Missing Piece Blog

History of ABA Practices in the United States

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has emerged as an evidence-based therapy for individuals with behavioral and developmental challenges experienced by those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This article explores the history of ABA therapy in the United States, tracing its fascinating origins and development, early applications in behavior modification, important milestones, and the evolving nature of ABA therapy over the years.

Before ABA: The advent of behaviorism

In the early 20th century, American psychologist John Watson revolutionized the field of psychology by introducing behaviorism as an alternative to Freudian psychoanalysis. Watson emphasized the study of observable behavior rather than unobservable mental processes, making psychology more scientific and objective.

Watson’s theories found particular relevance in child development, as he believed that a child’s environment plays a crucial role in shaping their behaviors. This perspective gained traction and influence over time, with behaviorists like Jacob Robert Kantor, Ivan Pavlov, and B.F. Skinner further developing and applying these ideas.

Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning, a cornerstone of behaviorism, gained widespread recognition. It posits that behaviors are influenced by the associations between actions and their consequences. Skinner’s work, especially his experiments with rats and pigeons, laid the foundation for understanding how behavior can be modified through reinforcement and punishment.

Today, Skinner’s theories, particularly Operant Conditioning, are widely taught in introductory psychology courses, emphasizing the importance of environmental factors in shaping behavior. Although many facets of his theories have been displaced by newer research, the impact of behaviorism extends beyond academia, influencing fields such as education, therapy, and even organizational management.

The birth of ABA: Ivar Løvaas’s impact

In the 1960s, Ole Ivar Løvaas introduced the Løvaas Method, now known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), as a treatment approach for autistic individuals. Løvaas believed that operant conditioning principles could be applied to help improve the behavior of those facing this challenge.

Løvaas’s research was published in 1987, involving 40 children who received ABA therapy for two to six years. The results showed significant improvements in social skills and cognition for 90% of the children compared to a control group. Follow-up studies in 1993 demonstrated that these skills were retained into adolescence.

The techniques developed by Løvaas, such as positive reinforcement, environmental manipulations, and using rewards and learning to develop behavioral skills, still form the basis of ABA therapy today. However, it’s important to note many early ABA methods were ethically unacceptable. In the 1970s, techniques like electric shock were used, which are no longer considered humane or effective.

Early applications of ABA in behavior modification

During the early years, ABA focused primarily on behavior modification techniques. Løvaas’s studies demonstrated that individuals with ASD could acquire language, social, and adaptive skills with a degree of ABA intervention. 

Throughout the history of ABA in the United States, various clinical practice types and methods of delivering ABA therapy have evolved to better meet the needs of autistic individuals. Ongoing research and advancements continue to shape the field, with a strong emphasis on evidence-based practices and ethical treatment approaches.

Key milestones in ABA development

While there are many individual events in the development timeline of ABA history, these three specific milestones have helped to shape ABA into the practice we know today. 

1. The establishment of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA)

In 1968, JABA was founded, providing a platform for publishing research on ABA and fostering the dissemination of evidence-based practices.

2. The formation of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)

In 1998, the BACB was established to ensure the professional standards and ethical practices of behavior analysts. It introduced a certification program, promoting quality ABA services and protecting the interests of clients.

3. The emergence of Positive Behavior Support (PBS)

In the 1990s, PBS gained prominence as a proactive approach to address challenging behaviors by focusing on environmental modifications, teaching replacement skills, and reinforcing positive behaviors.

The evolution of ABA Therapy

Over time, ABA therapy has evolved to encompass a broader range of applications and techniques. Today, ABA therapy emphasizes positive reinforcement, learning, and skill development to enhance communication, academic abilities, and social skills in autistic individuals. The focus is on promoting independence and improving the overall quality of life for individuals as they grow older.

Throughout the history of ABA in the United States, various clinical practice types and methods of delivering ABA therapy have evolved to better meet the needs of autistic people. Ongoing research and advancements continue to shape the field, with a strong emphasis on evidence-based practices and ethical treatment approaches.

Early Intensive Behavioral Interventions (EIBI)

EIBI programs have become a gold standard for early intervention in autistic children. These programs emphasize intensive one-on-one therapy and systematic teaching methods.

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA)

FBA has become a vital component of ABA therapy, allowing behavior analysts to identify the function of challenging behaviors and develop targeted interventions to address them effectively.

Natural Environment Teaching (NET) 

NET involves incorporating learning opportunities into the natural environment, promoting generalization and social interaction skills.

Technology and ABA

Technological advancements have revolutionized ABA therapy, with the use of apps, video modeling, and remote supervision enhancing access to services and improving data collection and analysis.

Expansion to diverse populations 

ABA therapy has extended its reach beyond autism to address a wide range of behavioral challenges in individuals with intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders, substance abuse, and mental health conditions.

Different types of ABA practices

ABA services can be delivered in multiple ways. Here are the main ways ABA therapists service patients. 

Independent practitioner

An independent ABA practitioner is a trained provider with a master’s degree or higher who has undergone rigorous supervision and passed necessary exams. With these credentials, they can practice independently without the need to work for a facility. 

In-home services

In-home ABA therapy involves a qualified BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) or Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) who work under the supervision of a BCBA and deliver services at a client’s home. This approach allows providers to build strong relationships with clients in a familiar and comfortable environment. It also provides opportunities for parent/guardian involvement in family training. 

Large practices

Many BCBAs choose to work in a facility setting within larger practices or multi-site organizations. By working in this professional setting, providers can create environments that mimic different settings (e.g., educational) and offer clients more exposure to social activities. BCBAs in this setting often supervise RBTs who administer most of the service hours or units.

School practitioners

ABA providers working in schools are typically School Behavior Technicians, who may be RBTs or school-based BCBAs. School-based BCBAs are employed by the school district and play a supportive role in supervising RBTs who deliver ABA services within the school’s jurisdiction. In addition to supervision, school-based BCBAs are responsible for crisis intervention and de-escalation. Some practitioners or practices may also have contracts with school districts to provide ABA services.

Different types of ABA practices

The history of ABA in the United States is marked by significant milestones, transformative research, and evolving practices. From its humble beginnings in behavior modification to its current status as a comprehensive therapeutic approach, ABA has provided countless individuals with the tools to achieve meaningful progress and enhance their quality of life. 

As ABA continues to evolve and adapt to new challenges, it is important that your ABA practice keeps pace. Your Missing Piece is the ideal partner to ensure that you focus on what really matters while we take care of every aspect of the billing and collection process for you. Contact us to schedule a free billing analysis and consultation.