Getting into Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) as a psychology undergraduate

In a developmental psychology lecture the other week, I mentioned that I worked as an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapist when I was a psychology undergraduate.  Since then a number of students have asked me how I got into it.  So I thought I’d write a blog post on what ABA therapy is, why psychology students tend to be good at it, and how to get some work experience.

ABA is a therapy for children with autism that is based on behaviourist principles of learning and development.  The National Autistic Society define autism as “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways”.   Therefore, ABA therapists (also known as ABA tutors) typically work on a one to one basis with children with autism to develop their social skills as well as other skills (e.g. language, motor skills) so that life is a little easier for them and their carers all round.   They apply the principles of behaviourism (e.g. reinforcement, extinction) to change the behaviour of the children they work with.  Here’s an ABA clip that explains a little more.

Introduction to ABA from Autism Speaks

When I worked as a tutor in 2003/2004, ABA was expensive as families had to self fund the therapy and pay people like me, mostly psychology students, to work with their child for around 6 hours per day, five days a week.    I’m sure things have changed a bit since then – if you can shed any light on this then please leave a comment.  Psychology students were preferred to graduates as they were slightly cheaper (!) whilst also very knowledgeable on the topics of behaviour and child development.    Therefore we made good ABA therapists and also got some very relevant work experience.  On reflection, the opportunity to apply my psychological knowledge to a real world context was an invaluable experience and made me realise just how relevant a degree in psychology could be.   Also, once you are in the ABA network other opportunities often come along. Some of the students I worked with became full time ABA therapists and programme leaders after university.

One place to look out for ABA opportunities is your university’s intranet/careers website.  The family I worked for posted an advert with my university as they were specifically looking for psychology undergraduates.  I saw the ad online and was encouraged by my career’s service to apply.  I phoned the number then went to meet the family and the child I would be working with.  I shadowed another tutor for a few weeks and received some ‘proper’ training a month or so later when a consultant from the American company that was overseeing the therapy programme came to the UK on their rounds.

Such ABA opportunities tend to be few and far in between and are often snapped up quickly.   You could say I was in the right place at the right time and there’s no use waiting for that place and time to come.  I suggested a few things today to some psychology students that want to get into ABA such as getting involved with local community/education groups that work with people with autism, setting up a blog looking for work (like this Salford graduate did – via @fcchristie), creating a professional profile on sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter and introducing yourself to other ABA therapists who could potentially recommend you for a future vacancy, and so on.   I’m sure they can be way more inventive than me!  So my main message was/is to create your own opportunities by being a little bit savvy, a little bit creative and a little bit entrepreneurial.  If you decide to get into ABA, let me know how you get on – good luck:)

If you know of other routes into ABA therapy, please leave a comment.  Thank you!


11 responses to “Getting into Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) as a psychology undergraduate

  1. Fascinating stuff Jenna. Great tips too! I would definitely go for the online profile…some vlogging too (video blog) and then circulate it through relevant professional services and societies.

    I look forward to learning more about how the students get on.

    This is also a great example of how blogs can be used: sharing experiences and tips that can help those you work with or follow your work. As ever, you are leading the way.

    May your students know they are in great hands!

    Wish my past lecturers were that attentive and supportive


  2. Thanks for your lovely comments Cris, and for encouraging me to start as I mean to go on:)

    Vlogging’s a fab idea, never thought of that! Requires a bit of bravery but sure it would be effective to get some work experience!

    Code doesn’t work – wondering if its the blog theme, too narrow for video or something:( watched all manner of youtube vids to check I was doing it right!


  3. People often enter the field of ABA similar to your experience; however, ABA is more than just an “autism therapy”. ABA is a science and field of psychology; its applications useful in disabilities, mental health, health care, education, business, social and environmental change. If people behave, ABA can analyze it and suggest methods of change.


  4. I work as an assistant psychologist in a residential school for autistic children, we use a lot of the principles of ABA in our day to day work.

    I have just recently been to Treehouse School in London, which is an ABA therapy based school. A lot of their teaching assistants are psychology graduates, they give you various levels of training and the more experience and qualifications you get the more opportunity there is to work your way up to be a senior ABA consultant. The school is definately worth a look around, if you look on their website they have regular open afternoons.

    Id always considered Educational psychology to be the way i wanted to go, but ABA intrigues/interests me.. so who knows 🙂


  5. If anyone’s interested in reading a bit more about ABA, Tricia-Lee (@behaviouratplay) recommended some sources.

    Alberto, P., & Troutman, A. (2012) Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers (expensive but the older editions available on Amazon marketplace are cheaper)

    Also the Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis is open access (thumbs up!!!)

    I just found this book which is reasonably priced and can look inside before you buy on Amazon too

    Happy reading! Keep comments coming:)


  6. Hey Jen,
    Miss your face too :). I have had a look but a lot of the schools I have found seem to be down south. I will keep looking and if I hear of any up north I will let you know! Ambitious about Autism is the charity behind Tree House and that offers the various training courses, but again they are in London. They might b more worth while than the open afternoon’s though because the open afternoon is only a couple of hours.
    Hope all is good with you 🙂


  7. Aww I just stumbled across this. Thank you! I was one of the students who asked you about ABA therapy and I looked in to it more but then found a volunteer position in a brilliant local school for children who have been excluded from main stream education. Some of these children are autistic and I’m learning massive amounts, so all is good : )

    Thank you for your encouragement and offer of help at the time!



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