What You Need to Know About Applied Behavioral Analysis ABA Therapy

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy is a practice for improving the lives of children and adults with autism and other disabilities. It’s an evidence-based therapy focused on using positive reinforcement to improve behaviors. This article is perfect for parents who are curious about ABA but are unsure of whether it’s the right fit for their child. I’ve included information on what ABA is, types of ABA therapy, examples, ABA therapists, and more. 

Everything You Need to Know About ABA Therapy

By the end of this guide, you should have everything you need to know about ABA therapy and whether you should consider it for your child. 

  • What is ABA Therapy?
  • Who Can Benefit from ABA Therapy?
  • Types of ABA Therapy
  • Antecedent Behavior Consequence (ABC) System
  • What Are Other Examples of ABA Therapy?
  • How Do I Know ABA Therapy Works?
  • Who Can Provide ABA Therapy?
  • Planning an ABA Therapy Program
  • Important Skills for ABA Therapists
  • Is ABA Therapy Controversial for Children with Autism?

What is ABA Therapy?

ABA therapy is focused on improving adaptive learning skills like job competence, punctuality, domestic capabilities, grooming, hygiene, and fine motor dexterity along with specific behaviors like academics, reading, communication, and social skills.

Its goal is to identify and correct issues with learning skills and behaviors. It achieves desired behaviors through a system of consequences and rewards. 

Who Can Benefit from ABA Therapy?

Students with autism are the most common patients of ABA therapy in special education. Children with autism have a heightened sensitivity to taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch. They can also have trouble communicating and can behave extremely agitated when put in unfamiliar situations. 

By using ABA therapy, children with autism have a better way of communicating, developing independence, and changing behavioral patterns. 

However, ABA therapy can help individuals in other situations too. Those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) benefit from ABA. These hyperactive students often have trouble controlling impulsive behaviors, and they can have a problem with concentration. 

ABA therapy helps them to regulate, focus on their body, and stop and think about their next action before performing it.

Students with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) believe if they don’t take a specific action that something bad will happen. For example, they may feel the need to triple check that all the lights are turned off or something terrible will happen. ABA treatment can help them realize that their fears are irrational and help them determine where the fear originated. 

ABA therapy can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) trigger painful memories in controlled and supportive environments. These patients often feel intense anxiety or panic when the past event is triggered, but a therapist can help them change their response. 

It’s also worth noting that ABA therapy can be helpful to both children, adults, and even animals.

Types of ABA Therapy

There are several ABA types that vary based on challenges and student age. Discrete trial training involves teaching skills by breaking them down into actionable steps. Verbal behavior interventions help increase basic communication and help students be more vocal. 

Pivotal response training targets a specific skill, and the therapist selects a few activities that the student can choose from. Early intensive behavioral intervention is used to teach adaptive, functional, social, and communication skills to young children. The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) uses several activities that revolve around play and activities for one- to four-year old children.  

Antecedent Behavior Consequence (ABC) System

An important strategy used by ABA therapists is the antecedent, behavior, consequence (ABC) approach. This strategy helps therapists and patients understand and alter behavioral patterns. 

First, the behavior’s antecedent is identified. The antecedent, or trigger, is what happens right before the patient’s behavior occurs. It can be triggered internally through feelings or thoughts, or it can be triggered externally by other people or the environment. Antecedents can take the form of sounds, objects, lights, and more. 

Second, the behavior is identified. This can take the form of a verbal response, physical action, lack of response, or something else. The strategy starts by identifying a negative behavior and switching it to a positive behavior. 

Finally, the consequence of the behavior is identified. The consequence is what happens immediately after the behavior occurs, it is in response to the behavior. 

Let’s look at an example to show you how this works in a classroom setting. A special education teacher tells her students that there will be homework due tomorrow morning. The homework announcement is seen as the antecedent to the following behavior. 

In response, Carly rips up her paper and turns over her desk. This is seen as the behavior. 

As a result, Carly’s teacher removes the demand and doesn’t require Carly to complete the work. 

By using the ABC approach, the cause of the behavior, the behavior of concern or target behavior, and the consequences are now clearly identified. As you can see in this situation Carly is going to continue with the problem behavior, ripping paper and turning desks, because it meets her need of avoiding work. 

With the ABC approach we can see we need to change the consequences in order to change the problem behavior. When Carly demonstrates problem behavior when a task is issued rather than removing the demand the teacher should ignore the behavior and reissue the demand until the student realizes the demand is not going away.

What Are Other Examples of ABA Therapy?

One example of how ABA therapy is used is through discrete trial training. This type of ABA therapy teaches a skill by breaking it down into isolated steps. In this example, the therapist is tasked with teaching a child the difference between a triangle and a square. To do this, the therapist downloads a picture of a triangle and a picture with a square. 

Next, he alternatively shows the pictures on the screen and asks the child to point them out. Over time, the child learns the difference between a square and triangle using repetition. 

ABA can also be used to improve a child’s communication skills. On a cold winter day, the child wants to go outside. He attempts to put on his jacket but struggles to button it up. Instead of immediately offering to help, the therapist instead waits for the child to ask. 

After he asks for help, the therapist gladly helps him button the jacket. By using ABA techniques, the therapist ensures the child is communicating effectively. 

How Do I Know ABA Therapy Works?

According to the American Psychological Association, ABA therapy is an evidence-based best practice treatment. The therapy has passed several scientific tests demonstrating that it improves social functioning, daily living skills, language development, and intellectual functioning. 

Studies also show that long-term and intensive ABA therapy helps many students with autism. Results from ABA therapy are not anticipated in the short term. For desired results, programs should be carried out over one to three years with 25 to 40 hours per week of therapy. However, some children only need to spend as low as 10 hours per week with a therapist. 

Who Can Provide ABA Therapy?

To provide ABA therapy services, a person needs to become a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA). To get this title, he or she needs to get a PhD or master’s degree in behavior analysis or psychology, pass the national certification exam, and get a state practicing license in certain states.

If you’re thinking about becoming a BCBA, here are three articles I suggest you take a look at!

Therapists who are supervised and trained by BCBAs can also practice through ABA therapy programs. They are also referred to as registered behavior technicians (RBTs), behavior tech, line therapists, and behavioral therapists. These therapists work with both children and adults with autism to progress them towards BCBA-written goals. There’s also a good chance that hiring an ABA therapist is covered by your insurance plan.

Planning an ABA Therapy Program

When planning an ABA Therapy program, BCBA members will factor in preferences, interests, family situation, needs, and skills for each student. They’ll then write treatment goals based on each person’s age and ability level. Goals can revolve around specific skills including learning, motor, leisure, self-care, social, language, and communication skills. 

Important Skills for ABA Therapists

When looking for an ABA therapist, there are relevant skills to keep an eye out for.

One of the most important skills of an ABA therapist is empathy. Empathy is a critical skill for everyone involved in special education, and ABA therapists must develop this to make their students feel understood. Students are much more likely to change their behavior if they feel heard by their therapist. 

ABA therapists should also be excellent communicators. They’re tasked with speaking to parents, teachers, and students. They need to be able to read body language, communicate verbally, and keep everyone that’s involved in the program updated. 

Finally, ABA therapists must have solid critical thinking skills. ABA therapy is not a rigidly structured program, and therapists must create strategies that work best for each student. Each student has different needs, preferences, behaviors, and positive reinforcement incentives. 

Is ABA Therapy Controversial for Children with Autism?

While ABA therapy is proven to be effective, it has generated some controversy over the years. When the practice was developed for children with autism in the 1960s, it was less centered around positive reinforcement. 

It has evolved to become a therapy based on positive reinforcement, but some parents believe therapists are still too tough on students. The therapy can get repetitive and demanding for some students. 

Another aspect that can be seen as controversial is when therapists put too much emphasis on eliminating behaviors. This can put immense stress on a child with autism. It can also be detrimental to their self-esteem if they keep hearing that the way they act is wrong. Good ABA therapists focus more on developing positive behaviors than eliminating negative ones. 

Overall, ABA therapy is seen as a great way to develop independence. It should not be used to change a child’s personality. It should be a way to teach children with autism how to live effectively in the world, participate in society, and develop their strengths. 

If you decide to try ABA therapy for your child with autism, make sure they’re enjoying it. You want your child to have fun learning with their therapist. You can ask them how their time is going and request a therapist change if you feel the need for one. 


Parents of children with autism need to be aware of ABA therapy. It’s a great way to help autistic children develop their strengths and independence in society. It can also be used for children with ADHD, OCD, and other disabilities. ABA therapy can take many forms, and the strategy of antecedence, behavior, consequence (ABC) is commonly used for improving behavior. 

ABA is an evidence-based therapy, and its therapists are overseen by board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs). While some people see ABA as controversial, it has been revised over the years to emphasize positive reinforcement. If you’re considering hiring a therapist, make sure he or she has empathy, excellent communication skills, and critical thinking skills. 

Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email if you have any questions! I’m here to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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