What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

The possibilities of treatment are extremely overwhelming to parents who have just been told that their child is diagnosed with an ASD. Early intervention, ABA, speech, OT, PT, and countless other programs exist to aid in the treatment of this rapidly growing disorder, which affects an individuals ability to communicate, socialize, and try new things. The magnitude of treatment options that all seem to conflict and state that "this therapy will help!" can be extremely challenging. In order to make a good decision, a good first step is to determine which treatments show scientific evidence of being effective. Documents such as the "National Standards Report" by the National Autism Center (2009) is helpful to classify established, emerging, unestablished and harmful treatments for autism. 

 Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is a science that uses the principles of learning theory to produce meaningful and positive changes in human behavior. ABA is widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for any individual, in fact, you use the principles of ABA without even realizing it! When applied properly, these principles can be used to change the way people learn and behave. Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA's) use the principles of ABA to design individualized behavior intervention plans and programs to teach alternative behaviors to those currently in your child's repertoire, for behaviors that are considered "socially significant".  Read on to learn more about ABA and why it is so awesome!

Defining Characteristics

ABA is a relatively new field, though B.F. Skinner first published books about what we know as behaviorism and operant behavior in 1938.  However, it was not until the year 1968 that contemporary applied behavior analysis began, which is when the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis was started and an article titled "Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis" was written by three brilliant men- Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf, and Todd Risley. This article remains the standard description of ABA, and the authors describe and define seven characteristics of ABA from which practitioners have built our foundation (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968). 

  • ​​Applied: Applied means socially significant to each individual, and is defined as our commitment to affecting improvements in behaviors that enhance and improve the lives of our clients. 
  • Behavioral: This seems obvious, but it is important to realize that we are concerned with measuring observable behavior. For example, we may ask for a list of things your child likes, but we may not rely on only that information. We will present objects and see which one they reach or ask for to determine their preference. Behavior must be observable in order to be measurable. Another example; we would not take data on "how happy Joe seemed today", rather, Joe smiled 17 times during our session. 
  • Analytic: Analytic means that we are able to demonstrate a relation between what we changed and how the behavior changed. Using our data, we demonstrate that our interventions were responsible for the changes we see in behavior. 
  • Technological: We write our programs and procedures out so they can be replicated by other professionals.  When reviewing the literature on ABA, we should be able to do exactly what the researchers did in the study in attempts to obtain the same results. 
  • Conceptually Systematic: This means that we always refer back to the basic principles of behavior- many interventions are designed as derivatives and/or combinations of a few basic principles such as positive or negative reinforcement, stimulus control, and extinction (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). 
  • Generality: The change in behavior should last over time, in different environments, and/or spreads to other behaviors not directly treated by the intervention (Cooper, et al., 2007)
  • ​Effective: The change in behavior must be effective on a socially important and meaningful level for our clients. 

Why would this work for me and my family?

The beauty of applied behavior analysis is that we thoroughly understand how behavior works and how individuals learn- through operant conditioning: the antecedents, behavior, and consequences. CORE ABA is able to look at the behavior in the natural environment, and assess the contingencies that are currently in place by conducting a descriptive assessment. Then, we change those contingencies by adjusting the antecedents and consequences, and by teaching new behaviors to take the place of the old. It is a truly a beautiful science to see work, and it works for everyone. It may take a lot of time and effort, but we strive to make changes in the desired direction. 

FAQ about ABA

  • Why are you always talking about things like reinforcement, punishment, and stimulus control? Please excuse our nerdy behavior. When you start to really learn about ABA and realize that the principles literally apply to all human behavior, we talk about it non-stop! Some thing are hard to break down into their components, and we analyze them thoroughly using the terminology. We apologize for using so much of our jargon, if you ever have questions about what we're talking about, PLEASE ask!! 
  • How much ABA does my child need? Great question, though the answer is unknown. Each child is an individual with different skills and needs, and each family has their own schedule to maintain.  However, research supports a minimum of 25 hours a week of intensive behavioral intervention for children diagnosed with autism for 12 months a year. The infamous Lovaas study (1987) showed that approximately half the children were able to achieve typical development with 40 hours a week of intense intervention. 
  • Why are you asking me to change my behavior? He/she is the one who needs to change! It is absolutely true that we expect parents to participate in our therapy and begin applying the same interventions we use. Remember when I mentioned above that to change the behavior, we often have to change the antecedents and consequences? Often times, parents, siblings, and friends are the ones delivering those antecedents or consequences. Parents play a critical role in therapy; parents are the most important people in these children's lives! You know your child better than anyone and will be in their lives forever. In order to generalize the gains they make, we may ask you to try some things differently. 
  • What are these different models I hear about- Verbal Behavior approach? PRT? Discrete trial? What's the difference? ​All of these programs are based in ABA literature and principles, and they are all comparable and interchangeable. Some BCBA's have specific training in different models, which is wonderful! Their teaching style has been shaped by their learning experience! However, each individual program is designed specifically to each type of learner, so some strategies may be used with one child that are not used with others. All ABA programs do share some similar components: discrete trial, natural environment training, prompting and reinforcement. 
  • Is this the same kind of thing people use to train animals? Will my child be sitting doing flashcards all day and become a robot? These are very common misconceptions about ABA programs.  First, ABA focuses on operant behaviors that are learned through the three-term contingency, which means that everyone (animals included) learn in very similar ways.  Using this contingency, we present clear instructions, or sds, prompt the response, and provide reinforcement for the response we're looking for. If a goal of our program is to have a child learn to sit in a chair, we will give the sd, "sit down", show the child how to sit, and praise them for doing so. We practice this over and over until the new response is learned. Through this, we use natural language, reinforcers, and are targeting a functional and socially significant skill when we're teaching this type of behavior. It may seem a little strange at first, but by breaking it down into smaller components, we can successfully teach these skills. Sometimes, we will use flashcards to make sure that the student can clearly see the target; or to serve as prompts for ourselves to ask questions; or to make sure we keep everything maintained over time! However, ABA has come a long way from sitting at the table and doing drills.  CORE ABA attempts to use the most naturalistic teaching strategies and natural reinforcers as possible to teach your child. We like to play and have fun, because when your child is motivated, they are more likely to learn!