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Applied Behavior Analysis

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors, such as social skills, communication, reading, and academics as well as adaptive learning skills, such as fine motor dexterity, hygiene, grooming, domestic capabilities, punctuality, and job competence. ABA is primarily used to treat those with autism, but it's effective for children and adults with psychological disorders in a variety of settings, including schools, workplaces, homes, and clinics. Research shows that consistent ABA can significantly improve behaviors and skills and decrease the need for special services.

ABA was developed by psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas in the 1960s. The therapy emerged from his early work using positive and negative reinforcement to change the behaviors of people engaged in forms of self-injury. This evolved into modern ABA therapy in which positive reinforcement is used to teach and promote social skills, language abilities, and personal habits to those with autism.

There are a range of perspectives about ABA—the therapy is controversial to some. For example, some parents and therapists may value ABA and state that it led to concrete, observable improvements in children’s abilities. Some adult children who received the therapy may think similarly. Yet other adults with autism may believe that ABA suppressed their natural feelings and behaviors in the name of becoming “normal.” These people may believe that society should instead accept their true identities and embrace neurodiversity.

When It's Used

ABA is commonly practiced as a therapeutic intervention for individuals with autism. According to the Center for Autism, ABA helps people with autism improve social interactions, learn new skills, and maintain positive behaviors. ABA also helps transfer skills and behavior from one situation to another, controlling situations where negative behaviors arise and minimizing negative behaviors. With autism, ABA is most successful when intensely applied for more than 20 hours a week and prior to the age of 4.

ABA can also help aging adults cope with the losses that come with age, like memory, strength, and relationships. For young and old, ABA can help individuals manage some of the lifestyle challenges that accompany many mental and physical health conditions.

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What to Expect

When working with an ABA therapist, clients will:

  1. Determine which behaviors require change
  2. Set goals and expected outcomes
  3. Establish ways to measure changes and improvements
  4. Evaluate where you are now
  5. Learn new skills and or learn how to avoid negative behaviors
  6. Regularly review your progress
  7. Decide whether or not further behavior modification is necessary

The length of time spent in ABA depends on the severity of the problem and individual rate of improvement.

How It Works

ABA takes a research approach to therapy based on proven theories of learning and behavior. Therapists who use ABA understand how human behaviors are learned and how they can be changed over time.

ABA breaks a behavior into smaller steps, teaches those steps to the client, and then rewards them for carrying out those steps successfully. The therapist identifies the ABCs—the antecedent, behavior, and consequence of the behavior. The antecedent is what occurs immediately before the relevant behavior, essentially what prompts the person to act. The behavior is the response itself, perhaps an action or verbal expression, that the therapy seeks to change. The consequence is what immediately follows the behavior. This is where positive or neutral reinforcement is introduced.

For example, if the goal is to reduce tantrums when the child has to go to sleep, the parent might reward the child with praise if the child gets ready for bed. The parent would not provide those positive reinforcements if the child threw a tantrum instead.

The therapist evaluates a client’s behavior and develops treatment plans to help improve the communication and behavior skills necessary for success in their personal and professional lives. ABA therapists can also provide training to parents and teachers. For the greatest results, ABA requires heavy monitoring and continuous evaluation. Therapists and other health professionals work within settings such as schools, homes, and community centers to evaluate and modify treatment as it progresses.

What to Look For in an Applied Behavioral Analyst

A qualified applied behavior analyst is a licensed clinical therapist with additional training and experience in applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) approves ABA therapists with graduate-level education. Board-Certified Behavior Analysts with a master’s degree and appropriate training are identified by the initials BCBA after their name; those with a doctorate-level degree are identified by the initials BCBA-D. (In Florida only, a BCBA may use the initials FL-CBA or the term Florida Certified Behavior Analyst). Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts, who are supportive team members with undergraduate level degrees and training, can also be certified and identified by the initials BCaBA. A BCaBA cannot practice alone but can work in therapeutic settings when supervised by someone who is certified at a higher level. The BACB also certifies Registered Behavior Technicians with a minimum of a high school diploma and 40 hours of specialized training who work only under the direct supervision of a BCBA or BCaBA.

ABA Therapy, Center for Autism & Related Disorders. Accessed December 28, 2016.
Behavior Analysis Certification Board. About Behavior Analysis. Accessed December 29, 2016.
Behavior Analysis Certification Board. Credentials. Accessed December 29, 2016.
Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Accessed December 29, 2016.
Reichow, B. Overview of meta-analyses on early intensive behavioral intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2012;42,:512-520.
Last updated: 06/28/2022