What Do ABA Therapists Do?

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Family in a group therapy session smiling together.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that seeks to improve or address certain behaviors, which can range from social skills to academic abilities. ABA therapists typically work one on one with their patients, who may be children, teens, or adults. They frequently work with patients who struggle with different types of psychological disorders, including autism.

What do ABA therapists do day to day, and in what kinds of settings do they work? ABA support services are available in schools, hospitals, mental health centers, correctional facilities, and other places outside of a therapist’s office. As such, ABA therapists can serve patients in a variety of ways.

What Is an ABA Therapist?

What is an ABA therapist? These professionals are licensed clinical therapists who have received additional training in the principles and techniques of ABA. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board accredits therapists who have the required graduate-level academic experience in ABA principles.

ABA therapists base their work on scientific principles of how humans learn and behave, employing strategies such as positive reinforcement to help their patients modify the ways they act. The basic role of the therapist is to first evaluate the patient’s habits and behavior patterns and then to help implement plans to bring about positive changes in their personal, professional, academic, and social lives.

What Types of Disorders Do ABA Therapists Treat?

Like other forms of therapy, ABA is based on the concept that individuals learn behaviors from their environments. Unlike psychoanalytic, humanistic, and other insight-based therapies, ABA and other behavioral therapies are action-based: New learning is intended to supplant a patient’s behavioral issues or conditions.

ABA support services promote social skills, reading and other academic activities, punctuality, hygiene, housekeeping, and basic job responsibilities. Therapists have used ABA to:

  • Treat children and adults with autism and related developmental disorders
  • Help seniors cope with diminished or altered physical and mental abilities
  • Teach coping skills to people with chronic mental or physical health conditions
  • Helping patients decrease problem behaviors

ABA has been effective in treating a variety of mental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

Using ABA for Addiction Treatment

Providing support services for people who are battling with substance misuse and addiction is another facet of what ABA therapists do. They may employ interventions that have been derived from behavioral principles such as reinforcement-based treatment and contingency management to help patients manage substance misuse issues. ABA professionals can use variations of these methods to treat a particular segment of the population, such as children, teenagers, veterans, people with disabilities, or the elderly.

Where Do ABA Therapists Work?

ABA therapists work in a variety of environments. This is evident in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook’s breakdown of the largest employers of substance misuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors:

  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse facilities: 18%
  • Individual and family practice: 16%
  • State, local, and private hospitals: 10%
  • Government: 9%
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities: 9%

The BLS forecasts that employment in this job category will increase by 23% between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than the average growth rate (8%). Trained ABA therapists can find employment opportunities in hospitals, mental health centers, residential care facilities, and schools, among other settings.


Hospitals’ ABA support services aim to enhance a patient’s quality of life. In hospital settings, ABA therapists may manage team meetings to ensure that trained staff and family members are consistent in their application of the program tailored to the individual. Therapists in hospitals are also likely to work with medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other trained health care professionals on a regular basis.

After therapists determine the behaviors that a patient needs to change, they decide how to best measure the patient’s progress toward those goals, teach the patient the new socially beneficial behaviors while discouraging their negative counterparts, and assess whether any modifications to the treatment plan are necessary. Interaction with the patient occurs in the hospital setting and after release in other locations — or via another method, such as the internet.

Community Mental Health Centers

ABA therapists also work in mental health facilities that offer outpatient services, medication management, case management, and community treatment assistance. Local governments operate many of the centers, which work under contract with mental health service providers to help clients find employment, enroll them in day program services, and refer them to residential care facilities when required.

What ABA therapists do in community mental health centers is similar to what therapists do in hospitals, particularly because of the emphasis on working as a member of a team of health professionals and support staff. In mental health centers, however, ABA therapists’ work also includes a social services component, as these professionals strive to improve the mental health of the community in addition to individuals in need. They may also work more frequently with walk-in patients in mental crisis, often via mobile units that have made on-site determinations about their mental health.

Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities

In residential care facilities, ABA therapists tend to work more closely with individual patients, who live in the home for a set period. The interaction between a therapist and a patient in a nursing home or assisted living facility generally involves a combination of individual therapy, with the participation of health care providers or family members, and group therapy, which aims to teach social skills from the perspective of social learning.

While much of what ABA therapists do in residential care facilities mirrors what therapists do in hospitals and outpatient settings, intensive behavioral coaching is more common in care facilities. For example, therapists in care facilities may target specific behavior goals for patients to achieve. Such settings may help therapists improve modeling and other methods of reinforcing positive behaviors.

Schools and Universities

ABA support services in academic settings can help students adopt positive behaviors while they’re in familiar environments, such as their homes, schools, and communities. Therapists initially applied ABA to children with autism in clinical settings. However, ABA experts now agree that behavioral programs to treat autism and related learning or behavioral issues are more effective in environments in which children are comfortable, such as familiar classrooms and in-home settings.

ABA therapists in schools collaborate with teachers, administrators, and other education professionals. They work directly with students in one-on-one sessions but also supervise group therapy activities to help reinforce positive behaviors in social situations. In school settings, ABA therapists emphasize the need for data collection, as teachers commonly address negative behaviors in the classroom without recording them. Teachers can also be trained to meet the specific needs of students.

Intervention by trained therapists early in an autistic child’s education increases the likelihood of the child’s “outgrowing the diagnosis entirely,” according to ADDitude magazine. While the goal is to have students in the mainstream, it can be counterproductive to do so before the child has learned what the magazine calls “age-appropriate skills” from a trained ABA therapist.

Private Practice

Therapists commonly provide ABA support services from a home-based or private office. Private practice ABA therapists meet regularly with individuals, families, and other groups, whether weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Private sessions may be more effective than group sessions because the one-on-one attention of the therapist provides insight into behaviors, feelings, and relationships.

ABA therapists with their own practices are responsible for the management and recordkeeping required for any small business. Their clinical duties may be similar to those of ABA professionals working in hospitals, outpatient and residential facilities, and schools, as they, too, are part of a team that may include health care professionals, social workers, and other support staff.

Other Career Paths

Employment options for ABA therapists continue to expand as behavior modification techniques are applied in new settings, broadening the scope of where ABA therapists can work. One of the newer ABA support services roles is as a certified personal trainer. Therapists in this role can help people meet personal and professional goals, whether related to physical fitness or earning a job with higher pay and more responsibilities. Other ABA professionals can find work as occupational therapists in hospitals, schools, and residential facilities.

Some less conventional career choices for ABA therapists include certified alcohol and drug counselor, owner or director of a child care center, special education teacher, animal behavior consultant/trainer, and human resources manager. As professionals find more and more settings in which to apply behavior therapy, the career opportunities for ABA therapists will continue to grow.

Explore Opportunities for Becoming an ABA Therapist

Considering the broad scope of what ABA therapists do, prospective students have many career paths to choose from. One of the main requirements for working in ABA therapy is an advanced education, which can give students the skills and knowledge to meet their professional goals.

With courses including Behavior Assessment, Radical Behaviorism, and Ethical Practice in ABA, masters in behavioral analysis online can effectively prepare students for success as ABA therapists. Explore the curriculum and take the first step toward a fulfilling career.


Recommended Readings

What Is Applied Behavioral Science and Why Is It Important?

Benefits of Earning an ABA for Special Education Teachers

Tips for Behavioral Parent Training



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Association for Behavioral Analysis International

Autism Speaks, ATN/AIR-P Introduction to Behavioral Health Treatments

Autism Speaks, What Is Applied Behavioral Analysis?

Behavioral Analysis Certification Board

Behavioral Analysis Certification Board, About Behavioral Analysis

Behavioral Analysis Certification Board, Applied Behavioral Analysis Subspecialty Areas

Brooks Publishing, “What Does ABA Therapy Look Like in the Classroom?”

The Council of Autism Service Providers, “Applied Behavioral Analysis Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder”

Effective Child Therapy, “What Is Behavior Therapy?”

Medical News Today, “Everything You Need to Know About ABA Therapy”

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National Alliance on Mental Illness, Types of Mental Health Professionals

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