Being a Behavior Analyst: From Mythology to Reality

Melissa Engasser, MS, BCBA Founder and Clinical Director of The Bedrock Clinic and Research Center, Inc.

Melissa Engasser, MS, BCBA Founder and Clinical Director of The Bedrock Clinic and Research Center, Inc.

As a young student attending Florida Institute of Technology, Applied Behavior Analysis was presented to me as this beautiful science that had the power to change the world. Though I initially entered the field through working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, in my graduate studies, I cannot recall one course that I took that was specific to this one population. The philosophy of radical behaviorism was preached to me and gave me the illusion that as a proclaimed “science”, that we truly had the technology to change the world and all of its problems.

Then I graduated, and mythology and reality regarding the clinical applications of the science, set in quickly. Though I did have the rare opportunity to work with a variety of populations during my practicum (e.g., developmental disabilities, neuro-typical children, at-risk children in foster care), I learned quickly I had been living in a microcosm. As I moved from central Florida, which I believe to be a mecca of sorts for behavior analysis, I came to realize that this was not the case across the country. Once I move to the Northeast (USA), I quickly learned that funding available for behavior analyst, were 95% of the time or more (don’t quote me on that percentage), related to autism and/or other developmental disabilities.

As a behavior analyst, I do understand our much-needed role in helping those in vulnerable populations and have fully enjoyed the ability to do so. That being said, I was lead to believe that we could help with all behaviors that were socially significant. For example, how are working with children that have behavioral challenges at home or school that are neurotypical any less valid than working with children on the Autism Spectrum? Or helping an opioid addict, conquer their addiction? Or helping at-risk youth stay in school?  At the end of the day, everyone can benefit from the help of behavior analytic technology, and to live with knowing that we have are not sharing it with other humans that may benefit, is a burden too large to bear.  

I’m not saying that there aren’t behavior analysts doing wonderful work outside of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities realm. What I am trying to convey, is that in all honestly our field isn't as prevalent and it should be. A science requires social validity across populations and we have that validated in our journals, but it's time to bring it into the mainstream. I'm afraid we are losing our identity, or perhaps we never truly found it,  and if we don’t collectively act quickly on creating scalable behavioral technologies then the world won't understand what we have to offer in time.

For those that are reading this, I urge you to go out and seek opportunities outside of your “bread and butter” - whatever that is to you. Build connections and relationships with those working in other areas of human services, such as addiction counselors, social workers, psychologist, business, economics, sports, health, etc. Spend time talking about what a loving and compassionate field we are and how we can help others change for the better. Don’t be afraid! Humanity is calling for us. We have just gone deaf to our true calling.

Let us know what you're doing to expand the science in the comments below - and share this to a friend that might use it to get motivated to take that next step. 

OpinionMelissa Engasser