ABA Therapy History: Behaviorism and the Emergence of BCBA/RBT Licensure

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ABA therapy history runs decades deep in the U.S., stemming from behaviorism. Yet, it has evolved today into one of the most respected services available to the community of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the United States and other parts of the world. This article will take a quick look back into ABA therapy history, looking at behaviorism and BCBA/RBT licensure emergence.

History of Behaviorism in the U.S.

Before Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) came into existence, there was behaviorism. Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, the early work of behaviorism emerged. It was defined as the approach to understanding development and how the environment and external stimuli influenced observable behavior.

Prior to behaviorism, the psychology community was primarily focused on the unconscious mind, trying to decipher what goes on in the minds of individuals and why. Behaviorism was born when early psychologists wondered whether or not our physical environment had any role in behavior and actions.

One of the most famous founders of behaviorism, Ivan Pavlov, studied what he referred to as the conditioned reflex. He learned that when exposed to certain stimuli over time, a person could be conditioned to produce the response in other situations and classical conditioning.

After Pavlov came Edward Thorndike, who studied how behaviors can be learned gradually, increasing speed and response. Thorndike established the Law of Effect, which states that an action followed by satisfaction will strengthen and followed by annoyance will weaken. This would later be defined as positive reinforcement.

Next in ABA therapy history is John B. Watson, who is considered the father of ABA. He believed that objective analysis of the mind was not at all possible and would always be subjective. To understand behaviors, he thought we needed to look at observable details. Other early psychologists believed that progress was made by analyzing both mind and behaviors; Watson approached only the observable. Ultimately, his shift in focus led to the birth of behaviorism as a science, giving psychology credit in science and research.

After Watson came B.F. Skinner who founded the theory of operant conditioning and referred to himself as a radical behaviorist.

From 1920 to the mid-1950s, behaviorism became the dominant focus of psychologists everywhere. This happened since many in the field wanted to establish psychology as an objective science rather than a subjective study.

The Evolution of ABA Therapy

woman with ball and child

While ABA was born out of behaviorism, today’s best practices vary significantly from early psychologists in the field.

When we fast forward into ABA therapy history, we learn about Ole’Ivar Lovaas, the founder of the Lovaas Method. This method used the theory of operant conditioning and applied it to individuals with autism. This method later became known as Applied Behavioral Analysis.

Much of the work that Lovaas completed throughout the late 20th century showed that with the right interventions, the skills and behaviors of young children with ASD could be improved and retained over time.

Today, providers still use several of the techniques established by Lovaas early in ABA therapy history. These skills include positive reinforcement, environmental manipulations, and more. Over time, ABA therapy history has abandoned unethical practices and has ultimately become a safe and effective way to help develop skills in children with ASD.

Now, ABA therapists must have specific education and licensures to practice and offer this kind of therapy. The BACB was founded in 1998 to standardize this practice.

Breaking Down the Types of ABA Licensure

woman with child

There are two types of licensures that someone can get to practice ABA therapy. Those licenses include:


A Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) is someone that has a master’s level education in a relevant field, has completed 1500 hours of fieldwork, and has been issued a license by the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board (BACB).


Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) are individuals that have received certification from the BACB and are considered to be a paraprofessional. This role is usually heavily involved with clients while being supervised by a BCBA.

ABA therapy history has evolved dramatically over time. Still, it is rooted in the idea that behaviors can be improved and that social skills, communication skills, and learning development can all be addressed with positive reinforcement.

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