The potential applications of behavior analysis, an area of focus within the field of psychology that emphasizes the scientific principles behind behavior and behavior change, are limitless. Any scenario in which a behavior change is desirable – from the mental health and physical health spheres to the business world – may show a need for skills in behavior analysis. Yet some applications are certainly seen more commonly than others. Among the populations of clients that behavior analysts are most likely to work with are children with autism and developmental disabilities, adults suffering from neurocognitive and memory issues, people with substance abuse disorders and patients who have or are at risk for any health conditions in which lifestyle factors play a role.
Children With Autism and Developmental Disabilities
The practice of behavior analysis is so often linked with autism because applied behavior analysis as a form of intervention was first used for the purposes of working with children with autism when it was established during the 1960s. Numerous organizations have acknowledged applied behavior analysis as “the most successful approach for children with autism,” especially when applied as early as the child’s diagnosis allows and in intensive amounts of one-on-one therapy, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board reported. The use of applied behavior analysis in treating children with autism spectrum disorders today is somewhat different from its original form, with behavior analysts looking for ways to refine and individualize treatment and intervention plans as opposed to treating all kids with autism as having the same needs and goals.
Research is an important part of improving interventions for patients with autism, both in childhood and across the lifespan, in that it helps practitioners understand the differences among individuals on the autism spectrum and how to improve clients’ quality of life.
Aging Adults With Memory and Neurocognitive Problems
A growing area of application is behavioral gerontology, or the use of behavioral analysis strategies to address issues related to aging. While applied behavior analysis can be used in dealing with a number of different concerns that affect the elderly population on a large scale, including diabetes, obesity and depression, it is often the effect of intervention on memory and neurocognitive issues that draws particular interest. Researchers in behavioral gerontology have learned that some patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia can see improvement in their exhibition of certain symptoms, including memory problems, through appropriate use of applied behavioral analysis interventions.
As in other areas of applied behavior analysis, interventions in behavioral gerontology typically involve breaking down larger objectives into smaller steps and rewarding progress toward meeting those small steps and, ultimately, the larger goals.
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Another area of focus for behavior analysts is substance use and abuse. Applied behavior analysis can be valuable in the treatment of substance use disorders among, for example, individuals who are attempting to give up drugs. Behavior analysis of addiction involves understanding the factors that prompt people to use drugs. Often, strategies for treating substance abuse issues with applied behavior analysis interventions mean offering rewards for not using the drug that are strong enough to combat those factors that encourage drug use.
Applications for behavior analysis interventions in substance use and abuse include not only dependence on and use of illegal drugs but also legal substances like nicotine.
Patients With Health Conditions
Health and fitness is another area of practice for behavior analysts. Although there are some health factors, like genetics, that we have no control over, there are also lifestyle factors involved in determining the risk and severity of many different diseases. These lifestyle factors are comprised of a series of choices relating to factors like exercise and diet. Choices about what foods to consume and what activities to spend your time and energy on are just behaviors – which makes them a fascinating source of study, research and intervention for behavior analysts. Finding effective and sustainable programs that reinforce healthy behaviors and motivate people to make healthy choices can help lower rates of diseases that have a strong lifestyle component and make chronic conditions more manageable.
It isn’t only patients who already have or are at risk of developing chronic medical conditions who can benefit from applying behavior analysis strategies. Behavior analysts also work to promote general wellness by guiding clients toward healthy behavior patterns.