Comparing CBT vs ABA Therapy: An In-depth Look

By Jared Levenson - Reviewed on July 11, 2023
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When it comes to mental health treatment, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Two popular methodologies that have gained traction in recent years are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

The Online Mental Health Reviews team brings a wealth of professional experience in mental health, having worked as licensed counselors, behavioral interventionists for autism, and in residential mental health facilities. Our deep understanding of various therapeutic techniques, including CBT and ABA, and our commitment to providing reliable reviews makes us highly qualified to write about these topics.

Let’s delve into each therapy, their benefits, differences, and who they’re best suited for.

What is CBT?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a type of psychotherapy that aims to change negative thought patterns that lead to harmful behaviors or distressing feelings. It’s based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected, and modifying our thoughts can help us better manage our emotions and actions.

What is ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, on the other hand, is a therapy based on the science of learning and behavior. Cognitive behavior therapy focuses on improving specific behaviors, such as social skills, communication, and reading. ABA is often used in treating individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Key Differences Between CBT vs ABA

While both therapies aim to improve a person’s quality of life, their approach, methodologies, and goals differ.

Approach: CBT focuses on changing an individual’s thought patterns to positively influence their behavior, while ABA emphasizes altering the environment to modify behavior.

Methodologies: CBT is typically a short-term therapy involving one-on-one sessions between the therapist and the client. In contrast, ABA often involves longer-term treatment plans and can include family and caregivers in the therapy sessions.

Goals: While CBT is commonly used to treat mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, ABA is widely used in helping individuals, particularly children, with autism spectrum disorders, to improve specific behaviors.

Pros and Cons

Like any therapeutic approach, CBT and ABA have advantages and drawbacks.


  • Pros: Can be effective in a relatively short period, teaches coping strategies that can be used long-term, and can be delivered in various formats (group, individual, online).
  • Cons: Requires active participation and commitment, may be challenging for individuals with severe mental health issues or cognitive impairment.


  • Pros: Offers measurable goals, can improve a wide range of skills, and is often covered by insurance.
  • Cons: Can be time-intensive, might not address underlying emotional issues, and its effectiveness can depend on the therapist’s skill level.
Is ABA Therapy Harmful? Autistic BCBA Speaks About ABA Controversy

Who Would Benefit Most?

CBT can be highly beneficial for individuals struggling with mental health issues such as mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Conversely, ABA is particularly effective for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, helping them learn new skills and reduce behaviors that can interfere with learning or functioning.

Differences for Practitioners: Contrasting ABA Vs CBT Methodologies

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are therapeutic methodologies that focus on different aspects and use different techniques.

  • ABA primarily focuses on observable behaviors. Behavior therapy is commonly used for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and it involves breaking down skills into small components, teaching each component individually, and using reinforcement strategies to encourage desired behaviors.
  • On the other hand, CBT focuses on the interplay between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s used for various mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. CBT involves identifying and challenging negative emotions and thought patterns, teaching coping strategies, and gradually exposing individuals to feared situations.

Regarding training, ABA practitioners often come from psychology or educational backgrounds and need specific certification in ABA. CBT practitioners typically have mental health backgrounds like psychology or counseling and require training in CBT techniques.

Generally speaking, the educational requirements to be a therapist are more extensive than what it takes to become an ABA practitioner.

Choosing the Right Therapy

CBT and ABA will depend on the individual’s needs, goals, and specific issues. It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional or mental health expert to determine the most suitable therapy.

While ABA is usually in person, there are free CBT resources online.

How to Use Zocdoc to Find CBT And/Or ABA Therapy Near You Quickly

Zocdoc is a user-friendly online platform allowing you to find and book appointments with mental health professionals specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy.

Our team used Zocdoc and documented our experience in this Zocdoc review. We were able to book an appointment for our annual physical quickly!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Visit the Zocdoc website or download the mobile app.
  2. In the search bar, type “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” or “Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy” based on your needs.
  3. Include your location to find therapists near you.
  4. Use the filters to refine your search further. You can filter by insurance, availability, gender of the practitioner, and more.
  5. Browse through the list of practitioners. You can read about their qualifications, areas of specialization, and even reviews from other patients.
  6. Once you’ve found a therapist you’d like to see, you can book an appointment directly through the platform. Available time slots are shown in realtime, so you can choose a date and time that suits you.

So, if you’re considering therapy, Zocdoc makes it easy to find a qualified professional and book an appointment instantly.

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that has become a key component of modern mental health treatment. It’s based on the premise that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are intrinsically linked and that changing negative thought patterns can help us better manage our emotions and actions.

CBT was developed in the 1960s by psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, who noticed that his patients had internal dialogues that influenced their feelings and behavior. This observation laid the groundwork for CBT, which focuses on identifying and restructuring these thought patterns.

Here’s a brief overview of how CBT works:

  1. Identify Negative Thoughts: The first step in CBT is recognizing the negative or distorted thoughts causing emotional distress or unhealthy behavior. For this step, evidence-based journaling is often recommended.
  2. Challenge Negative Thoughts: Once these thoughts are identified, the therapist will work with you to challenge and change these unhelpful thought patterns.
  3. Develop Coping Strategies: Finally, CBT involves learning new skills and strategies to cope with negative thoughts and feelings, leading to healthier behaviors.

CBT has been proven effective in treating various conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders. Its effectiveness is backed by numerous studies, such as this meta-analysis published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

However, like any therapy, CBT is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires active participation from the patient and may not be suitable for individuals with severe mental health issues or cognitive impairment. As always, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the best treatment approach for your unique needs.

CBT Therapy: Core Principles and Approaches

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that addresses the interconnection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s based on the principle that negative thought patterns can lead to harmful behaviors or emotional distress, and altering these thoughts can help manage emotions and actions better.

Here are the core principles and approaches of CBT:

  1. Psychological Problems Are Based, In Part, On Faulty Ways of Thinking: CBT holds that certain mental health issues arise from distorted or irrational thinking patterns. This study details how cognitive distortions can contribute to psychological problems.
  2. Psychological Problems Are Based, In Part, On Learned Patterns of Unhelpful Behavior: According to CBT, our behaviors are learned and can be unlearned. This source explains how CBT helps individuals learn more adaptive ways of dealing with stressors.
  3. People Can Learn Better Ways of Coping With Their Problems, Leading to Relief of Symptoms and Improved Quality of Life: CBT teaches individuals new skills to manage their symptoms and improve their overall well-being. This article provides an overview of how CBT can help individuals cope with various psychological problems.

CBT typically involves a structured, short-term approach focusing on the here and now. The therapy sessions involve identifying and challenging negative thought patterns, learning and practicing new skills, and applying these skills in real-life situations.

While CBT has been proven effective for many mental health problems and issues, it may not be suitable for everyone. It requires active participation and engagement from the individual, and its effectiveness can depend on the relationship between the therapist and the patient. Always consult a healthcare professional to determine the most suitable therapy.

Cognitive Restructuring in CBT

Cognitive restructuring is a fundamental technique in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It’s based on how we think about situations and affects our feelings and behavior. If our thoughts are negative or irrational, they can lead to problematic feelings and behaviors. Cognitive restructuring aims to identify, challenge, and change these unhelpful thought patterns.

Here’s a simplified outline of how cognitive restructuring works:

  1. Identify Negative Thoughts: The first step involves recognizing the negative or distorted thoughts causing emotional distress or unhealthy behavior.
  2. Examine the Evidence: Once these thoughts are identified, you’re encouraged to examine the evidence supporting and contradicting these thoughts. This step helps to gain a more objective perspective.
  3. Challenge Negative Thoughts: You’re then guided to challenge these thoughts by considering different interpretations or viewpoints.
  4. Replace Negative Thoughts: The goal is to replace negative thoughts with more balanced and realistic ones, leading to healthier emotions and behaviors.

Research, such as this study, has shown cognitive restructuring to be effective in treating various conditions, including depression and other anxiety disorders. However, it requires active participation and may not be suitable for everyone. Consult with a healthcare professional to determine if this approach could benefit you.

Relaxation Techniques in CBT

Relaxation techniques are a key component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and can help manage stress, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health conditions. These techniques aim to reduce physical tension and interrupt the cycle of stress and anxiety.

Common relaxation techniques in CBT include:

  1. Deep Breathing: Taking slow, deep breaths to calm the mind and body.
  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): PMR involves tensing and releasing different muscle groups to promote physical relaxation.
  3. Guided Imagery: This technique visualizes calming scenes or experiences to promote relaxation.
  4. Mindfulness Meditation: This practice encourages focusing on the present moment without judgment, which can help reduce stress and anxiety.

These techniques are supported by research, such as this study, showing their effectiveness in managing stress and improving mental health. However, they may not be suitable for everyone, and it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized advice.

Behavioral Experiments in CBT

Behavioral experiments are a key technique in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to test and challenge unhelpful beliefs. They involve designing and conducting an experiment in real life to test the validity of negative thoughts.

Here’s a simplified process:

  1. Identify Negative Beliefs: The first step is identifying the negative or distorted belief you want to challenge.
  2. Design an Experiment: Next, an experiment is planned to test this belief. This could involve doing something you usually avoid due to fear or anxiety.
  3. Conduct the Experiment: The experiment is then carried out in a controlled and safe manner.
  4. Review the Results: Finally, the results are reviewed to see if the negative belief holds true or if there’s evidence to the contrary.

Benefits of CBT for Children with Autism

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can offer several benefits for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It’s a flexible, individualized approach that can be tailored to a child’s unique needs and abilities.

Here are some key benefits:

  1. Improved Emotional Regulation: CBT can help children with ASD better understand and manage their emotions.
  2. Enhanced Social Skills: Children can learn and practice social skills through role-playing and other CBT techniques.
  3. Reduced Anxiety: CBT effectively reduces anxiety, which is common among children with ASD.
  4. Better Coping Strategies: Children can learn healthier ways to cope with stress and change, improving their adaptability.

However, it’s important to note that success depends on factors like the child’s cognitive abilities and the therapist’s expertise in working with ASD. Always consult a healthcare professional to determine the best therapeutic approach.

What Does a CBT Session for Autism Look Like?

A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) session for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is tailored to their unique needs and abilities. It often includes elements like:

  1. Building Rapport: The therapist ensures the child feels comfortable and understood.
  2. Goal Setting: The therapist and child (and often parents) collaboratively set therapy goals, such as improving social skills or managing emotions.
  3. Skill Teaching and Practice: The therapist teaches new skills (like emotional regulation techniques) and provides opportunities for practice.
  4. Behavioral Experiments: The child may be guided to try new behaviors or responses to challenge negative beliefs or fears.
  5. Homework Assignments: Between sessions, the child might have tasks to practice new skills in real-life situations.
  6. Review and Feedback: Progress is regularly reviewed, and feedback is given to adapt the therapy as needed.

Challenges CBT Therapists Face When Treating Autistic Children

Treating children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can pose unique behavioral challenges too.

  1. Communication Difficulties: Children with ASD may have trouble verbalizing thoughts and emotions, which are key to CBT.
  2. Sensory Sensitivities: Sensory issues common in ASD can make the therapy setting uncomfortable for the child.
  3. Resistance to Change: Children with ASD often prefer routines and may resist new behaviors or perspectives encouraged in CBT.
  4. Varied Cognitive Abilities: The cognitive demands of CBT may be challenging for some children with ASD, requiring significant adaptation of standard techniques.
  5. Co-occurring Conditions: Many children with ASD have co-occurring conditions like ADHD or anxiety, which can complicate treatment.

Success with exposure therapy is more likely when therapists have specialized training in both CBT and ASD and therapy is personalized to the child’s needs.

ABA: An Overview

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a therapy based on the principles of learning and behavior. It’s commonly used to help individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) improve specific behaviors, such as life skills, such as social skills, communication, and academics, and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.

Here’s a simplified process of ABA:

  1. Assessment: The therapist observes the individual’s behavior in various settings to understand the problem.
  2. Goal Setting: Based on the assessment, the therapist sets specific, measurable goals for behavior change.
  3. Intervention: The therapist uses techniques to teach new skills and reduce problematic behaviors. This often involves positive reinforcement.
  4. Evaluation: The effectiveness of the intervention is regularly assessed, and plans are adjusted as necessary.

Techniques and Strategies: Examining the Tools Used in ABA

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) uses specific techniques and strategies to encourage positive behaviors and decrease harmful ones. Here are some key tools used in ABA:

  1. Discrete Trial Training (DTT) involves breaking down skills into small, teachable components. Each ‘trial’ consists of a prompt, the individual’s response, and a consequence like reinforcement or correction.
  2. Incidental Teaching: This strategy uses opportunities to teach new skills or behaviors.
  3. Pivotal Response Training (PRT): PRT focuses on improving ‘pivotal’ areas such as motivation and self-management, which can lead to improvements in other areas.
  4. Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI): VBI focuses on teaching verbal skills.
  5. Positive Reinforcement: This involves providing a reward immediately after a desirable behavior, encouraging repetition.

Each technique has strengths based on the individual’s needs, learning environment, and the specific behavior being addressed.

ABA Vs CBT Therapy Based on Diagnosis

Choosing between Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) often depends on the individual’s diagnosis and specific needs.

ABA is a commonly used cognitive behavioral therapy for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It focuses on improving specific behaviors like social skills, communication, and academics and reducing harmful or disruptive behaviors.

On the other hand, CBT is a broad therapy used for a range of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and OCD. It identifies and changes negative thought patterns and develops coping skills and strategies.

For example, a child with ASD struggling with social skills might benefit more from ABA. Conversely, an individual with anxiety might find CBT more effective.

However, it’s not always a clear-cut choice; sometimes, both therapies can be used together. For instance, CBT may be adapted for individuals with high-functioning ASD to address anxiety or depression.

Effectiveness and Outcomes: Comparing the Efficacy of ABA and CBT

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have demonstrated effectiveness in different contexts.

ABA has been shown to improve social skills, communication, and certain academic abilities in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Its focus on observable behaviors and reinforcement strategies can lead to significant behavior change. However, it’s essential to tailor ABA to the individual’s needs for optimal outcomes.

On the other hand, CBT, cognitive behavior therapy, is widely used for various mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. It has been effective in changing negative thought patterns and developing coping mechanisms. CBT is often praised for its flexibility and adaptability to different conditions and individuals.

However, comparing the efficacy of ABA and CBT can be challenging as they serve different purposes and cater to different needs.

The choice between them should be based on the individual’s diagnosis, needs, and personal preference.

CBT vs ABA Conclusion

Remember, therapy is a personal journey, and what works for one person may not work for another. The key is to find an approach that resonates with you and aligns with your unique needs and goals.

If you have any questions about online CBT solutions, feel free to leave a comment below. Your mental health is important, and we’re here to help guide you through your journey. Also, if there’s a particular mental health platform, app, or course you’d like our team at Online Mental Health Reviews to explore next, let us know — your suggestion could be our next review!

If You Are In Crisis

In an emergency, you must get immediate help and not wait for an online therapy session. If you’re in imminent danger or plan to harm yourself or others, dial 911 immediately.

Should you grapple with suicidal thoughts, you can contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by simply dialing 988. This service is available around the clock to assist.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a National Helpline for those struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. You can reach them at 800-662-HELP (4357) anytime, any day of the year. This free, confidential service provides information about treatment options and aids people in finding suitable treatment.

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