In a developmental psychology lecture the other week, I mentioned that I worked as an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapist when I was a psychology undergraduate. Since then a number of students have asked me how I got into it. So I thought I’d write a blog post on what ABA therapy is, why psychology students tend to be good at it, and how to get some work experience.
ABA is a therapy for children with autism that is based on behaviourist principles of learning and development. The National Autistic Society define autism as “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways”. Therefore, ABA therapists (also known as ABA tutors) typically work on a one to one basis with children with autism to develop their social skills as well as other skills (e.g. language, motor skills) so that life is a little easier for them and their carers all round. They apply the principles of behaviourism (e.g. reinforcement, extinction) to change the behaviour of the children they work with. Here’s an ABA clip that explains a little more.
When I worked as a tutor in 2003/2004, ABA was expensive as families had to self fund the therapy and pay people like me, mostly psychology students, to work with their child for around 6 hours per day, five days a week. I’m sure things have changed a bit since then – if you can shed any light on this then please leave a comment. Psychology students were preferred to graduates as they were slightly cheaper (!) whilst also very knowledgeable on the topics of behaviour and child development. Therefore we made good ABA therapists and also got some very relevant work experience. On reflection, the opportunity to apply my psychological knowledge to a real world context was an invaluable experience and made me realise just how relevant a degree in psychology could be. Also, once you are in the ABA network other opportunities often come along. Some of the students I worked with became full time ABA therapists and programme leaders after university.
One place to look out for ABA opportunities is your university’s intranet/careers website. The family I worked for posted an advert with my university as they were specifically looking for psychology undergraduates. I saw the ad online and was encouraged by my career’s service to apply. I phoned the number then went to meet the family and the child I would be working with. I shadowed another tutor for a few weeks and received some ‘proper’ training a month or so later when a consultant from the American company that was overseeing the therapy programme came to the UK on their rounds.
Such ABA opportunities tend to be few and far in between and are often snapped up quickly. You could say I was in the right place at the right time and there’s no use waiting for that place and time to come. I suggested a few things today to some psychology students that want to get into ABA such as getting involved with local community/education groups that work with people with autism, setting up a blog looking for work (like this Salford graduate did – via @fcchristie), creating a professional profile on sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter and introducing yourself to other ABA therapists who could potentially recommend you for a future vacancy, and so on. I’m sure they can be way more inventive than me! So my main message was/is to create your own opportunities by being a little bit savvy, a little bit creative and a little bit entrepreneurial. If you decide to get into ABA, let me know how you get on – good luck:)
If you know of other routes into ABA therapy, please leave a comment. Thank you!