Critical Incidents: Some Thoughts on How our Individual Practice is Dramatically Shaped

Author: Shane Spiker, MS, BCBA  & PhD Candidate 

Author: Shane Spiker, MS, BCBA  & PhD Candidate 

One of my favorite elements of behavior analytic practice is the unique comradery we share. There aren’t many professions that can relate, with experiences that often sound made up. For the most part, our roles in the community are fairly mild; intervention design, research, data analysis, training, supervision. It sounds fairly mild mannered, and while us scientist-practitioners enjoy a good “have you seen this article?” discussion, those are not often the stories we tell when we discuss behavior analytic work.

What we do share are our significant experiences. We may describe our field in the context of populations we serve. We may also describe our profession in terms of our common practice; to help reduce problem behavior. Since I entered the field, I have felt as though it has been one unique experience after the next.

Truthfully, it has been over 7 years since I’ve joined the ABA world, and I can’t think of a time where things have “slowed down.” This may be because the majority of my experience has been in crisis management or working with individuals with complex problem behavior. And I’m finding that my story is a little different than some other practitioners. I tripped and fell into a field I love, along with so many others who practice. And what is great about my experience is that we all get to share our experiences on some level, whether it is through stories or practical lessons.

We all have stories. We all have moments that we remember and that we share because they’ve changed us as practitioners.

We share because these stories have impacted us on some level. Whether they are feel good stories about successes with families or breakthroughs in treatment, or they are devastating losses, horrific injuries, or lesson’s learned. We all have a few that we tend to tell more often than others. These stories that we tell, these experiences that we share, they have shaped our practitioner repertoire in some way. These critical incidents are events that have altered the course of our professional development in some way. That’s why they are worth sharing.

Last week, an individual that I had served years ago passed away. They were challenging when I started with them, and over the years, having consulted on their case, they only got more challenging and more dangerous. I remember the first time I met them, and how nervous I was as an inexperienced BCaBA walking into a crisis situation. This was the first time they had ever had ABA services. And we were successful in helping them for a short time while we waited on getting them more services to support the family. Their passing is tough for many reasons. I feel like we weren’t able to get them everything they needed sooner. I learned that my advocacy skills could be better somehow. I plan on attending their ceremony despite some others potentially considering this an issue with multiple relationships. It’s a complex situation, and I’m not entirely sure how this will change my professional practice yet.

But this is one story and one experience that I won’t forget. Just like I won’t forget these experiences:

  • One time I was knocked out over a can of soda. This was at my 30-day mark as a behavior assistant.
  • I was bloodied pretty badly by a young lady who was about 1/3rd my size. I’m 6’4” and at the time, I was about 250 pounds.
  • There was the time where I got to see a 16-year-old say his first word ever, which was one of the most rewarding moments of my career.
  • The first time I got fired from a situation after calling the abuse hotline - it was really painful, because I never saw my client again.
  • The first time I ever ran an FA, I had to peak into a window at a group home and looked INCREDIBLY creepy. There is a picture of this somewhere out there.
  • And I can’t forget the one time a sex offender I worked with had a portrait of me pinned up on his wall for a period of time.

My point is this; we all have these stories that have shaped our practice. They are important. I’ve learned to stay on my toes and prepare for crisis moments at any time. I’ve also learned that I don’t need people taking pictures of me. And I learned that I really love language acquisition. These stories highlight our strengths, our failures, and our periods of growth. They are course changers for the direction of our practice. We don’t just share them for a good laugh or a sense of comradery. We share them because these critical incidents are INSTRUMENTAL in how we practice as behavior analysts.

I know this article isn’t scholarly by any means. It’s not meant to be. It’s meant (hopefully) to be insightful. To be a bit introspective. To potentially help identify those pivotal moments in your practice and maybe identify why they were so pivotal. We all have so many that drive our scientist-practitioner framework that they are worth looking at a bit more than just a story to tell.