A smiling child amongst a colorful mural

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that can be potentially beneficial to children with Autism. It focuses on improving behaviors like social skills, communications, reading, adaptive learning skills, and fine motor skills. ABA can be applied in a variety of settings, including in the home, school, and clinics. When used as therapy for children with autism, it can help them learn how to minimize negative behaviors and maintain positive behaviors.

According to Autism Speaks, ABA can also help approve focus, attention, social skills, memory, and academics. This form of therapy for autism has been in practice since the 1960s.

ABA is also an evidence-based best practice treatment and has passed scientific tests of its effectiveness.

How Does It Work?

ABA therapy plans can be customized to meet the specific needs of each child. It may be conducted in a group setting, or one-on-one, depending on what works best for each individual. 

One of the techniques that is often used, according to Autism Speaks, is positive reinforcement. The theory behind positive reinforcement is that when a reward is offered after a person exhibits a certain behavior, they are more likely to perform that same behavior again. The ABA therapist will identify a particular goal for each child and will offer a reward that is specifically of interest to them, which will vary from child to child.

As the site AppliedBehaviorAnalysisEdu.org explains, Dr. Montrose Wolf was one of the founders of ABA, and he developed the technique while working with a 3-year-old child with autism. He is the person behind the “time out” method of disciplining children. He discovered that the child would receive a lot of attention after having tantrums, so he put the child in time out so as to respond to the behavior while depriving the child of that attention.

Dr. Wolf based his technique on the theory of operant conditioning, which is based on three distinct steps: antecedent, behavior, consequence.

The antecedent is whatever happens to lead to the behavior. The resulting behavior is the child’s response or lack of response to the antecedent, and the consequence is whatever action comes immediately after the behavior, which may include positive reinforcement.

By examining these three steps, an ABA therapist can identify why behaviors are happening and make modifications to prevent them from happening again.

ABA therapists will typically begin therapy by observing the child in his or her natural environment to determine which behaviors need to be reinforced or corrected. Targeted skills may include communication and language, motor skills, play, self-care, academic and learning skills, and social skills. After that, a behavior intervention plan can be created and implemented.

You can hear more about ABA in this video:

How Can I Find an ABA therapist?

ABA therapists must have a master’s degree or PhD in psychology or behavior analysis. They are also required to seek a license in some states, as well as pass a national certification exam.

You can first speak to your pediatrician about recommended ABA therapists, and it’s also important to check with your insurance company, as some providers will cover ABA.

Autism Speaks provides a resource directory of ABA providers on their website. You can also check to see if a therapist is licensed through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board

Additional Resources:

ATN/AIR-P Parent's Guide to Applied Behavior Analysis

ATN/AIR-P An Introduction to Behavioral Health Treatments

Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)

Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)