Becoming an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapist – Schooling & Online Degrees

Last Updated: June 1, 2024

A relatively recent type of therapy is Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA. This type of therapy is popular for treating children who are on the autism spectrum. Specifically, ABA focuses on helping kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) develop critical social and emotional skills.

Given the increasing commonality of ASD – one in 36 children in the U.S. are on the spectrum – ABA therapists are in high demand. That makes it a lucrative field to consider for a career.

Of course, your career as an ABA therapist offers many other benefits aside from earning potential, the most important of which is that you can use the skills you learn to make a significant difference in the lives of children.

This guide offers insights into this exciting career to help you decide if it’s the right career path for you.

What is an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapist?

An Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapist is a specialist that uses training techniques that improve the daily functioning of children and adults with ASD or another developmental disorder. These training techniques are widely varied but have the common thread of focusing on learning discrete tasks.

For example, ABA therapists might focus learning targets on tasks of daily living, like helping a child learn how to tie their shoes or brush their teeth. Likewise, an ABA therapist might work on social skills, like learning to play with peers.

These and many other services are offered in various settings – schools, private practice, and mental health clinics. Some ABA therapists also make home visits and work with families on building the skills needed to support their child.

What Does an ABA Therapist Do?

As an ABA therapist, you will have many different responsibilities over the course of a traditional workday.

On the one hand, you will have administrative responsibilities to complete, such as devising interventions for clients, completing paperwork, and billing insurance for your services. On the other hand, you will complete many client-related tasks, too.

ABA therapists utilize observation when assessing clients to determine the specific skills that need to be addressed. So, for example, if you work in a school environment, you might visit a special education classroom to observe how a child interacts with peers in that environment. You would then devise interventions to address specific problems based on your observations.

You might work with a child with autism to teach them how to share toys with other children. This task might first involve modeling how to share toys with your client. To encourage toy sharing, you might use a token economy, in which the client gets tokens (e.g., coins or stars) toward a reward each time they share a toy with you. Then once the child can share toys with you, you might introduce a peer to practice sharing toys with.

ABA therapists also utilize discrete trial training to assist clients in building appropriate skills. This is what was described earlier using the tooth-brushing example. Discrete trial training breaks complex tasks into very small, achievable steps. It can be used with all sorts of tasks, from learning how to ask a question, making a sandwich, and greeting people.

Since many ABA-related activities are highly guided and directed, you might also use resources like videos to teach clients crucial skills. For example, suppose you’re working with an autistic child struggling to express their emotions.

If the child is a visual learner, you might use an educational video on emotional expression to model the appropriate behavior. Then, once the child has seen the modeled behaviors on video, you can practice those skills with them in a one-on-one setting.

Natural environment teaching is another popular technique ABA therapists use to teach essential skills. As the name indicates, the training occurs in a real-world setting instead of a classroom or office. For example, if your goal is to help the child understand how to behave well on the school bus, you would accompany the child on the bus, model appropriate behaviors, and reward the child when they exhibit the desired behaviors in that setting.

Similar to natural environment teaching is generalization. This ABA technique seeks to help clients use a skill they have learned in one environment in a different environment. For example, if an autistic child has learned how to ask to use the restroom at home, you can help them generalize that behavior to the classroom environment at school.

As you can see, much of ABA therapy revolves around observing, modeling, and rewarding desired behaviors. It’s a powerful combination of tools that enables ABA to treat clients with ASD and other developmental disorders effectively.

What are the Requirements to Become an ABA Therapist?

To become an ABA therapist, you generally need to follow these steps:

  1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree, preferably in psychology or applied behavioral analysis
  2. Complete an ABA training program or coursework, which include a master’s degree or a graduate certificate in ABA or a related field
  3. Gain supervised practical experience
  4. Obtain certification, such as the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
  5. Meet state-specific licensing or registration requirements

Educational Requirements

ABA Therapist Undergraduate Degree

Becoming an ABA therapist requires starting with an undergraduate program, preferably in a helping profession like psychology applied behavioral analysis, social work, or a related field. These programs are popular and offered at most colleges and universities in person and online. This makes getting your initial education much easier.

Typical undergraduate programs in these fields are about 120-semester credits and are four years long, provided you study full-time. If you completed college coursework in high school (e.g., dual-credit, AP, or IB courses), your timeline for graduation could be shorter – perhaps just three years of coursework.

During your studies, you will complete two distinct sets of classes. On the one hand, you will take general education courses that give you a well-rounded education and understanding of the world around you. These courses include the humanities, math, science, and language arts, to name a few. These courses comprise roughly half of the required bachelor’s degree credits.

Admission to an undergraduate program usually requires submitting materials like your high school transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, and letters of recommendation from high school teachers or guidance counselors.

However, college admissions committees often require additional materials that might include, but are not limited to:

  • A personal statement or essay
  • A resume or a list of volunteer activities
  • Completion of prerequisite courses, such as basic math and science

ABA Therapist Master’s Degree

Once you complete your undergraduate studies, the next step in becoming an ABA therapist is to get a master’s degree. Some schools offer specific graduate degrees in ABA. Others offer graduate programs in psychology with an ABA focus.

In either case, your graduate studies in ABA will likely require at least two years to complete around 40 credits of coursework. Some programs are slightly shorter (e.g., 33 credits), while others might be longer (up to 60 or more credits).

While there is some variation in the specific graduation requirements from one program to the next, you can expect to take similar core courses no matter which program you choose.

These courses might include:

  • Introduction to ABA
  • Treatment Evaluation
  • Behavior Assessment
  • Behavior Intervention
  • Verbal Behavior

Your graduate program will also have a field experience during which you work with clients in a real-world setting. You will do so under the supervision of an experienced ABA therapist who guides and directs your work with your clients.

Additionally, some ABA graduate programs have a research component. In many cases, this is in the form of a master’s thesis, which requires several semesters of independent research culminating in a well-developed research paper that you must defend to a committee of faculty members.

Given the advanced level of study of ABA graduate programs, the admissions requirements are often much stricter than those for undergraduate studies. However, many universities offer ABA programs without the need of GRE.

You might need to fulfill the following criteria to be admitted to most programs:

  • Have a satisfactory undergraduate GPA (e.g., 3.0 on a 4.0 scale)
  • Have undergraduate research experience
  • Submit a personal statement outlining why you want to be an ABA therapist
  • Submit official undergraduate transcripts

Some programs also require you to participate in a personal interview with the program’s admissions committee.

Once you have a graduate degree, in most states, you can pursue licensure and certification to begin work (as outlined later). However, you can continue your studies in a doctoral program if you so choose.

ABA Therapist Doctoral Degree

Though a doctorate isn’t always required to work as an ABA therapist, the additional training and experience you get can prove valuable for your ability to provide competent services to your clients. Getting a doctorate is a long and expensive process, though.

Most Ph.D. programs in this field require about five years of coursework if you start the program after completing your bachelor’s degree. If you already have a master’s degree, you might be able to complete a doctorate in about three years.

The coursework at the doctoral level focuses much more on advanced, highly specific topics. For example, you might take classes in:

  • Analysis and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities
  • Research Methods and Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Behaviorism and Philosophy of Science
  • Verbal Behavior and the Science of Human Behavior
  • Complex Skill Acquisition

In addition to this advanced coursework, a Ph.D. program in ABA has a significant research component. Most doctoral programs require you to complete a dissertation, which is similar to the master’s thesis but far more detailed. Likewise, you must defend your dissertation before your degree is conferred.

An additional requirement of many ABA Ph.D. programs is that you pass a qualifying examination. These exams are summative in their format, meaning they test you on the knowledge and skills you should have mastered during your coursework in the program.

Typically, you must pass this exam before moving on to the dissertation research portion of the degree.

Again, since this is a highly advanced level of study, the admission requirements are also quite strict. For example, besides having an excellent graduate GPA (e.g., 3.25 or higher), you might also need extensive research in ABA and clinical experience in the ABA field.

Furthermore, many ABA doctoral programs require you to submit a detailed personal essay, a resume or curriculum vitae, and multiple letters of recommendation. Some programs also require you to submit a writing sample (such as original graduate-level research) and participate in a personal interview with the admissions committee or the dean.

Depending on how you go about your education, you could spend a minimum of six or so years getting the necessary education for this career. Alternatively, you could spend well over a decade completing the educational requirements to become an ABA therapist.

ABA Therapist Work Experience Requirements

You will likely need to complete several components of work experience to become an ABA therapist.

As noted above, you will need to complete field experiences as part of your master’s degree. In some cases, this experience might be divided among several semesters during which you gain the needed experiential hours to satisfy the degree requirements. In other instances, you might complete a year long internship during the final two semesters of your studies.

The other component of work experience to consider is what you need to do to satisfy licensure and certification requirements. These requirements are discussed in the next section.

ABA Therapist Licensure and Certification Requirements

Upon completing your graduate studies, you might be eligible to pursue licensure or certification as an ABA therapist in your state. States control the specific requirements for licensure, however, most states have similar requirements that might include:

Certification, on the other hand, is often controlled by professional organizations rather than states. The primary certification body in this field is the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. To gain BACB certification, you must:

  • Complete a graduate program with appropriate behavioral-analytical coursework
  • Fulfill work experience requirements by completing one of three following options:
    1. A practicum consisting of 1,000 hours of hands-on experience, along with one-month supervision involving a minimum of four contacts with a supervisor
    2. An intensive practicum encompassing 750 hours of practical experience, accompanied by one-month supervision that includes at least eight supervisor contacts
    3. Supervised independent fieldwork involving 1,500 hours of experience, combined with a one-month supervision period that requires a minimum of two supervisor contacts
  • Pass the BCBA exam mentioned above

Licensure and Certification Renewal and Continuing Education (CE)

Again, licensure is controlled at the state level, and renewal requirements vary. For example, you might have to renew your license every two or three years in some states, while other states might provide lifetime licensure.

Moreover, some states might require 50 hours of continuing education requirements to maintain your license, while other states might require 100 hours in the same timeframe.

The requirements to maintain your BCBA certification are more clear-cut, though. Once certified, you must practice according to BACB ethical standards and complete 32 continuing education units in two-year renewal cycles.

How Long Does it Take to Become an ABA Therapist?

As noted earlier, the time it takes to become an ABA therapist depends on how you approach completing the education requirements. At a minimum, you will need about seven years to complete your undergraduate degree, master’s degree and supervised experience.

However, if you decide to complete a doctoral program, you might need anywhere from 9-11 years to complete all the requirements of the undergraduate and Ph.D. program requirements.

Is It Hard to Be an ABA Therapist?

Though being an ABA therapist can be extremely rewarding, it is very hard work. One factor that makes ABA therapy difficult is that progress can be very, very slow.

For example, some clients need very direct, small learning targets to make progress. So, let’s assume you are working with a child with severe autism, and the goal is to learn how to brush their teeth. Teaching this skill to a child with severe autism requires that the task be broken down into very small benchmarks, like so:

  • Go to the restroom
  • Turn on the restroom light
  • Walk over to the sink
  • Get out a toothbrush
  • Apply the toothpaste
  • Turn on the cold water
  • Run the water over the toothbrush and toothpaste

So, as you can see, multiple learning points must be met before the client ever puts the toothbrush in their mouth. This process might take days or weeks for a severely autistic client to master. As was mentioned earlier – it can be a very slow process, and it can be difficult not to get impatient.

Another element of this career that makes it difficult is that some children don’t have the necessary support to be as successful as possible. In some situations, for example, the child’s parents might not be as involved as they should, or worse, might not be involved in the process at all.

In other cases, the child might not get the proper support they need at school. Both of these situations can make your job more difficult.

Is ABA a Demanding Career?

Any career in the mental health space can be extremely demanding. As an ABA therapist, you will often work odd hours, such as early mornings, late nights, or even weekends, depending on the setting in which you work. As the demand for your time at work increases, that means having less time to relax and spend time with friends and family.

This career is also highly demanding of you emotionally. You will have a first-person view of children struggling in many domains – socially, academically, behaviorally, and emotionally, to name a few. This can weigh heavily on you as you try to help your clients move forward and experience positive growth.

As noted earlier, this career has high demands of you from an educational standpoint as well. Not only do you need to get at least a master’s degree, but you also have to complete professional licensure and certification requirements to get your initial license.

You also have to complete continuing education units throughout your career to maintain your license. All of that adds up to a significant demand for your time throughout your career.

Where Do ABA Therapists Work?

In many cases, ABA therapists work in educational settings like preschools and elementary schools, though junior high and high school positions are also popular. However, school systems are just one option.

For example, many ABA therapists choose to work in private practice, as doing so offers the benefits of determining how much money you make while also allowing you to specialize in working with certain populations if you desire.

So, you might concentrate your practice on working with children under the age of five who have developmental disabilities. Conversely, you could specialize in working with adults on the autism spectrum.

Some ABA therapists choose to work in community mental health. This broad setting includes non-profit mental health organizations, hospitals, and residential treatment centers. You might also consider working for a local or state agency, like the Department of Child Services.

How Much Does an ABA Therapist Make?

As of January 2024, the mean annual wage for board certified behavioral analyst is $80,646 per year. However, the pay range is much larger, with a low salary of around $60,000 to a high of nearly $130,000 per year.

Where you fall in that continuum depends on many factors, including:

  • Your level of education
  • Your level of experience
  • Your area of specialization
  • Where you work (e.g., ABA therapists that work for government agencies make more than those who work in schools)

Some areas have higher annual salaries for ABA therapists than other areas of the nation. As of April 2023, the mean annual wage for board certified behavioral analyst working in California, Florida, Texas, and New York is $80,740, $89,806, $77,553, and $105,518 respectively.

On the other hand, the mean annual wage for board certified behavioral analyst working in Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts is $81,077, $89,806, and $77,484 respectively.

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