What is ABA?
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a therapy based on the science of learning and behavior.
Behavior analysis helps us to understand:
- How behavior works
- How behavior is affected by the environment
- How learning takes place
ABA therapy applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.
ABA therapy programs can help:
- Increase language and communication skills
- Improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics
- Decrease problem behaviors
What Does an ABA Program Involve?
Good ABA programs for autism are not "one size fits all." ABA should not be viewed as a canned set of drills. Rather, each program is written to meet the needs of the individual learner.
The goal of any ABA program is to help each person work on skills that will help them become more independent and successful in the short term as well as in the future.
Planning and Ongoing Assessment
A qualified and trained behavior analyst (BCBA) designs and directly oversees the program. They customize the ABA program to each learner's skills, needs, interests, preferences and family situation.
The BCBA will start by doing a detailed assessment of each person’s skills and preferences. They will use this to write specific treatment goals. Family goals and preferences may be included, too.
Treatment goals are written based on the age and ability level of the person with ASD. Goals can include many different skill areas, such as:
- Communication and language
- Social skills
- Self-care (such as showering and toileting)
- Play and leisure
- Motor skills
- Learning and academic skills
The instruction plan breaks down each of these skills into small, concrete steps. The therapist teaches each step one by one, from simple (e.g. imitating single sounds) to more complex (e.g. carrying on a conversation).
The BCBA and therapists measure progress by collecting data in each therapy session. Data helps them to monitor the person’s progress toward goals on an ongoing basis.
The behavior analyst regularly meets with family members and program staff to review information about progress. They can then plan ahead and adjust teaching plans and goals as needed.
ABA Techniques and Philosophy
The instructor uses a variety of ABA procedures. Some are directed by the instructor and others are directed by the person with autism.
Parents, family members and caregivers receive training so they can support learning and skill practice throughout the day.
The person with autism will have many opportunities to learn and practice skills each day. This can happen in both planned and naturally occurring situations. For instance, someone learning to greet others by saying "hello" may get the chance to practice this skill in the classroom with their teacher (planned) and on the playground at recess (naturally occurring).
The learner receives an abundance of positive reinforcement for demonstrating useful skills and socially appropriate behaviors. The emphasis is on positive social interactions and enjoyable learning.
The learner receives no reinforcement for behaviors that pose harm or prevent learning.
ABA is effective for people of all ages. It can be used from early childhood through adulthood!
Who provides ABA services?
A board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) provides ABA therapy services. To become a BCBA, the following is needed:
- Earn a master’s degree or PhD in psychology or behavior analysis
- Pass a national certification exam
- Seek a state license to practice (in some states)
ABA therapy programs also involve therapists, or registered behavior technicians (RBTs). These therapists are trained and supervised by the BCBA. They work directly with children and adults with autism to practice skills and work toward the individual goals written by the BCBA. You may hear them referred to by a few different names: behavioral therapists, line therapists, behavior tech, etc.
To learn more, see the Behavior Analyst Certification Board website.
What is the evidence that ABA works?
ABA is considered an evidence-based best practice treatment by the US Surgeon General and by the American Psychological Association.
“Evidence based” means that ABA has passed scientific tests of its usefulness, quality, and effectiveness. ABA therapy includes many different techniques. All of these techniques focus on antecedents (what happens before a behavior occurs) and on consequences (what happens after the behavior).
More than 20 studies have established that intensive and long-term therapy using ABA principles improves outcomes for many but not all children with autism. “Intensive” and “long term” refer to programs that provide 25 to 40 hours a week of therapy for 1 to 3 years. These studies show gains in intellectual functioning, language development, daily living skills and social functioning. Studies with adults using ABA principles, though fewer in number, show similar benefits."
ABA therapy helps children on the autism spectrum by:
- Increasing their social abilities like completing tasks, communicating, and learning new skills
- Implementing maintenance behaviors like self-control and self-regulation
- Teaching them to transfer learned behaviors to new environments
- Modifying the learning environment to challenge them in certain scenarios
- Reducing negative behaviors like self-harm
Impact of Applied Behavior Analysis on Health
Applied behavior analysis helps children on the autism spectrum to adapt to social scenarios they may not understand.
Positive reinforcement. When a child in ABA therapy completes a task correctly or reaches a goal behavior, there is a reward. Studies show that when a person receives something of personal value following a behavior, they are more likely to repeat the behavior. Over time, applied behavior analysis helps to instill those desired behaviors in your child.
Behavior and consequence. Just as good behaviors are rewarded, negative behaviors are discouraged. Applied behavior analysis helps your child make the connection between what happens before and after a behavior.
For example, if the teacher asks your student to clean up toys, your child responds in one of two ways. If they begin cleaning up the toys, the behavior is rewarded (positive consequence). If they yell, throw a tantrum, or refuse, the behavior is met with a negative consequence.
Negative behaviors are often met by the teacher not responding to your child’s negative behavior. Until your child stops or indicates a willingness to cooperate with the command, there is no reward.
Over time, your child makes connections between what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. The goal of applied behavior analysis is for the desired behaviors to follow your child into the real world. With a better understanding of social dos and don’ts, your child is better prepared for social situations at school, at events, and with family.
When your child first begins ABA therapy, the practitioner sets benchmarks for behavior. They will talk to you about what you want out of therapy for your child and establish a treatment plan. Over time, as your child progresses or regresses, new goals are set.