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What Is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Behavior analysis is a time-tested intervention for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Based on data from the 11 communities it monitors, the CDC said 1 in 59 eight-year-old children were receiving autism diagnoses, up 15% from the 2016 estimate of 1 in 69 children.1

At the same time, demand was rising—and continues to rise—for individuals certified to practice applied behavior analysis (ABA), a widely used therapy for children and adults with autism. According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), the demand for certified behavior analysts has grown annually since 2010, with a 127% leap in job postings between 2017 and 2018.2

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Both the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association recognize ABA as an “evidence-based best practice treatment,”3 and it can be a fulfilling choice for working professionals inspired to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities engage more fully in life. Read on to learn more about this skills-boosting therapy.

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Behavior analysts work with clients to reinforce and encourage positive behaviors. The Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) offers this definition: “Practitioners of applied behavior analysis (ABA) aim to improve socially important behavior by using interventions that are based upon principles of learning theory and that have been evaluated in experiments using reliable and objective measurement.”4

Autism Speaks, the national education and advocacy organization, says ABA therapy can help:3

  • Increase language and communication skills
  • Improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics
  • Decrease problem behaviors

“The methods of behavior analysis have been used and studied for decades,” Autism Speaks says. “They have helped many kinds of learners gain different skills—from healthier lifestyles to learning a new language. Therapists have used ABA to help children with autism and related developmental disorders since the 1960s.”

How Does ABA Therapy Work?

While pursuing Bachelor of Science in Psychology degrees, many students learn about B.F. Skinner’s research into behaviorism and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is one of the foundational principles of ABA. Autism Speaks explains: “First, the therapist identifies a goal behavior. Each time the person uses the behavior or skill successfully, they get a reward. The reward is meaningful to the individual—examples include praise, a toy or book, watching a video, access to playground or other location, and more. Positive rewards encourage the person to continue using the skill. Over time this leads to meaningful behavior change.”

Does ABA Have Other Uses?

Behavior analysis is showing promise in areas other than ASD, according to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board® (BACB®), the credentialing organization for behavior analysts. “Applied behavior analysis has been empirically shown to be effective in a wide variety of areas, including parent training, substance abuse treatment, dementia management, brain injury rehabilitation, occupational safety intervention, among others. However, because ABA was first applied to the treatment of individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism, this practice area has the largest evidence base and has received the most recognition.”5

What Does Research Say About ABA?

The American Psychological Association (APA) embraces applied behavior analysis as “clearly within the scope of the discipline of psychology and … an integral part of the discipline of psychology” and affirms “that the practice and supervision of applied behavior analysis are well-grounded in psychological science and evidence-based practice.”6

ASAT cites studies demonstrating ABA’s efficacy in “increasing behaviors and teaching new skills” and “reducing problem behavior.” ASAT says: “A number of studies also indicate that, when implemented intensively (more than 20 hours per week) and early in life (beginning prior to the age of 4 years), ABA may produce large gains in development and reductions in the need for special services. However, large studies with strong experimental designs are needed to confirm the results reported for intensive, early intervention.”4

In 1999, the United States Surgeon General concluded, “Thirty years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning, and appropriate social behavior.”4

How Can I Become a Behavior Analyst?

The path to becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) starts with an approved master’s degree program from an accredited university. Look for an online master’s program that offers specializations that match your career goals. Walden University’s MS in Psychology Applied Behavior Analysis specialization offers a course sequence verified by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), which meets the coursework requirements to sit for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) exam.7 Graduates of this program who wish to pursue certification must also complete a period of supervised practical experience as defined by the BCBA®. Walden does not offer the fieldwork component required for the BCBA exam.

Your online psychology courses will include Principles of Behavioral Analysis; Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues in Behavioral Analysis; and Research Methods for Behavioral Analysis, to name just a few of the courses that can help prepare you for a career as a behavior analyst.

Graduates of Walden’s master’s in psychology program who go on to receive BCBA® certification7 may be qualified to work in the following areas:

  • Homes and workplaces
  • Hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers
  • Animal welfare and training
  • Vehicular and pedestrian safety
  • Sports, health, and fitness

Walden’s master’s in psychology programs open doors to multiple challenging and rewarding career choices. And with a specialization in applied behavior analysis, you’ll learn to use the principles of human behavior to transform problem behaviors, build positive social skills, and help improve the lives of individuals with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities. Bring your talents and compassion to applied behavior analysis and help make a difference in the lives of children and adults.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Psychology degree program with seven specializations to help you meet your professional goals. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

7Source: The MS in Psychology program’s Applied Behavior Analysis specialization has been designed to offer acceptable graduate coursework in behavior analysis (Verified Course Sequence as approved by ABAI and accepted by Behavior Analyst Certification Board) and prepare students to sit for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) exam, which is administered by the BACB. Walden University does not offer the fieldwork experience required for eligibility to sit for the BCBA exam. Walden Enrollment Specialists can provide information relating to national certification exams; however, it remains the individual student’s responsibility to understand, evaluate, and comply with all requirements relating to national certification exams for the state in which he or she intends to practice. Walden makes no representations or guarantee that completion of Walden coursework or programs will permit an individual to obtain national certification. For more information on applying for certification from BACB®, visit

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,