You want to make a difference in someone’s life. You want to understand more about developmental conditions or neurodivergence. You want to bridge the gap between people with autism and the communities they live in. Becoming an ABA provider is one of the best ways to meet these goals in 2020.
Since this work is in the medical field helping a vulnerable population, ABA therapists need a great deal of education and clinical experience. All medical professionals need licenses and certifications, and ABA therapists are no different.
States have specific requirements, but all ABA-specific therapists are licensed through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). This organization has strict requirements for education levels, supervised experience, and examination, which ensures that behavior therapists working with autistic children and adults are fully qualified for this work.
If extensive schooling isn’t feasible, you can still work in the ABA field as a registered behavior technician (RBT). These professionals put the plans of ABA therapists into action, treating clients on an individual basis.
Goals of ABA Therapy
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy geared to helping people with developmental disorders, such as autism, to develop positive behaviors around communication, learning, social skills, and life skills.
This therapy is based on the scientific understanding of behaviors and learning. Since it was founded in the 1960s, it has had a measurable positive impact on people on the autism spectrum as well as people with other types of developmental disorders.
ABA therapy applies what we understand about how behavior works to real situations. The therapy increases helpful behaviors while guiding clients away from maladaptive or harmful behaviors, especially those that impact communication and learning.
ABA therapists help their clients:
Expand language and communication skills, including nonverbal cues.
Improve their attention, focus, memory, study skills, and academic abilities.
- Reduce problematic behaviors.
While there are larger goals in ABA therapy, each client has a personalized treatment plan. People on the autism spectrum have different behavioral symptoms and different needs. Each treatment plan is developed by therapists who are trained and certified in ABA.
Types of ABA Therapy Certifications
There are different types of ABA therapists, so there are different types of certifications required to practice this profession. All ABA therapists receive certification to practice from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). To be considered a therapist, you must have at least a master’s degree alongside appropriate ABA-specific training.
The three basic types of ABA therapists are:
Board certified behavior analyst (BCBA): A BCBA must have a master’s degree in psychology or a related medical field, training in ABA-specific approaches, and a certification from the BACB.
Board certified behavior analyst, doctorate level (BCBA-D): This is similar to a BCBA, but a BCBA-D must have a doctorate-level degree instead of a master’s degree.
- Board certified assistant behavior analyst (BCaBA): A member of a BCBA’s team, a BCaBA must have an undergraduate degree and a certification to practice under a BCBA from the BACB. A BCaBA cannot practice alone, but they can work in therapy settings with a higher-level practitioner.
Registered behavior technicians are not ABA therapists, but they work directly with clients, teaching ABA techniques. The treatment plan is crafted by a therapist for the individual client, and the RBT puts that plan into action. RBTs must have a high school diploma, complete a 40-hour training program and an initial competency test, and pass the RBT exam to receive certification.
Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) Requirements
To become a certified BCaBA, you must meet the eligibility criteria through a supervisory period. Requirements include:
Behavior-analytic coursework. First, you must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited, qualifying institution. In lieu of this, you may have a degree from programs that meet the Verified Course Sequence (VCS) standards. The Association of Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) partners with institutions to identify courses that meet BACB’s requirements Then, you must take the ABA-specific coursework, which must also be completed at a qualifying institution and taken for academic credit at your post-secondary school. You need a passing grade in the courses, and the courses must have covered the required content as specified by the BACB.
Supervised experience. This is designed to provide the trainee with professional and ethical input on the process of working with clients. You must complete required practical experience as defined by the BACB. Requirements are:
1,000 hours of supervised independent fieldwork. This helps trainees obtain the right type of supervision. No grade is given, and two contacts are required.
670 hours of practicum. This provides individuals with the ability to complete their fieldwork faster with more supervision. A passing grade is required upon completion, with four required contacts.
500 hours of intensive practicum. This involves even fewer hours and more supervision than the traditional practicum. A passing grade is required, with eight required contacts.
Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Requirements
The requirements for BCBAs are more intensive, although they have similar structure as the requirements for BCaBAs. There are three options for obtaining a BCBA certification, which are:
Behavior-analytic coursework. You must have either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree from a qualified institution, in a field related to ABA therapy like:
If you don’t have a master’s degree in one of these fields, you can have a degree from programs that meet VCS requirements. You must have passed all your coursework, completed ABA-specific coursework, and completed supervised experience requirements.
Faculty teaching and research. Like the coursework version, you must hold a relevant higher degree, which is also required for teaching at a post-secondary institution. For this path, you must become a full-time faculty member in behavior analysis, which includes both conducting research and teaching students at a college or university.
You must teach five sections on behavior-analytic content.
Your courses must predominantly involve behavior-analytic content.
You must teach at a graduate level.
Your research must be of a behavior-analytic nature.
You must have one experimental evaluation published in a peer-reviewed journal.
You must also complete supervised practical experience.
- Postdoctoral experience. You must have had the applicable degree for more than 10 years as well as at least 10 years of postdoctoral full-time, practical experience under a relevant state regulation like a medical license or under a national professional credential. This is a common requirement for other people entering medical fields. You must also have 500 hours of supervised practical experience specifically with ABA therapy. You can have different professional credentials over the course of qualifying for this pathway.
You can also qualify for the exam through a past certification, similarly to reactivating an expired BCaBA.
Supervised experience is also a requirement for BCBAs. As a higher-level analytical position, BCBAs require more hours of experience than BCaBAs. Requirements include:
1,500 hours of supervised independent fieldwork. Trainees get the right type of supervision. No grade is given, and two contacts are required.
1,000 hours of practicum. This provides individuals with the ability to complete their fieldwork faster with more supervision. A passing grade is necessary, with four required contacts.
- 750 hours of intensive practicum, with even fewer hours and more supervision than the traditional practicum. A passing grade is needed, with eight required contacts
If you pursue a BCBA-D, you have three different options for gaining this designation:
Accredited doctoral program: If you have an active BCBA certification through a master’s degree, and you complete a doctoral degree from a certified ABA program, you can qualify for the BCBA-D.
2. Non-accredited doctoral program: You must first have an active BCBA certification and then complete a doctoral degree in a relevant field, which requires a dissertation. Then, you can either complete doctoral coursework in ABA therapy, complete supervised work in an ABA therapy practice, or publish works on behavior therapy. 3. Postdoctoral respecialization: As with the previous paths, you start with a BCBA certification under a master’s degree, then complete a doctoral degree, get 1,800 hours of post-doctoral experience, and publish in an ABA-related field. These must be at least two peer-reviewed publications.
Since BCBA-Ds already have active BCBA certifications, you are simply adding that you have a doctorate level of education and experience to your current certification. Rather than retaking the exam, you will mail or email the BACB and apply for the additional note. You must pay $105, and it takes about two weeks to process your application.
Certification Application & Exam
BCBAs and BCaBAs must pass a certification exam administered by the BACB.
Once you meet the eligibility and experience requirements for BCaBAs, you must complete a certification application for approval. There are fees involved.
Certification application: $175
Examination appointment: $125
- Examination retake application, if you need to take it a second time within two years of application approval: $120
If you have a BCaBA that expired within the past five years, you can regain your certification by taking 10 continuing education units (CEU) for each year that has passed since your original certification expired. These CEUs must meet the BACB’s requirements for current continuing education.
Then, you can sit for the exam again. If you pass, you have restored your BCaBA. You will still need to apply to take the exam, as you did before taking your first certification.
BCBAs also have application fee requirements.
Certification application: $245
Examination appointment: $140
Examination retake application, if you need to take it a second time within two years of application approval: $125
You must complete ongoing continuing education and recertification requirements every two years as a BCBA, just like BCaBAs. If your certification lapses, you can regain it by completing enough continuing education credits and retaking the certification exam.
After You Receive Your BACB Certification
BCBAs can work on their own, for their own ABA therapy practice, but many supervise a team of others with ABA certifications — typically BCaBAs and RBTs. The practice can focus on one child at a time, a group of children in an education center, or autistic adults at work. Some practitioners offer therapy in association with a private medical practice.
On top of the specific board certification requirements, ABAs must be licensed to practice medicine in their state. Actual prerequisites vary from state to state. They may involve different renewal times and costs that are added to BACB’s continuing education and certification renewal requirements.
You can start your own practice, but most people who are BCBAs are employed by companies, nonprofits, medical facilities, or other institutions.
Employers don’t just consider your current credentials; they also assess your work history. It is a good idea to get experience working as some type of behavior analyst or for an organization that works with autistic individuals, so you can stand out from other applicants.
In 2020, there is a lot of opportunity for individuals who specialize in ABA therapy. Rates of autism diagnoses continue to rise, perhaps due to better diagnostic processes, and there is a greater need for ABA providers.
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Autism Speaks.
- An Evaluation of the Effects of Intensity and Duration on Outcomes Across Treatment Domains for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2017). Translational Psychiatry.
- Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Applied Behavior Analysis. Psychology Today.
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst. Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).
- Registered Behavior Technician. Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).
- BCBA/BCaBA Experience Standards: Monthly System. (March 2020). Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).