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What is ABA?

Toddler Playing on the floor with a variety of toys and an adult therapist
Many parents have heard of an intervention called ABA, which stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. If your child has challenging behaviors or trouble learning certain life skills such as potty training, ABA might be able to help.
With Autism rates continuing to rise in the United States, many families are seeking the most effective treatments to improve their child’s developmental skills.

ABA is one of the most common types of therapy that children with Autism receive. According to a national study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 64% of children diagnosed with ASD receive ABA.

ABA Therapy is a highly systematic, scientific approach that incorporates principles of behavioral theory to shape the behaviors of an individual. The goal of ABA is to increase positive behaviors, reduce negative behaviors that interfere with daily activities, and teach new behaviors.

The intensive approach was developed in the 1960s by a psychologist and the principles have evolved significantly since then. As more research has emerged on Autism Spectrum Disorder, many of the principles of ABA have evolved. Now ABA incorporates more positive reinforcement to encourage a child to change their behavior.

Participating in ABA can help a child with behavior difficulties, sometimes due to a diagnosis of Autism, another developmental disorder, ADHD, or Learning Disability. ABA is designed to help a child function successfully in a variety of environments within their daily life. That includes places like home, school, and other therapy sessions.

Here’s a closer look at what ABA sessions consist of, who provides these services, and how ABA can benefit certain children.

What does ABA therapy look like?

Initial Evaluation

ABA services start with an initial evaluation. This may consist of:

Parent Interview. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) will ask you questions about your child’s medical history and background, diagnoses, other therapies he or she receives, and behaviors.

ABA should be family-centered, so the BCBA will likely ask questions about what your goals are for treatment. Depending on your child’s age, their personal goals will also be an important contribution to the treatment plan. 

Observations and testing: During the evaluation, the BCBA will observe your child’s behaviors during play-based activities. He or she might also complete a standardized test that can provide a measure of the child’s skills.

Recommendations: The BCBA will discuss the results of the evaluation and may provide a recommendation for ongoing ABA therapy. He or she will customize a treatment plan according to your child’s needs, strengths, and daily life.

You’ll discuss how many hours per week are recommended, and where therapy can take place. In addition to ABA, recommendations from speech, occupational and physical therapists will contribute to your child’s overall treatment plan. For example, an occupational therapist may help your child’s team understand the best individualized strategies for regulation. Your child’s team will work together to determine create an environment that is ideal for learning and creating strong, meaningful connections with others.

ABA Intervention

Once a recommendation has been made and your child is ready to start ABA intervention, parents often wonder what these sessions will look like.

Where does ABA take place?
ABA therapy can be provided in several settings like a clinic, home, or school. Because ABA is meant to address functional skills that can help your child participate in daily activities, sessions might even take place somewhere in the community like at a store or playground.

How long are sessions?
This can range according to your child’s needs. It might be recommended that some children receive 1 hour of ABA a day, and others 4 hours a day.

What happens during an ABA session?
During ABA sessions, the therapist will use specific behavioral interventions and strategies as your child engages in certain activities or completes specific tasks.

Activities might include:
  • Snack time
  • Playtime
  • Daily tasks (brushing hair, tying shoes, etc)
  • Social situations (social skills groups, circle time at school)
  • Potty training
  • Other daily activities that are difficult for your child to engage in properly due to their interfering behaviors.

The therapist will identify the reasons why your child’s challenging behaviors occur. For example, to escape a certain task, gain attention from others (Which could be positive or negative), get something he or she wants, or to receive sensory input.

In ABA, strategies that help change a certain behavior follow what’s known as the “ABC’s”, which stands for:
  • Antecedent: factors that cause a behavior. Ex: transitioning away from a favorite toy.
  • Behavior: what the child does. Ex: throw the toy, bang his or her head on the ground.
  • Consequence: something that immediately follows a behavior as a result of that behavior. Ex: being carried out of the room while upset.

By looking at these principles, the therapist collects data and analyzes your child’s behavior. For example, he or she may determine that your child consistently throws or bangs their head when they have sudden demands placed on them or are asked to transition quickly away from a preferred activity.

Who provides ABA?

If your child will receive ABA, it can be helpful to know the professionals who may be working with him or her. Specialists known as BCBAs, RBTs, and BCaBAs provide ABA intervention services. Many clinics, including TherapyWorks, embrace a multidisciplinary approach to ABA that includes speech pathologists, occupational therapists and physical therapists.  

Each have different credentials and play a different role in a child’s therapy. Here are some of the professionals on the ABA side: 

Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
A BCBA is an independent practitioner who is professionally certified and has a Masters level degree. The role of the BCBA is to provide behavior-analytic services such as:

  • Conducts ABA evaluations
  • Develops intervention plans to improve or change certain behaviors
  • Provides supervision to the Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) or Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) who is working directly and on a regular basis with a child
  • Reviewing or modifying a client’s intervention plan as needed in the future

Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA)
The BCaBa provides ABA services to a child under the supervision of a BCBA. These specialists have a Bachelor’s level degree and are certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.

While providing services, the BCaBA will collect data on the child’s progress during sessions, use specialized strategies and interventions for behavior management, and will analyze data.

Registered Behavior Technician (RBT)
An RBT works directly with a child on a regular basis to provide ABA services. He or she is supervised by a BCaBA or BCBA. An RBT has a paraprofessional certification in behavior analysis.

Parents can find out more about RBT certification through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.

Potential benefits

Research has shown that ABA can benefit children with a variety of diagnoses and needs.

According to, over 20 studies have shown that intensive and long-term therapy that incorporates ABA principles improves outcomes for children with Autism.

ABA can improve a child’s skills in areas that include:

  • Communication
  • Daily living skills
  • Social skills
  • Intellectual functioning

ABA Services often take place in naturalistic environments, and treatment involves joint goal planning and participation from families. So a child’s improvements in these areas can carryover into their functioning at home, school, and other places.

Additional Resources

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a common, effective way of improving and modifying challenging behaviors. Children with a variety of behavior difficulties and diagnoses can benefit from ABA, including those with Autism, ADHD, Learning Disabilities, and others.

TherapyWorks provides ABA in addition to speech therapy, occupational and physical therapies. If you would like to learn more, or discuss your child’s specific needs, please click the button below to get started. 

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