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ABA vs. Occupational Therapy

ABA vs. Occupational Therapy

Children with autism spectrum disorder benefit from the earliest possible intervention. Treatment that begins at the earliest definitive signs of autism can provide excellent outcomes. Treatment approaches include speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and applied behavioral analysis. Because there are many aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder, it is useful for many parents to consider the approaches offered by ABA vs. Occupational Therapy.

What is ABA?

Applied Behavioral Analysis is a field of practice that combines applied skill learning, measures the child’s behaviors and responses, and analyzing the interaction of the child with his or her environment. These phases work in a pattern developed for each child and is pertinent to their unique abilities, situation, and social environment. The analyst helps children by developing applied skills that have importance and meaning. The analysis targets the child’s difficulties and works to improve participation in the home, school, and other social environments.

The range of applied skills within the scope of ABA is impressive. Behavior analysts work on:

  • Communication skills and language abilities
  • Daily living skills
  • Imitation-abilities, play skills, and social interaction
  • Cognitive abilities and motor skills (both gross and fine motor skills)
  • behavioral adjustments and personal safety awareness

Working with a child’s deficits, analysts improve socially beneficial behaviors like communications and language skills. The analyst typically develops a plan with short and long-term goals. This is a flexible formula that can change with the child’s needs. The ABA can measure a child’s responses and monitor progress towards plan goals.

ABA provides meaningful tools for interventions. The analysis of a child’s behavior difficulties can assess the impact of environmental factors on specific skills. The analysis can modify the environmental conditions, increase learning, and improve skill acquisition. The analysis consists of observation, assembling relevant information, and development of targeted strategies. 

What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy (OT) professionals can perform evaluations of young children. OTs can work with children’s needs to improve motor skills, cognitive abilities, and processing information through their senses. Occupational therapy can work with communications deficits and play skills. They can identify steps that can help parents develop and reinforce their child’s skills. 

OTs evaluate the child and then identify activities that parents, and caregivers can do throughout the day to reinforce a skill and improve sensory processing or enable new learning. For example, if parents observe that a child cannot pick up small pieces of food, they can seek Occupational Therapy. The occupational therapist can identify exercises to improve finger movement and grasping. Occupational therapists can work to adjust the environment. In the child grasp example, the OT might help the parents use large pieces and gradually move to smaller pieces to help the child learn and improve.

Differences Between ABA and OT 

ABA applies a diagnostic capacity to determine deficiencies and possible approaches for improvement. The focus is on the mental and cognitive conditions. The ABA assessment is a diagnostic tool that can focus on areas of concern in the individual’s ability to understand, communicate, and interact. The tools used by Applied Behavior Analysts focus on removing barriers to improving social adjustment, learning, and success in school, family, and other social environments. ABA produces intrinsic and developmental changes in the child. These improvements apply to and enhance the child’s life experience.

Occupational therapy works on skills that are learned and apply to the context in which they are taught. The specificity of the learning framework is the strength of occupational therapy and a defining difference from ABA. Occupational therapy focuses on physical rehabilitation, regaining physical capacity, and adjusting the individual to functioning within limits. The OT functional assessment is the basic tool of occupational therapy. It is the foundation for goal setting that seeks to increase the individual’s independence and ability to function. The assessment can support findings about the need for assistance on a long- or short-term basis. It can suggest the need to alter the living environment by adding assistive equipment or assistive technology.

Similarities of ABA and OT

With a high-level view, there are some similarities between Occupational Therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis. Both disciplines seek to help individuals discover and improve areas of function. Both professions treat individuals that need help in adjusting to family, social, work, or school environments. OT and ABA support improved abilities to learn, communicate, and function independently.

Professionally, both fields involve the study of psychology, human communications, and require training in cultural diversity. Both fields use direct professional to client treatment modalities and must have extensive training in professional ethics. 

Education Requirements for Both Fields

Child Development, Ethics, and Cultural Diversity are common areas for ABA and Occupational Therapy. Both fields use principles of psychology, and each relies upon specific individual assessments of deficits to develop targeted approaches for treatment. The BCBA curriculum includes course work needed for the Board-Certified Behavioral Analyst exam.

  • Professional Ethics for Research
  • Ethics for Professional Practice
  • Child Development
  • Assessment and Intervention (Academic)
  • Functional Behavioral Assessment or FBA is a cornerstone ABA
  • Behavioral Assessment

In education and training, the ABA vs. Occupational Therapy comparison has common areas and sharp divides. Cultural diversity and language diversity are among the vital common areas. Both disciplines use planned interventions and rely upon insightful individual assessments.


Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) a research-based body of knowledge that supports highly effective analysis and treatments for children with autism spectrum disorder. The comprehensive field of study and practice has endorsements from state and local agencies, the US government agencies, and the US Surgeon General. ABA has demonstrated its effectiveness in delivering measurable changes in behaviors among patients with autism and developmental disabilities.

The debate of ABA vs. Occupational Therapy is secondary to the reality that across the autism disorder spectrum children will have needs that must be addressed by applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy, and other modalities. ABA treatment and therapeutic interventions can frequently involve other disciplines.

Over the past decades, the use of ABA has grown dramatically. Its applications include autism spectrum disorder and other developmental, behavioral, and learning difficulties. ABA has helped patients manage behavioral issues, and developmental challenges in all age ranges. ABA has helped children and other patients develop deficit areas and enable pursuit of productive, contributions to society.