump, C.E. and Ayres, K. M. (2019).  Autism, Insurance, and Discrimination: The Effect of an Autism Diagnosis on Behavior-Analytic Services.  13(1), 282-289.


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Motivator Spotlight Feature of the Month
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Christy Evanko, BCBA, LBA
Subject Matter Expert