Applied Behavioral Analysis

by Lindsay Chapman, BCBA

category: Category: Autism

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the science of learned behavior and the study of behavior patterns. The principles of Applied Behavior Analysis include theories such as operant conditioning, reinforcement, and the manipulation of variables to create behavior change. ABA therapy applies the principles of the experimental analysis of behavior in a clinical or natural environment to improve socially significant behavior to a meaningful degree.

Treatment procedures include breaking difficult tasks down into small, easy to learn steps while focusing on a child’s interests and individual motivations to create a reinforcing environment in which learning is fun instead of scary and discouraging.

ABA therapy is the only treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder that is backed by over 40 years of research affirming its effectiveness and providing evidence of substantial, lasting improvements in the lives of individuals with autism. Treatment plans are developed using scientific, research-based assessments. Goals and targets are then developed and tracked with data and graphs to determine whether an intervention is successful and if the child is making significant progress.

Research Evidence:

Studies have shown that some children with autism who participated in intensive ABA programs showed significant improvements in language, cognitive abilities, adaptive behavior, and social skills. There is a sufficient amount of research that supports children receiving intensive therapy for between 35 -40 hours a week for a minimum of two years will lead to a much more socially significant level of progress than control groups that only received minimal services or support in public school special education classrooms. The test group included a significant amount of children who were able to be mainstreamed and perform in school with minimal supports or no assistance by year three as compared to only one child in the control groups (Lovaas,O. 1987; Cohen, Amerine-Dickens, & Smith, 2006). In 1999, The New York State Department of Health provided research to make Clinical recommendations for the treatment of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders in children ages 0 to 3 years old. The study concluded that children at this age should receive a minimum of 20 hours a week of intensive behavioral programming using applied behavior analysis (New York State Department of Health Early Intervention Program, 1999). In 2009, The National Autism Center(NAC), which is the May Institutes center for promotion of evidence based practices, released their first comprehensive report of various interventions and therapies that have been used to treat Autism Spectrum Disorders. The 2009 report concluded that in all therapies that have been used between 1957 and the fall of 2007, only 11 of them produced beneficial outcomes and were effective in treating Autism Spectrum Disorders. Nearly all of the 11 established treatments were based upon the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. NAC recently released their second report in 2015 and you can find the results here: In summary, there is an overwhelming amount of research to support that Applied Behavior Analysis is the most effective and evidence based treatment for autism spectrum disorders.  There is also a sufficient amount of research to support the need for a minimum of 20 hours a week of intensive therapy using the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis to both reduce problem behaviors and teach new skills to children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

What to expect from ABA Therapy:

  • It is intensive. (Analytic). ABA Therapy is designed to be an intensive and systematically focused therapy that targets specific skills in each session, providing hundreds of opportunities for learning and practice until the skill is completely mastered both in isolation and the natural environment. Therapy often requires a minimum of 10 hours a week, with some children receiving up to 40 hours of ABA therapy a week. The intensity and amount of treatment is dependent upon the specific needs of the client and his or her family.
  • Simplifies learning. (Technological). ABA therapy breaks targeted skills down into simple, easy to learn steps that increase the probability that a child will be successful in learning. This decreases the level of frustration that both a child and the teacher may experience when teaching/learning a difficult task. When the child is successful at the simplest level of the task, he/she is heavily reinforced and feels that learning is rewarding. This builds confidence in the child and creates a positive learning environment. The child does not begin learning the next step of a task, until the first step is mastered. Therefore, learning can be accommodated to the rate and understanding of the student.
  • Centers around reinforcement and child’s interests. (Conceptual Systems).  ABA Therapy is designed around the principles of reinforcement. Therapists will assess a child’s strengths and interests and build a program around them. This also creates a learning environment that is positive and rewarding, making difficult tasks less intimidating. Therapists will manipulate the environment and activities to create a setting that encourages the child to want to learn and complete tasks. For example, if a child loves Spongebob, target skills such as handwriting or conversating with complete sentences may be centered around a Spongebob theme. Parents are actively involved in choosing the reinforcers that are just right for their child. When a child first learns something new, the therapist provides rewards, praise, and encouragement simply for trying. This motivates the child and makes learning fun.
  • Scientific and data driven. (Behavioral). ABA Therapy differs from other forms of therapy because the Board Certified Behavior Analyst writes programming and determines target skills based from an assessment such as the ABLLS-R, VB-MAPP, AFLS, or other research-based assessments. Once target skills are chosen, programs are written, and data is collected in each session to determine if the intervention and teaching strategy is working and successful. If a child is not making progress, the intervention or teaching protocol is adjusted accordingly. This prevents children from plateauing or becoming stagnant in therapy sessions. This also increases the rate of acquisition of new skills and mastered skills, because the child is always learning and making progress.
  • Comprehensive. (Effective). ABA therapy is designed to be comprehensive and can address skill acquisition programming as well as reduce problem behaviors. Targeted skills for acquisition include a wide range of core skills such as language and communication, classroom readiness skills, social skills, visual-perceptual skills, listening, imitation, play skills, independent work skills, academic skills, self-help and hygiene skills, organizational skills, safety and community skills, conversation skills, motor skills, pre-vocational skills, independence in living skills, etc. Behavior reduction programs will target behaviors where they are occurring (at home, school, or in the community) and will create an intervention that not only reduces the problem behavior, but teaches appropriate replacement behaviors. Other issues that some ABA programs provide therapy for include feeding/eating issues, toilet training, parent training, and school shadowing.
    Completely Individualized. (Applied). ABA Therapy is completely individualized to the child and his/her family. Goals and targeted skills are developed by the Board Certified Behavior Analyst with the assistance of the family and caregivers. Data is collected in each session to ensure that the programming is successful for the client and addresses the goals and objectives determined by the family. Adjustments to programming and interventions are made according to the data and the needs of each individual child.

Extends skills to the real world. (Generality). Typically, skills are taught in isolation during DTT and then probed in a more naturalistic setting. This is referred to as “Generalization” and it is often the last step to determine whether or not the skill has truly been mastered. Generalization is programmed for throughout therapy sessions by integrating various materials, working with multiple people, and practicing the skill in various settings and environments. It is also important that parents are trained to work on the same targeted skills throughout the day at home.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis, 2 nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall. Martin, G. & Pear, J.

Cohen, Amerine- Dickens, & Smith (2006). Early Intensive Behavioral Treatment: Replication of the UCLA Model in a Community Setting, Journal of Developmental Pediatrics, 27(2), 145-155.

(Myers, S., 2007). Management of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, American Academy of Pediatrics.

Practice Parameters for the Assessment and Treatment of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Autism and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1999, p.37.

National Autism Center (2009). National Standards Report.

Lovaas, O.(1987). Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55(1), 3-9.

Maglione, M., Nonmedical Interventions for Children with ASD: Recommended Guidelines and Further Research Needs, Pediatrics, 130.

McEachin, J., Long-term Outcome for Children with Autism Who Receive Early Intensive Behavioral Treatment, American Journal on Mental Retardation, 97(4), 359-372.