The Differences Between Psychotherapy & Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

The Differences Between Psychotherapy & Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

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What’s the differences between Psychotherapy and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Psychotherapy and applied behavior analysis (ABA) are utilized to support mental and behavioral health needs in an individual. Although psychotherapy and ABA share some characteristics and objectives, there are major key features that set them apart due to a major difference in focus and specific populations they serve. ABA is utilized with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders of varying ages. Behavioral techniques within ABA can be used with all children. Psychotherapy, in contrast, is often requested as a treatment when individuals need help with mental health needs, support with mood management of a mental health diagnosis, including life transitions, support with emotional, relational, cultural, and societal challenges enabling individuals to understand their feelings and in making positive changes. 

Having been a practitioner of both fields, I see the value in both forms of treatment for very specific populations. 


Psychotherapy is designed to help individuals develop coping strategies, build self-awareness, change cognitive, communicative and behavioral  patterns to improve mental health, sense of self, improve and deepen relationships and overall life satisfaction. Depending on your therapist’s clinical orientation, principles and interventions may vary from focusing on the present, strengths and solutions as in Solution Focused Therapy or working through past traumas and early child-parent relationships as in Psychodynamic/Attachment Therapy. Generally, psychotherapy aims to provide strategies centered around creating positive change in the client(s) self-worth and sense of self. Put simply, psychotherapy therapy holds that we have the innate ability to heal and teaches you to love yourself for all that you are. 


ABA places a stronger emphasis on the immediate and uses practical  conditioning (strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement) to create positive change. ABA practitioners utilize conditioning to encourage positive development of prosocial behavior. For example, the behavioral interventionist may conduct sessions where they provide a small reward each time the client (often a child diagnosed with autism) is able to perform a certain activity and/or task (completing a self help task like brushing teeth) or practicing a social skill such as turn-taking while playing. 

Psychotherapy and ABA on Mental Health Diagnosis

With psychotherapy (individual therapy) can be used alone or in conjunction with group, couples or family therapy depending on the individual needs of the client. Other supports can be used to treat mental health diagnosis such as exercise, meditation, nutrition, social connection etc. Medication is also used in providing added relief from symptoms associated with anxiety and depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Medication evaluation is done by a Psychiatrist which can be beneficial to individuals with a chemical imbalance or that have more severe/intense characteristic of symptoms. However, you don’t need a diagnosis to seek the support of psychotherapy if you’re utilizing private/self-pay. You should feel empowered to reach out whenever you’re ready!

As previously mentioned,  ABA is focused on managing behaviors with individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders or other developmental disorders, often used to reduce and/or eliminate maladaptive behaviors.  Direct behavior modification techniques are used to manage both home and school environment including social implications, especially in younger children. ABA is helpful in developing basic awareness of social cues and safety skills (wearing a seat belt, looking both ways before crossing the street and avoiding dangerous situations). 

Psychotherapists vs ABA Practitioner

Please note when I use the term psychotherapist I’m using as an umbrella term for Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Licensed Clinical Social Worker LCSW), Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) and Psychologist. This includes Associates (AMFT, ACSW etc.) who work under the supervision of a Licensed Clinical Supervisor. 

Within ABA there is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), Program Supervisor (often holding an LMFT, LCSW or LPCC), and behavioral interventionists who are bachelor level clinicians implementing behavior plans with clients under the supervision of a Program Supervisor and/or BCBA. 

While conducting psychotherapy is out of the scope of a BCBA, psychotherapists can formerly have a supervisory role training and supporting both behavioral interventionists and parents in the  implementation of behavior plans and programming. 

Many behavior analysts and therapists apply ABA skills in working with children according to their level of functioning and can generally fall within the behavioral theory umbrella as we assess and bring awareness to the function of the behavior. For example, in ABA we are looking for the antecedent, behavior and consequence whereas in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) we assess how thoughts affect our feeling and behaviors. 

The differences between ABA and psychotherapy therapy are vastly different, however, their overall goal, generally speaking, is to create positive change in the lives of clients. 

In Summary:

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