According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in America has increased by 178 percent since the year 2000. 1 in 44 children is diagnosed with ASD. The tremendous increase in autism spectrum disorder for all age groups has forced a need for treatment for those individuals. Because of this, the need for board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs), registered behavioral technicians (RBTs) and behavioral technicians (BTs) is higher than ever. Higher level clinical support positions are also needed in order to ensure treatment efficacy. Each position requires a different level of training.
Those who choose to go into the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) have a fulfilling and stable career ahead of them. If you’re interested in making a difference while having a rewarding career, then ABA may be a perfect fit. While many clinicians work with children, there are other aspects of ABA as well, such as working with adults with autism, adults with drug & alcohol disorders, and post-stroke victims who need assistance. Read on to learn more about the qualifications needed for ABA training, why ABA is a great career, and how to get started should you choose this career path.
What Is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?
There may be several different therapies suggested after a child receives a diagnosis of autism. These can include occupational therapy (OT), speech therapy (ST), physical therapy (PT), and applied behavior analysis (ABA). Occupational therapy focuses on fine motor and gross motor skills, speech therapy focuses on speech, physical therapy is designed to relieve pain and help with freedom of movement, and ABA focuses on behavior, social skills, and communication.
ABA therapy can help decrease problem behaviors, foster better communication skills, improve attention and focus, and assist with functional life skills. It’s an extremely flexible treatment that is designed for each individual. Treatment plans change over time as goals are met, and new goals are put in their place for continual improvement and growth.
ABA is also flexible in that its delivery can occur at numerous locations. ABA therapy can be provided in-home, in-clinic, in-school, and out in the community to learn real-life skills. Therapy can occur in a one-on-one setting or in groups, which helps with social skills.
What Are Some of the Tenets of ABA Therapy?
If you study to be an ABA clinician, you’ll learn a lot about autism spectrum disorder and related disorders (such as Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Specified (PPD-NOS)). While there are many facets of ABA (e.g., you will be performing data analysis regularly), there are two strategies very often used in therapy. They include:
- Positive reinforcement. Quite often, a child may exhibit maladaptive or negative behaviors for attention or a different reason. Instead of focusing on the negative, ABA therapy focuses on positive reinforcement for future better outcomes. Suppose directions are followed or a behavior goal is met. In that case, the client is rewarded with positive reinforcement, such as praise, or another reinforcer, such as a preferred toy, activity or snack. Over time, continued positive reinforcement breeds more positive behaviors and a lessening of unwanted ones.
- Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABCs). It’s important to understand what comes before a behavior as this often sheds light on why behavior occurs. Consequence does not necessarily relate to something negative—in this instance, consequence refers to the outcome. Consequences in ABA often mean positive reinforcement or ignoring an unwanted behavior (unless it is dangerous).
These are but only two ABA strategies—BCBAs have many more in their toolkit to help guide RBTs and BTs and to assist in implementing the therapy. Parents and often other family members receive training in ABA techniques and philosophies from the BCBA so that they can mirror the positive techniques of ABA when therapy is not in session.
What Are ABA Classes and Training Like?
What classes a prospective student of ABA needs to take depends on the position they’re preparing to train for. The primary clinical positions include BT, RBT, and BCBA. Requirements differ for each and are as follows:
- BT (Behavior Technician): A behavior technician needs to have a high school diploma, although many companies prefer higher education, and some training. Many companies such as Acclaim Autism provide paid training to get you the introductory courses you need, supplemented with on the job training. A BT is the primary person that works with clients to reach behavior goals.
- RBT (Registered Behavior Technician). Unlike a BT, the requirements for becoming an RBT are more strict. RBTs are certified BTs, meaning they’ve demonstrated increased knowledge and skills. A high school diploma is still required, and a prospective RBT must be certified by passing an initial exam and qualifying for a yearly certification. The qualifications for taking the initial exam include 40 hours of RBT training, passing the certification exam, and completing a background check. In many states, an RBT must also possess a license to practice in the state in which they work. In order to maintain their certification, an RBT must be supervised (typically by a BCBA) and must adhere to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) Ethics Code for RBTs.
- BCBA (Board-certified Behavior Analyst). A BCBA has completed a graduate program and an independent certification assessment in order to become a clinical supervisor. First, a prospective BCBA will have a high school diploma and an undergraduate degree, usually geared toward psychology or behavioral science. They then go on to graduate school and earn either a master’s degree or a Ph.D. in any subject from an accredited institution; if their course of study wasn’t ABA-specific, they’ll need to take additional coursework to supplement their degree. Verified course sequences are listed here. There are several more checklist items before someone can be certified. In order to become certified, the prospective BCBA must complete 1,500 hours of concentrated supervised fieldwork or 2,000 hours of supervised work in the field. During this time, the BCBA is in constant contact with their supervisor as their progress is monitored. The studying BCBA can then apply to take the certification exam. Upon passing the exam, the BCBA must participate in continuing education and adhere to the BACB Ethics Code for BCBAs. BCBAs must also be licensed in their state. Once certified, a BCBA conducts behavior assessments, creates treatment plans, and supervises staff and cases.
- Licensed Behavior Specialist (LBS) / Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA). Some states have adopted a license and don’t require clinical supervisors to be certified. Requirements are similar to BCBAs above, with similar job responsibilities. Individuals with one of these licenses often still go on to become clinical supervisors.
- (BCaBA) Board-certified Assistant Behavior Analyst. Unlike an RBT, a BCaBA has to possess an undergraduate degree in behavior analysis or a similar field. Similarly to the other positions, a BCaBA must complete coursework beyond their degree, have a certain amount of hours in the field under the supervision of a BCBA), and must pass a certification exam. They must also meet continuing education requirements and adhere to the code of ethics. An assistant can help BCBAs with the clinical side of ABA therapy, unlike an RBT, who is always hands-on in the field. Like BCBAs, BCaBAs must be licensed in their state.
- (BCBA-D) Board-certified Behavior Analyst (Doctoral). Those who have a doctorate in behavioral science or a related field are considered BCBA-Ds. This title indicates extra training; however, a BCBA-D performs the same duties as a BCBA and must pass and hold the same certifications. In some states, a Clinical Director is required to possess a BCBA-D.
A BT, RBT, and BCaBA will always work under the supervision of a clinical supervisor. However, BCBAs and BCBA-Ds are considered independent and, once licensed, have the ability to practice independently or open their own practice.
What Do ABA Clinicians Do in the Field?
The duties of a clinical supervisor in the field vary depending on the position. A BCBA has a supervisory role, in that they ensure all patients are receiving the best treatment. They will oversee (either in-person or through telehealth) RBTs and BTs and give them feedback and help in order to implement the treatment plan.
BCBAs are also responsible for drawing up treatment plans for each of their clients. One of the first things a BCBA will do is perform a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). An FBA will assess the client’s behavior and designate areas of improvement. Based on the unique needs of a patient, other assessments may also be used. After an FBA is performed and analyzed, the BCBA then draws up a Behavior Support Plan (BSP). A BSP will look different for every child, however, the goal is to list interventions and therapies that can help improve problem behaviors, communication, social skills, life skills, etc.
The overall treatment plan will be constructed from biopsychosocial information, the FBA, the BSP, and will discuss parental involvement. The treatment plan may also discuss a transition plan and crisis plan if needed and the discharge criteria. Treatment plans are updated often as goals are met and also to demonstrate to insurance companies the continuing need for ABA services for a client. BCBAs use a lot of data, such as scatter plots, to help track goals and behaviors over time so that treatment plans always meet the needs of the client.
Every state is different when it comes to the requirement of supervisory hours for clients, RBT/BTs, and the supervisor. Often, the supervisor will visit during an ABA session one to two times per month to directly oversee how the RBT/BT is performing and how they are implementing treatment. Supervising staff is also a requirement of this role.
The role of an RBT/BT is to work directly with the client. What does that look like? RBTs may accompany clients to events in the community, will use play-based therapy in the home and clinic, and will use correct responses to behaviors (positive reinforcement, ignoring maladaptive behaviors). RBTs will have materials and directives provided so that they can implement the treatment plan that’s been put in place. They are directly under the supervision of their clinical supervisor and are monitored several times a month (or more). RBTs can also work in an educational setting under the supervision of a clinical supervisor.
Benefits of Working in the ABA Field
The sheer joy of watching a child make progress with their behavior is why many people enter the field. There are many other benefits that come with working in the ABA field. First of all, it’s a rewarding field to work in, but there is also a high level of job security. While ABA clinicians may work independently or switch companies, there is always a high demand for BCBAs and RBT/BTs. In fact, in many areas, both urban and rural, there is a shortage of ABA clinicians. Because of the steady increase in ASD diagnoses, it’s expected that the need for clinicians will increase over time as well.
However, there are other benefits of working in the ABA field, such as:
- Ability to work online. In a post-COVID world, ABA Telehealth remains a viable option, particularly for clients who are in rural areas or who are immunocompromised. Depending on the individual situation, both clinical supervisors and RBTs have the ability to work online. It’s also quite common for a supervisor to perform supervisory hours virtually on occasion. This is of course dependent on the unique needs of each individual client, since they may not have attention spans for online services.
- Flexible schedule. The majority of clients who need ABA are school-age and older, so supervisors and RBTs have the ability to have a flexible schedule. Oftentimes, parents can’t be present for sessions until their own workday is complete or until their child is home from school. This can free up a clinician’s day to do other things. They may also work in the evenings, performing data analysis and developing treatment plans.
- Room for specialization. While very commonly ABA therapy is delivered in-home or in-clinic to patients diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, there are other opportunities for ABA clinicians. They can work in the educational setting or can specialize in areas such as organizational behavior management or behavioral sport psychology.
- Fun. Not only is ABA rewarding as you’re helping clients overcome their challenges, but it is also simply a fun career path to take. It allows you to put creative skills to use, engage with clients, and it is never the same day twice.
It’s also essential to find a company with good training, particularly as you begin your career as an ABA clinician. Good supervision is hard to find.
How to Begin ABA Coursework or Schooling
The first step is a role as a BT. This will give you access to training (paid training if you work for a good company), and an opportunity to start learning the field. You can then become certified as an RBT, and enroll in a graduate program and start your 1,500 supervision hours to work towards a career as a clinical supervisor (BCBA). Then the opportunities are almost limitless with ABA sub-specialties and career paths.
Acclaim Autism has partnerships with a few Colleges for graduate-level training in ABA. Staff (and sometimes family members) are eligible for tuition discounts and more:
- York College of Pennsylvania, which offers an M.Ed. in Applied Behavior Analysis & Post-Graduate Certificate
- Purdue University, which offers an MS.Ed. in Applied Behavior Analysis & Post-Graduate Certificate
Interested in a career in ABA? Check available positions here.
Interested in a career in ABA?
Check available positions here.
Data and Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2022, March 2). CDC. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.htmlUS Employment Demand for Behavior Analysts. (2022). BACB. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.bacb.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/BurningGlass2022_220208.pdf