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ABA Therapist: Job Description & Career Requirements

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapists are behavioral development professionals who help patients overcome mental and social disabilities. Becoming an ABA therapist requires formal education in psychology, behavior analysis, or a related field of study. Therapists at both undergraduate and graduate degree levels may find opportunities in the occupation. ABA therapists are generally required to obtain state licensure.

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ABA Therapist Job Description

ABA therapists study how behavior is influenced by environment and treat patients accordingly. Many ABA therapists work with autistic children and other developmentally-disabled patients. These professionals use reward systems to reinforce positive, learned behaviors. Other techniques include incidental teaching, pivotal response training, and milieu therapy.

ABA Therapist Requirements

Education requirements for ABA therapists vary according to employer. Some ABA therapists enter the occupation with bachelor's degrees or master's degrees in psychology or related fields; however, most clinical and private practice ABA therapists are required to hold doctoral degrees.

Bachelor's Degree

ABA therapists who hold only four-year degrees may experience limited employment opportunities. They may find job opportunities with the federal government, which requires therapists to have bachelor's degrees with at least 24 credit hours in psychology. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the federal government is one of the few employers who hires therapists without graduate degrees and competition for these positions is high (www.bls.gov).

Master's Degree

Master's degree programs in applicable fields may prepare ABA therapists for positions in industrial-organizational psychology or as researchers assisting psychologists with doctoral degrees. Master of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis programs generally last two years and focus on principles and procedures of behavioral analysis. Along with attending courses in observational methods, behavioral applications, and developmental disability treatment, students may participate in clinical practicums. Master's degree students generally complete thesis projects based on research conducted in graduate studies.

Doctoral Degree

Some colleges and universities offer Ph.D. programs in applied behavioral analysis, which lay greater emphasis on theory and research in the field. Such degree programs typically take two to three years to complete in addition to four years of undergraduate school and two years of a master's degree program. Courses may include verbal behavior, developmental disabilities, experimental analysis, research in behavior analysis, and pharmacology. In addition to dissertation projects, most doctoral students are required to complete practicums or internships in order to graduate.


Licensure is mandatory for ABA therapists who work directly with patients, particularly those who practice in clinical and counseling settings. Licensing requirements differ in each state; however, most states require applicants to hold doctoral degrees, complete internship experience and accrue one to two years of practical experience. Candidates must also pass a state licensing exam and maintain licensure by earning continuing education credits.

ABA therapists who work in schools must hold the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) credential from the National Association of School Psychologists (www.nasponline.org). Certification candidates must have completed at least 60 hours of graduate school and 1200 hours of internship experience. Candidates may then earn the NCSP after passing the National School Psychology Examination.

Professional Certification

Some ABA therapists choose to demonstrate expertise in the field by earning professional certification. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board offers the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) designation to therapists who hold at least master's degrees in approved majors (www.bacb.com). Qualified candidates may become certified after passing the BCBA certification examination. BCBA certification is often required for admission into applied behavior analysis graduate degree programs.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov) projects that the employment of occupational therapists will grow by about 33% between 2010 and 2020, while job opportunities for behavioral disorder and substance abuse counselors could increase by 27% during the same decade. According to PayScale.com, ABA therapists earn between $24,807 and $50,879 a year, with a median of $33,297, as of November 2013.

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