The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) on their website lists credentialed behavior analysts from 99 countries spanning across 6 continents. Behavior analysts and consumers of behavior analysis are now establishing footprints across the globe. Each of these countries comes with its own set of cultural practices and norms. Leon Megginson, author of Small Business Management said, “it is not the strongest, or the most intelligent who survives, but the one most responsive to change”. Considering the high rates of global migration and the international dissemination that our field desires, practitioners find themselves serving an increasingly diverse population. A recent article in Behavior Analysis in Practice by Andrea Dennison and colleagues highlights the variations in cultural norms, caregiver and practitioner linguistic competencies that a culturally competent ABA therapist must consider when designing a home program.
What are the barriers?
The Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board requires that behavior analysts consider the role of culture in service delivery (BACB code 1.05c), involve clients and families in treatment process (BACB code 4.02), and individualize the treatment plan to meet client needs (BACB code 4.03). Yet the BACB Fourth Edition Task List and the upcoming Fifth Edition Task List which define the scope of practice of a credentialed behavior analyst do not make much mention of culture – which means that training programs do not typically include cultural competence. Dennison and colleagues (2019) identified several barriers in ABA treatment for culturally and linguistically diverse families and highlighted ways to overcome them.
Do we hold stereotypes?
With the influence of the media or the people around us, we tend to categorize people into social groups and create a simplified conception of the group based on some assumptions – we create stereotypes and hold prejudices. Implicit biases held by a practitioner towards certain cultural sub-groups may result in a subtle, yet observable bias towards the client, and adversely impact treatment outcomes. Dennison et al (2019) suggest that a practitioner’s “self-reflection and introspection regarding cultural attitudes and practices towards clients” may be a first step towards undoing these biases.
Are we aware of cultural norms?
Practitioners often find themselves in a variety of contexts and situations with varying contingencies. Each culture comes with its own set of learned behaviors, beliefs, and norms. Dennison and colleagues add that some cultures might prefer a warm, informal discussion with a service provider prior to a formal meeting to discuss goals. A violation of this might seem off-putting to the client, and conversely, such an expectation for an informal discussion might catch the analyst unaware. In some cultures even a simple handshake for greeting might be offensive They recommend that practitioners monitor clients for signs of discomfort or displeasure during the course of the treatment to identify whether a cultural norm has been violated.
What to do when a practitioner doesn’t speak the home language of the client?
A language mismatch between the practitioner’s language and the home language of the client might lead to information loss. A client might not be able to completely express their priorities in terms of the services they need. Dennison urges practitioners to make every attempt to invite a bilingual practitioner or interpreter either in-person or online, to future family meetings. Providing the family with access to ABA textbooks written in their home language might be a good way to introduce ABA terminology and lead to better acceptability of services delivered. The authors caution against using loosely translated words; online tools might not be ideal for activities that require precise definitions.
“A cultural analysis involves an individual analysis of the cultural factors affecting an individual’s environment and the resulting contingency”, the authors add. A re-assessment of priorities in goals might be warranted, and a cultural analysis might inform what behaviors are identified as the primary targets for intervention. Dennison refers to the importance of social etiquette and the value placed on conflict avoidance in Latin cultures as an example. Measuring social validity might give the analyst information about whether the family sees the behavior change as meaningful.
Empathy grows as we learn
Try not to stigmatize immigrant families as “uncaring” for not seeking services earlier. Several socioeconomic stressors such as lack of housing and transportation availability likely play a role in their decision. The authors urge practitioners to empathize with these families and add that attempts to empathize can be made even if the practitioner and family do not share a common home language.
Finally, the lack of diversity in research with the omission of demographic details such as language and ethnicity of participants in scientific publications overlooks the critical value of such information. This calls for a shift in the field towards intentionally inclusive subject recruitment and the reporting of such information.
A culturally competent behavior analyst is not one who knows everything there is to know about every culture. This would be impossible. It is someone who can acknowledge that patterns of cultural difference may be present, and are then able to view a situation from a different cultural perspective than one’s own. Maintaining a curiosity about each client’s culture, and having an open dialogue with them about their background, ethnicity, and belief system can result in a positive outcome for the client and the analyst.
“If we are going to live with our deepest differences then we must learn about one another.” ― Deborah J. Levine
Dennison, A., Lund, E., Brodhead, M., Mejia, L., Armenta, A., & Leal, J. (2019). Delivering Home-Supported Applied Behavior Analysis Therapies to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families. Behavior Analysis in Practice, OnlineFirst, 1-12.
About The Author
Maithri Sivaraman is a BCBA with a Masters in Psychology from the University of Madras and holds a Graduate Certificate in ABA from the University of North Texas. She is currently a doctoral student in Psychology at Ghent University, Belgium. Prior to this position, Maithri provided behavior analytic services to children with autism and other developmental disabilities in Chennai, India. She is the recipient of a dissemination grant from the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) to train caregivers in function-based assessments and intervention for problem behavior in India. She has presented papers at international conferences, published articles in peer-reviewed journals and has authored a column for the ‘Autism Network’, India’s quarterly autism journal. She is the International Dissemination Coordinator of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) and a member of the Distinguished Scholars Group of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.