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What is BCBA anyway?

All too often those of us within a field make unintentional assumptions about what people know about the field.  In the area of Behavior Analysis this is also true.  Recently, I was discussing the issue of the BCBA credential with several very knowledgeable parents and advocates.  It became very clear during the conversation that they all were under the misimpression that the BCBA credential is an Autism credential which it is not.  This realization is what has prompted my writing this article.

So, what is the BCBA credential?  BCBA stands for Board Certified Behavior Analyst and is a credential that began as a state certification in Florida in the 1990s and went national, and subsequently international, in 2000.  It is an attempt to provide some minimum standard for what constitutes being qualified to practice behavior analysis.  There are currently, as of my chats with the Executive Director and President of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) this weekend, approximately 4500 people certified by the board.  There are people who hold the BCBA credential working in over a dozen countries around the world and there are approved university courses springing up in places like Korea and Taiwan .  The BCBA credential is fast becoming recognized TriCare, the United State Militarys health insurance, and United Behavioral Healthcare pay for ABA services for children with Autism if they are delivered by a practitioner certified by the BACB and several states in the US have enacted reimbursement policies that reimburse at a higher rate for BCBA delivered services than they do for those of licensed doctoral-level psychologists (e.g., Alabama).  So, the issue of exactly what is the BCBA credential anyway is becoming more and more important a question.  This article is my attempt to answer that question.

It is important to address the issue of the BCBA credential and Autism because Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders are so high profile and ABA is the best research supported treatment available for Autism.  The question that I was asked recently was Does simply having BCBA mean that the person is an expert on Autism?  The straightforward and unequivocal answer is - No.  A person can have never met a person with Autism, let alone received coursework, supervision, or training in serving people with ASDs, and still hold the BCBA credential.  Behavior Analysis is an approach to human behavior that is not defined by a single diagnostic issue like Autism.  There are behavior analysts, who are really behavior analysts doing terrific work, who work in prevention of violence at the Centers for Disease Control, there are others that consult to Fortune 500 companies on employee motivation and productivity, and still others that train Human Service Animals.  None of those BCBAs necessarily have any knowledge, training, or skill in working with people with Autism and yet they may well hold the BCBA credential based on their training and supervision in those other very important areas.

If having the BCBA credential does not immediately make one an expert on Autism, what does?  Because of this concern the Autism Group at the Association for Behavior Analysis International have put out, starting in 1998 and updated periodically, a Consumer Guidelines for Identifying, Selecting, and Evaluating Behavior Analysts Working with Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders.  In part the guidelines state:

The Autism Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Association for Behavior Analysis asserts that all children and adults with autism and related disorders have the right to effective education and treatment based on the best available scientific evidence. Research has clearly documented the effectiveness of applied behavior analysis ( ABA ) methods in the education and treatment of people with autism (e.g., Matson et al., 1996; Smith, 1996; New York Department of Health, 1999; U.S. Surgeon General, 1999).


Planning, directing, and monitoring effective ABA programs for individuals with autism requires specific competencies. Individuals with autism, their families, and other consumers have the right to know whether persons who claim to be qualified to direct ABA programs actually have the necessary competencies. All consumers also have the right to hold those individuals accountable for providing quality services (e.g., to ask them to show how they use objective data to plan, implement, and evaluate the effectiveness of the interventions they use). Because of the diversity of needs of individuals in the autism spectrum and the array of specific competencies amongst the pool of potential service providers, consumers also need to focus on the match between their needs and the specific competencies of a particular provider.


What is the BCBA credential then anyway if it is not essentially an Autism credential?  To qualify to sit for the BCBA examination a person must have a Masters degree in a human service field like Behavior Analysis, psychology, special education, etc.  They must also have specific coursework, essentially 6 courses, at the graduate level in Behavior Analysis.  In addition they must have supervised experience under someone who holds the BCBA or who is approved by the board in the application of behavior analysis over a brief period, as little as 9 months time.  Finally, they must have their application approved by review of the board and take and pass the standardized examination.  What this means is that the person has established a minimum set of both academic and applied skills as attested to by their training, supervision, and passage of the BACB examination.  I don't presume to represent the board or speak for them in any way so for more information on this topic, and to get the most current and accurate answer possible, visit the Board's website.

Another question that consumers have asked frequently is Does it make any difference if the behavior analyst we want to hire has a PhD or other doctorate or a Masters degree?  The BCBA credential requires graduate coursework that is essentially the equivalent of 6 courses and a Masters degree (not necessarily in ABA ).  So, the easy answer is that from the standpoint of implementation and consultation the PhD or doctorate is not required nor does having one make the BCBA more qualified.  Like everything else there are minimums necessary to become qualified and there are those with greater skills.  One of the best BCBAs I have ever had the pleasure of working with only has a masters I say only because that is how it has been referred to by several people but that is an unnecessary implicit slight on those talented people with masters degrees. Other BCBAs I have known with doctorates had their doctorate in an area completely unrelated to behavior analysis.

Some have asked: But Dr. Montgomery you have a PhD and are a BCBA?  Yes, I do have both but then my PhD is in Clinical Psychology and the doctorate is required for licensure as a psychologist in Georgia and most other states in the US .  My doctoral work was both clinical and behavioral because of who my mentors were and their behavioral orientation. Having all the training to be both a licensed psychologist and a BCBA gives me an interesting perspective on what it takes to obtain each and what each brings to my skill sets in helping others.  There is no requirement that a BCBA have any meaningful training on biological factors in behavior, there is such a requirement for licensed psychologists.  There is no requirement that the BCBA have any training on diagnosis, nor does the credential give its holder any legal status in making diagnoses, but the license in psychology requires such training and being licensed does authorize the psychologist to in fact diagnose within the mental health range of diagnoses.  On the other hand, being a licensed psychologist does not mean that the person has ever had any coursework or supervision in ABA or Behavior Analysis at all.  Very few licensed psychologists are in fact qualified by training or experience to develop, supervise, or implement an ABA program.  So, each credential has different skills and training associated with it and there is a strange lack of overlap between the two.

So, what does having a doctorate (a PhD, PsyD, of EdD) mean when someone is BCBA?  Other than potentially qualifying them for licensure in another field like psychology or a teaching position at a university very little.  In this case the BACB board has determined that the practitioner degree is the Masters degree.  There is no requirement for a doctorate to practice ABA and most applied coursework occurs at the masters-level within ABA programs.  Doctoral-level coursework is often management, research, teaching, and specialty coursework that may relate to ABA but may not depending on the university and major professor that the person worked with during their career as a student.  There are, of course, incentives to holding a doctorate, for example public schools routinely pay staff based on degree whether or not holding that degree actually is relevant to the work that they are doing in many cases.    

If you are interested in finding out if someone is an expert on Autism, you will need to look beyond merely finding out if they hold the BCBA credential.  The Consumer Guidelines for Identifying, Selecting, and Evaluating Behavior Analysts Working with Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders developed by the Autism Group of the Association for Behavior Analysis International lays out in some detail those skills and experiences that they recommend consumers ask any potential Autism expert about to determine if they are indeed knowledgeable and trained in effective treatments of language and social deficits found in ASDs using applied behavior analysis techniques.



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