Mention behavioral therapy in some circles, especially in the Autism community, and you are bound to elicit a strong response in either direction. Many people hear the techniques of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and have images of what is essentially dog training for humans. Their perception of it is that it is a cold, emotionless set of rules with no room for the consideration of emotions.
Those people certainly have a point.
Others swear by it and have seen dysfunctional, disruptive, and even dangerous behaviors modified by the approach. These people have credited ABA with changing their children’s lives.
Those people are also right…to an extent.
Many people who eschew behavioral therapy are unaware of what the aim of this model actually is. The idea behind behavioral therapy is not the control of others, but the modification of behavior. Behavioral analysis examines the motives for behavior and the responses from an organism’s environment that either reinforce or punish that behavior. Behavioral Theory posits that there are four basic functions of our behavior:
Attention Seeking: An individual engages in a behavior to elicit a response from another person. Not all attention sought is positive attention (this is important to remember).
Escape/Avoidance: An individual wishes to escape from an aversive experience while it is already in progress or avoid it to begin with.
Access to Tangible Items: An individual wants to obtain said item.
Sensory Stimulation (automatic reinforcement): An individual engages in a behavior because it is inherently reinforcing-the behavior feels good to them or is simply fun.
Another basic tenet of this theory is that behaviors can either be increased by positive or negative reinforcement, or decreased by positive or negative punishment. The difference between these terms is often muddied by their incorrect usage in popular media. It is important to have clarity when discussing these terms so that any further confusion about ABA, its legitimacy, and associated stigma can be avoided. The graphic below is useful in determining the difference between them.
Even if one’s aim is not to change a behavior, any social scientist can find the information sought by behavioral therapists useful in their work. Further still, it is important to remember that motivation for and reinforcement of behaviors is a common thread in our daily interactions. Understanding why we do things and what keeps us doing them is worth exploring; knowing what keeps us getting up early to go to the gym, our partners doing things to help around the house, or our employees putting in extra hours helps us to know how to keep good things like these going. We engage in simple behavioral modification every time we praise someone for a job well done or ignore someone who has hurt us.
We both are in the unique position of having come from a behavioral therapy background to intern at TCS, a DIR community. It has been liberating to “be with” our clients in their individual differences while also enjoying the chance to be authentic in our selves as therapists. The DIR model gives us the opportunity to follow the client’s lead and to treat the individual as a whole, not a constellation of behaviors. We do, however, recognize that the understanding of what drives human behavior is an indispensable tool in deciphering our clients’ experiences and helping them grow.
– Kelly Keyser and Kelsey Bohlke, Graduate Counseling Interns