What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy?

According to Psychology Today, applied behavior analysis is defined as a type of therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors, such as those related to socializing or learning. More specifically, applied behavior analysts may help patients improve their communication, reading, academics, dexterity, or occupational competence. 

Analysts work with everyone from children to adults in settings as varied as schools, workplaces, homes, and clinics. ABA therapy uses  research from a patient’s learning and behavior to inform a program of evaluation and intervention, which over time reinforces positive behavior and reduces negative behavior. 

For example, ABA therapy has seen significant use in treating autism spectrum disorder. In order to prepare as professionals in their field, analysts may choose to pursue their master’s in applied behavior analysis.

Below, you will find more information about how ABA therapy works, including ABA techniques, components of ABA therapy, and who ABA therapy may be able to help. ABA’s relevance to autism is also discussed in detail, with a full description of the disorder, its symptoms, and ABA therapy techniques. Lastly, ABA therapy salaries and projected job growth are shared for those interested in pursuing careers as applied behavior analysts.

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How Does ABA Therapy Work?

According to Healthline, ABA therapy involves several phases: consultation and assessment, plan development, caregiver training, and frequent evaluation. Patients may range from children to adults who struggle with substance abuse, brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, or other conditions. 

The first two phases allow applied behavior analysts to consider and create a course of treatment intended to meet the particular needs of each patient, identifying and encouraging desired behaviors, while isolating and reducing problematic ones. 

Caregiver training is essential since caregivers are a regular presence in patients’ lives and can ensure that the jointly developed plan is adhered to. Lastly, analysts gauge how treatment is progressing with frequent evaluations and adjust the treatment plan as necessary to ensure the best possible outcomes for the patients. 

While ABA therapy can be delivered at home, most applied behavior analysts in outpatient centers, individual and family service providers, and hospitals.

ABA Techniques

According to Autism Speaks, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting autism treatment, applied behavior analysts primarily rely on two techniques: positive reinforcement and antecedent-behavior-consequence practice. 

Positive reinforcement is a technique used by analysts to encourage good behavior and skill development through reward, either material, such as a gift, or emotional, such as praise. Over time, positive reinforcement builds meaningful, lasting change by associating good behavior and sharp skills with desirable outcomes. 

A-B-C practice, on the other hand, seeks to reduce bad behavior through analyzing its causes and the resulting behavior. This analysis allows those struggling with autism and their caretakers to avoid the triggers associated with bad behavior or to more effectively intervene and reduce the consequent negative reactions. Generally speaking, these techniques are employed to address behaviors related to socializing or learning, such as communication, reading, academics, dexterity, or occupational competence.

Components of ABA Therapy

Consultation and assessment offers patients and their caregivers to meet with an applied behavior analyst to discuss the challenges they face and the results they hope to see. The analyst conducts a functional behavior assessment, which gauges the patient's behavioral strengths and weaknesses. 

Following the initial observation, the analyst will produce a plan to encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior, with specific treatment goals and strategies, usually with the aid of caregivers. Once the plan is mutually established, the analyst will train the caregiver(s) on how to properly adhere to it, discussing specific tactics for reinforcing good behavior and reducing bad behavior. 

The last phase of ABA therapy is continuous, insofar as evaluations by the analyst should be ongoing to ensure that the plan for treatment is both effective and adhered to, or modified.

Who Qualifies for ABA Therapy? 

Applied behavior analysts work with everyone from children to adults who want to improve their behavior as it concerns socialization and learning. In particular, analysts may help patients improve their communication, reading, academics, dexterity, or occupational competence. They may also help patients address more specific issues with substance abuse, brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, or other medical conditions. 

The best way to tell if an analyst can help a patient through the first component of ABA therapy: consultation and assessment.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

According to Autism Speaks, autism spectrum disorder is characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behavior, speech, and nonverbal communication. ASD is estimated to affect one in 59 children in the United States today. Although the causes are not certain, it is thought to be influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Because autism is a spectrum, it manifests differently in different people. Some people struggling with ASD may live entirely independent lives, while others may require significant daily support. Autism may be accompanied by gastrointestinal conditions, seizures, sleep disorders, and mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, and attention-related issues. 

Symptoms typically appear around age two or three, but it may be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Early intervention, in the form of therapy and medication, can improve later outcomes.

Autism Symptoms

There are symptoms that can generally be attributed to autism spectrum disorder. Broadly speaking, these are challenges with social skills, repetitive behavior, speech, and nonverbal communication. More specifically, these can be difficulty with spoken language, gestures, and eye contact; challenges recognizing emotions, intentions, and personal space; and repetitive body movements, ritualistic behavior, and extreme interest in narrowly defined subjects. 

While some of these symptoms become most noticeable in childhood, signs can be found in infants younger than 24 months, including limited facial expressions, lack of eye contact, and little babbling or speaking.

How Does ABA Therapy Help with Autism?

According to Autism Speaks, ABA therapy can assist those struggling with autism by building social skills, improving communication, and reducing problematic behavior, primarily through two techniques: positive reinforcement and antecedent-behavior-consequence practice. 

Positive reinforcement encourages desirable behavior and skills through reward, over time building meaningful, lasting change. A-B-C practice reduces problematic behavior through analysis of what leads to and results from such behavior, allowing those struggling with autism and their caretakers to avoid triggers or intervene to reduce negative effects.

ABA Therapy Salary and Projected Job Growth

While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have figures on applied behavior analysts in particular, it does track substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in general. From 2018 to 2028, the BLS expects counseling jobs to grow 22 percent — great news for anyone looking to become a behavioral analyst.

Counselors can be employed in a variety of settings, detailed in a table below, and earn an average annual salary of $44,630, though compensation can be significantly higher depending on location. The five top-paying states for counselors are also detailed in a table below.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor Work Environments as of 2019

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor Work Environments as of 2019
Environment Percent Employment
Outpatient Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers 19%
Individual and Family Services 16%
Hospitals 10%
Residential Mental Health and Substance Abuse Facilities 10%
Government 9%

Top-Paying States for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Top-Paying States for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
State Average Annual Salary
Utah $66,330
Alaska $62,920
District of Columbia $59,850
Oregon $59,390
New Jersey $58,410

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