If you’re interested in helping people with autism, a career in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is a good choice. This type of therapy approaches developmental disorders like autism with a scientific understanding of behavior. Maladaptive behaviors arise from patterns and stresses, and this means they can be changed with targeted education and training.

There is a range of positions in the ABA field, from registered behavior technicians (RBTs) who work directly with clients to board-certified behavior analysts with doctorates (BCBA-Ds) who oversee a team of ABA technicians. Each type of ABA position requires a certain level of education, certification by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), and state licensing.

ABA training programs are available throughout the country, and many certification programs offer online courses as well.

What Is Needed to Be an ABA Therapist?

ABA therapists are responsible for crafting treatment plans, while registered behavior technicians (RBTs) often implement the plan.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy was developed in the 1960s, stemming from scientific, medical, and psychological studies on the behaviors of various organisms, particularly humans. This type of therapy uses a scientific understanding of behaviors to understand how maladaptive behaviors begin, and how to change them so they support the individual rather than isolate or stress them.

ABA therapy has been especially helpful for people on the autism spectrum because this approach to clearly examining behaviors and retraining new responses has a specific path with measurable, objective goals. Whether the autistic individual functions well in society but needs some help with nonverbal cues, or they struggle with some basic motor skills and syntax, ABA therapists develop a treatment plan that addresses the individual’s specific needs.

Since ABA therapists work with vulnerable populations struggling with developmental disorders, especially autism, it is vital that these professionals have extensive training in the field and a solid understanding of medical ethics. They need this breadth of experience to effectively work on their own, creating and overseeing treatment plans.

The main part of an ABA therapist’s job is to assess an individual with autism and analyze how negative or maladaptive behaviors appear in certain contexts. The therapist aims to understand the pattern of behavior in different environments, especially when there is a change that leads to stress. By examining these behavioral patterns, the therapist can develop strategies to help the individual change their behavior.

To become a therapist, you must hold a higher degree in a related field, become certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), and get licensed to practice in your state. Most ABA therapists hold a master’s degree, but some have a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a similar field.

ABA Therapy Education: On-Campus or Online Schooling

ABA therapy training is an additional level of coursework on top of an existing degree in a therapy-adjacent field, such as psychology or education. There are different ways to receive this training, including taking the ABA path at a college or university as you pursue your graduate degree. For example, when you major in psychology as an undergraduate, you can focus your bachelor’s degree specifically on ABA therapy.

Graduate programs also offer specialties in ABA therapy. More institutions are offering this as a degree track, rather than forcing you to cobble together the right type of coursework and then apply for ABA training later.

If you have already completed an undergraduate degree and are either changing career tracks or adding to your existing skillset, you can complete a range of courses online. More people opt for online courses now. These courses offer flexible hours and the convenience of taking classes from home.

Some programs have specific dates and times when classes meet virtually. Other certification programs allow you to complete coursework at your own pace, guiding your own learning experience.

Here are some examples of institutions offering ABA training programs:

If you have a related degree already, you can take a Verified Course Sequence (VCS) offered by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI). This allows you to find the right combination of on-campus and online learning for you, divided by certification type and by state.

Types of Certifications

You must be certified as an ABA professional by the BACB in order to practice, or you cannot claim that you work in the field of applied behavior therapy. The board has worked hard over the years to ensure that therapists and technicians working with vulnerable populations, like autistic children and adults, have high standards of ethical practice.

There are distinct types of certifications for ABA professionals. 

1. Board certified behavior analyst (BCBA): This certification requires at least a master’s degree in a field related to ABA therapy, like psychology or education. If you have a doctorate in a related field, you can pursue a BCBA-D, which indicates that you hold this higher degree. 

Once you complete an advanced degree, you must take one of three tracks:

  • Behavior-analytic coursework: Find an institution, like a college or university, that offers specific ABA therapy coursework, which includes the required steps in the BCBA’s Task List and the Code of Ethics. You can also find a Verified Course Sequence (VCS) that meets the BACB’s requirements. You must then meet the supervised experience requirements, working with an ABA therapy supervisor for a certain number of hours. Once you meet these requirements, you can apply to the BACB to take the certification exam. You can learn immediately after the exam whether you have passed or failed. If you pass, you will receive your certificate by email within a week. 
  • Faculty teaching and coursework: If you have a higher degree, typically a doctorate, you can become a faculty member in a psychology department at a post-secondary school. You must teach behavior therapy for at least three years full-time, at a qualifying institution. You must have taught five sections of behavior-analytic coursework, at least two of which are ethics, applied behavior analysis, single-subject methods in the field, or concepts and principles of ABA. This coursework must be at the graduate level. You must also have been published at least twice in peer-reviewed journals for articles related to ABA therapy. 
  • Postdoctoral experience: For clinically focused potential ABA therapists, the requirements include 10 years of postdoctoral experience practicing behavior analysis and 10 cumulative years of full-time practice, with a state license and certification to practice in the ABA field. You can work under different credentials during this time, as you achieve your doctorate and accumulate experience. You then need to complete ABA-specific coursework and at least 500 hours of supervised ABA therapy experience, pass the BACB certification exam, and get your BCBA.

2. Board certified assistant behavior analyst (BCaBA): This certification allows people with related undergraduate degrees in psychology, education, or another BACB-approved field to oversee RBTs. You can take the behavior-analytic coursework, complete a certain number of hours under supervision, and then take the BCaBA exam. BCaBAs must practice under the supervision of a BCBA.

3. Registered behavior technician (RBT): Unlike ABA therapists, you do not need to have a higher degree to become an RBT. Instead, you must be at least 18 years old, have at minimum a high school diploma, pass a background check, complete at least 40 hours of training in ABA therapy, and pass initial competency exams. RBTs work directly with people with autism, but they are supervised by an ABA therapist, typically a BCBA. 

After obtaining a degree and certification, therapists must be licensed to practice therapy or medicine in their state. Ask your degree program or the BACB for help finding this information or look on your state’s Department of Health website. Prerequisites, costs, and other requirements vary by state, and they may change as laws change.

High Demand for ABA Therapists & Technicians

As rates of autism diagnoses have risen sharply in the past few decades, there is an acute need for ABA therapists and technicians. Between 2010 and 2017, demand for ABA therapists with a master’s or doctoral degree increased 800%. There is demand for RBTs to put the plans of ABA therapists into action.

To work as an ABA professional, you must receive certification from the BACB. The exact type of ABA provider you become depends on the level of education you want to attain, the certification you pursue, and the method by which you pursue it.

With advanced degrees, the work is broader. Your studies will be more theoretical and research-based, scrutinizing new or unique approaches to behavior analysis that have shown promise. If this time-intensive path doesn’t appeal to you, the path of an RBT may work better. You will work with clients with autism on a one-on-one basis, putting the plan of an ABA therapist into action. 

Elemy has launched Ecademy: a fully-paid, 3-month, training-and-certification program for registered behavior technicians (RBTs).

Once you decide on the best path forward, you can enroll in the right ABA training program for you.