autism puzzle

Is ABA therapy covered by insurance?

In today’s healthcare environment, the quality and availability of healthcare is often dictated by insurance. The treatment of individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is generally covered by insurance but the coverages vary greatly. All 50 states now have mandates that require some level of insurance coverage for the treatment of autism. This is great news since ABA therapy is critically important in treating children diagnosed with autism. It is best to speak directly with your medical insurance provider to determine the specifics of your family’s coverage (e.g., copays, coinsurance, deductibles, maximums) and to ensure that ABA therapy is covered by your insurance. LeafWing Center will work with you and your family to determine whether ABA therapy is covered by your insurance.

Is ABA therapy covered by my insurance?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that were formerly diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, and Asperger syndrome.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that an average of one in 68 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). More children than ever before are being classified as having autism spectrum disorders.

There is no cure for autism, but it is a treatable condition. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy is the most effective autism treatment and is typically covered by insurance. Since all states are now mandated to provide some coverage for autism treatment, children diagnosed with autism will benefit by having at least some insurance coverage for their treatment. It is important to understand the type and level of coverage offered by your provider. Regarding the state mandates, essentially each state determines which services are medically necessary. For people with autism, that means each state decides which services (including ABA therapy) are medically necessary and, therefore, covered. A service or supply is medically necessary to diagnose or treat an illness, injury, condition, disease or its symptoms when it meets accepted standards of medicine, as defined by each state.

autism puzzle

Insurance coverage and ABA therapy for the treatment of autism

There is often nothing about how an individual with ASD looks that distinguishes them from people without an ASD diagnosis. People with ASD, however, may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are drastically different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD require significant help in their daily lives; others need less.

Signs and Symptoms

People with ASD often have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors and might be resistant to change in their daily routine. Many people with ASD also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things. ABA therapy is used as a method of treatment to improve or change certain behaviors. Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s life.

Children or adults with ASD might:

  • not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an airplane flying over)
  • not look at objects when another person points at them
  • have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
  • avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • prefer not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to
  • appear to be unresponsive when people talk to them but respond to other sounds
  • be very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them
  • repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language
  • have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
  • not play “pretend” games (for example, not pretend to “feed” a doll)
  • repeat actions over and over again
  • have trouble adapting when a routine changes
  • have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
  • lose skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using

For children and families with private pay insurance, it is recommended you contact your insurance provider to learn more about the availability and extent of coverage.


ABA therapy for autism and insurance coverage details

When reviewing the coverage offered by your current provider, it is necessary to engage in a thoughtful analysis of the level of benefits and availability of coverage to fully understand your benefits. Here are some tips to help you put yourself in a better position to understand your benefits.

  1. Pick up the phone. Call your current provider to find out what are your individual and family out-of-pocket deductibles. You will also want to ask about your out-of-pocket maximums before 100% reimbursement begins. Understanding whether or not there are speciality visit limits or limits on diagnosis codes is also quite useful.
  2. Get the details on coverage of specific therapies. Most children with autism will need ABA therapy. Does the provider cover ABA therapy? If so, what are the deductibles? How much therapy is covered per year?
  3. Know your insurance codes and units. All insurance companies use the same codes for the same diagnoses and therapies, but there are different codes for different units of time spent on those therapies.
  4. See if your coverage can be supplemented. Once you have a solid understanding of what your health insurance will cover, research your state’s offerings. Some states require that insurance companies cover autism-related claims; others offer services through the Department of Mental Health and Retardation. By mixing and matching insurance and state-funded coverage, you may find that many of your child’s services are covered. The Children’s Health Insurance Program may also be able to provide publicly funded health coverage.

Child with light bulb thought

Selecting insurance to cover ABA therapy for autism

Parents often ask what is the best healthcare plan for their child with autism. Comparison shopping is always the best approach to ensuring you have the best coverage for your child, but that is not always an option. Getting a PPO plan from any insurance company is always the best option especially for out of network doctors and specialists. This definitely gives you an advantage over HMO’s or medicaid which are much more limited in their coverage.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the insurance industry is ever-evolving. By way of example, most insurance plans offer incentives for preventive healthcare, no longer put a lifetime cap on the amount of care they will cover, and will not cancel your coverage simply over a mistake in the paperwork. And, as of 2014, no one can be denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition.
Careful review of private health insurance policies is always advisable since some policies provide coverage if the child is a full time student or if the child is disabled and continues to receive support from the parent.

Lastly, the affordable care act mandates that parents be allowed to keep their dependent children on their plan until the child reaches age 26 or is employed at a job that offers employer-sponsored insurance. Be sure to ask the right questions of your insurance provider to learn about ABA therapy and autism coverage for your insurance plan.

LeafWing Center works with insurance providers who cover ABA therapy

LeafWing Center works with an ever-growing number of insurance provides who cover ABA therapy for the treatment of autism. Here are just a few of the providers with whom we work:

  • Aetna
  • Anthem Blue Cross of California
  • Beacon Health Options
  • Beacon Health Strategies
  • Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois
  • Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas
  • Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Washington
  • Blue Shield of California
  • Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plans
  • CalOptima Direct (Orange office only)
  • Comprehensive Care Corp./Advanzeon Solutions Incorporated
  • Comprehensive Behavioral Care Incorporated
  • LA Care Sherman Oaks only)
  • Magellan
  • MHN Managed Health Network Incorporated
  • Molina Healthcare of California
  • Health Plus aka Multiplan
  • Magna Care aka Multiplan
  • Managed Health Network Incorporated aka MHN
  • Meritain Health
  • Optum UBH
  • Optum Health Behavioral Solutions
  • Pacific Care Behavioral Health
  • SCS-UBH aka Optum/UBH
  • United Medical Resources
  • United Health Care
  • Windstone Behavioral Health

If your insurance provider is not on the list, we recommend you contact them directly to learn more about their coverage. Please contact LeafWing Center if you have any questions about whether or not your provider offers insurance coverage for ABA therapy to treat autism.

Frequently asked questions about ABA therapy

What is ABA Therapy used for?

ABA-based therapy can be used in a multitude of areas. Currently, these interventions are used primarily with individuals living with ASD; however, their applications can be used with individuals living with pervasive developmental disorders as well as other disorders. For ASD, it can be used in effectively teaching specific skills that may not be in a child’s repertoire of skills to help him/her function better in their environment whether that be at home, school, or out in the community.  In conjunction with skill acquisition programs, ABA-based interventions can also be used in addressing behavioral excesses (e.g., tantrum behaviors, aggressive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors). Lastly, it can also be utilized in parent/caregiver training.

In skill acquisition programs, a child’s repertoire of skills is assessed in the beginning phase of the services in key adaptive areas such as communication/language, self-help, social skills, and motor skills as well.  Once skills to be taught are identified, a goal for each skill is developed and then addressed/taught by using ABA-based techniques to teach those important skills. Ultimately, an ABA-based therapy will facilitate a degree of maintenance (i.e., the child can still perform the learned behaviors in the absence of training/intervention over time) and generalization (i.e., the learned behaviors are observed to occur in situations different from the instructional setting).  These two concepts are very important in any ABA-based intervention.

In behavior management, the challenging behaviors are assessed for their function in the beginning phase of the services. In this phase, the “why does this behavior happen in the first place?” is determined. Once known, an ABA-based therapy will be developed to not just decrease the occurrence of the behavior being addressed, but also teach the child a functionally-equivalent behavior that is socially-appropriate.  For example, if a child resorts to tantrum behaviors when she is told she cannot have a specific item, she may be taught to accept an alternative or find an alternative for herself. Of course, we can only do this up to a certain point—the offering of alternatives.  There comes a point when a ‘no’ means ‘no’ so the tantrum behavior will be left to run its course (i.e., to continue until it ceases).  This is never easy and will take some time for parents/caregivers to get used to, but research has shown that over time and consistent application of an ABA-based behavior management program, the challenging behavior will get better.

In parent training, individuals that provide care for a child may receive customized “curriculum” that best fit their situation.  A typical area covered in parent training is teaching responsible adults pertinent ABA-based concepts to help adults understand the rationale behind interventions that are being used in their child’s ABA-based services.  Another area covered in parent training is teaching adults specific skill acquisition programs and/or behavior management programs that they will implement during family time.  Other areas covered in parent training may be data collection, how to facilitate maintenance, how to facilitate generalization of learned skills to name a few.

There is no “one format” that will fit all children and their families’ needs. The ABA professionals you’re currently working with, with your participation,  will develop an ABA-based treatment package that will best fit your child’s and your family’s needs. For more information regarding this topic, we encourage you to speak with your BCBA or reach out to us at [email protected].

Who Can Benefit From ABA Therapy?

There is a common misconception that the principles of ABA are specific to Autism. This is not the case. The principles and methods of ABA are scientifically backed and can be applied to any individual. With that said, the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association consider ABA to be an evidence based practice. Forty years of extensive literature have documented ABA therapy as an effective and successful practice to reduce problem behavior and increase skills for individuals with intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Children, teenagers, and adults with ASD can benefit from ABA therapy. Especially when started early, ABA therapy can benefit individuals by targeting challenging behaviors, attention skills, play skills, communication, motor, social, and other skills. Individuals with other developmental challenges such as ADHD or intellectual disability can benefit from ABA therapy as well. While early intervention has been demonstrated to lead to more significant treatment outcomes, there is no specific age at which ABA therapy ceases to be helpful.

Additionally, parents and caregivers of individuals living with ASD can also benefit from the principles of ABA. Depending on the needs of your loved one, the use of specified ABA techniques in addition to 1:1 services, may help produce more desirable treatment outcomes. The term “caregiver training” is common in ABA services and refers to the individualized instruction that a BCBA or ABA Supervisor provides to parents and caregivers. This typically involves a combination of individualized ABA techniques and methods parents and caregivers can use outside of 1:1 sessions to facilitate ongoing progress in specified areas.

ABA therapy can help people living with ASD, intellectual disability, and other developmental challenges achieve their goals and live higher quality lives.

What does ABA Therapy look like?

Agencies that provide ABA-based services in the home-setting are more likely to implement ABA services similarly than doing the same exact protocols or procedures. Regardless, an ABA agency under the guidance of a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst follows the same research-based theories to guide treatment that all other acceptable ABA agencies use.

ABA-based services start with a functional behavior assessment (FBA). In a nutshell, a FBA assesses why the behaviors may be happening in the first place. From there, the FBA will also determine the best way to address the difficulties using tactics that have been proven effective over time with a focus on behavioral replacement versus simple elimination of a problem behavior. The FBA will also have recommendations for other relevant skills/behaviors to be taught and parent skills that can be taught in a parent training format to name a few. From there, the intensity of the ABA-based services is determined, again, based on the clinical needs of your child. The completed FBA is then submitted to the funding source for approval.

One-on-one sessions between a behavior technician and your child will start once services are approved. The duration per session and the frequency of these sessions per week/month will all depend on how many hours your child’s ABA services have been approved for—usually, this will be the number recommended in the FBA. The sessions are used to teach identified skills/behaviors via effective teaching procedures. Another aspect of ABA-based services in the home-setting is parent training. Parent training can take many forms depending on what goals have been established during the FBA process. The number of hours dedicated for parent training is also variable and solely depends on the clinical need for it. If a 1:1 session is between a behavior technician and your child, a parent training session or appointment is between you and the case supervisor and with and without your child present, depending on the parent goal(s) identified. Parent training service’s goal is for you to be able to have ample skills/knowledge in order for you to become more effective in addressing behavioral difficulties as they occur outside of scheduled ABA sessions. Depending on the goals established, you may be required to participate in your child’s 1:1 sessions. These participations are a good way for you to practice what you have learned from the case supervisor while at the same time, having the behavior technician available to you to give you feedback as you practice on those new skills.

As mentioned in the beginning, no two ABA agencies will do the same exact thing when it comes to providing ABA services; however, good agencies will always base their practice on the same empirically-proven procedures.

How do I start ABA Therapy?

In most cases, the first item required to start ABA therapy is the individual’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis report. This is typically conducted by a doctor such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a developmental pediatrician. Most ABA therapy agencies and insurance companies will ask for a copy of this diagnosis report during the intake process as it is required to request an ABA assessment authorization from the individual’s medical insurance provider.

The second item required to start ABA therapy is a funding source. In the United States, and in cases where Medi-Cal or Medicare insurances are involved, there is a legal requirement for ABA services to be covered when there is a medical necessity (ASD diagnosis). Medi-Cal and Medicare cover all medically necessary behavioral health treatment services for beneficiaries. This typically includes children diagnosed with ASD. Since Applied Behavior Analysis is an evidence based and effective treatment for individuals with ASD, it is considered a covered treatment when medically necessary. In many cases, private insurance will also cover ABA services when medically necessary, however in these cases, it is best to speak directly with your medical insurance provider to determine the specifics of the coverage and to ensure that ABA is in fact, a covered benefit. Additionally, some families opt to pay for ABA services out-of-pocket.

The next step to starting ABA therapy is to contact an ABA provider whom you are interested in working with. Depending on your geographic location, ABA agencies exist in many cities across the United States. Your insurance carrier, local support groups, and even a thorough online search can help you find reputable and properly credentialed ABA agencies near you. Our organization, LeafWing Center, is based in southern California and is recognized for aiding people with ASD achieve their goals with the research based on applied behavior analysis.

Once you have identified the ABA provider with whom you wish to work, they should help you facilitate the next steps. These will include facilitating paperwork and authorizations with your funding source. Once the assessment process begins, a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) or qualified Program Supervisor should get in contact with you to arrange times in which interviews with parents/caregivers and observations of your loved one can be conducted. This will help in the process of gathering important clinical information so that with your collaboration, the most effective treatment plans and goals can be established for your loved one. This process is referred to as the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and is elaborated on in different blog posts on our website. With regard as to what can be expected once ABA therapy begins, please read our blog post titled: When You Start an ABA program, What Should You Reasonably Expect from Your Service Provider?

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