What Is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) And How Does It Work?

If your child has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), there is a good chance that you will be considering – or evaluating – Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA. This is the first of three question and answer sessions with Lauren – who was featured here last December – who offers us the combined perspective of  a mother of a child with ASD and a professional who works with children with ASD. 

What is ABA?

Applied Behavioral Analysis can be described as the science of applying principles of behaviorism – which focuses on reinforcement of behavior – to make meaningful changes in an individual’s life.  The basic premise is that reinforcement can be used to shape behaviors that are desired. All ABA methods also require that data will be collected to determine that the intervention was responsible for the change in behavior, that the results were significant, and that the skills generalized across contexts.

How does it work?

If you get a positive reaction after you do a behavior, you will most likely repeat the behavior.  For example, if you walk in to work and a coworker compliments your shirt, most likely you will wear the shirt again. Wearing the shirt again or not again is based in part on the reaction of someone else.  That’s a change in behavior based on reinforcement. In the ABA model, behavioral reinforcers are given to reward a desired behavior (e.g., making eye contact). Reinforcers are positive (think of them as rewards) – the focus is on eliciting and shaping desired behaviors in a step-by-step and systematic way. A number of reinforcers can be used. Negative reinforcement is not used –  behaviors that are not considered desirable simply do not get reinforced.

People are typically most familiar with discrete trial teachings – which are trials that are repeated with a specific beginning, middle, and end (or antecedent, behavior, consequence).  A very small amount of information is given and the student will be reinforced immediately after the behavior building upon mastered concepts. However, there are many other wonderful variations that use ABA principles to change behavior, including: writing social stories, positive behavior supports, errorless teaching, shaping, prompt fading, visual schedules, transitional countdowns, differential reinforcements, modeling appropriate behavior, and task analysis.   For example, The Berenstain Bears books are perfect examples of social stories, which is an approach used in ABA.  They discuss an inappropriate behavior in the beginning and how to replace with an appropriate behavior successfully.

All of the above ABA techniques can be used to change a behavior of a child to improve their life. That’s where ABA is very different from what most people think – as they may assume it is only discrete trials, but it’s not.  A true ABA therapist knows how to utilize all the different methods and does not only use discrete trials. This process is guided of course by the child’s age and cognitive level of functioning. But no matter what the mix, all of the variations use the principles of ABA to help kids with ASD continually develop new skills.

Symbol of autism awareness via Shutterstock.com

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  1. by Michelle Turan

    On April 29, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    Great to see an article on ABA in a parenting magazine. ABA is the science behind learning and we can use these principles to understand all children’s behaviour, not just children with autism. ABA makes for great parenting practices!! “Catch them being good”! is an example of ABA made simple.