What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy based on the scientific principles of behavior and learning. ABA is commonly known for its application with children with autism, though ABA can be applied to numerous settings and populations.
ABA uses research-supported principles such as reinforcement, shaping, and chaining to modify behavior and teach new skills. The primary goal of ABA is to improve behaviors that are beneficial to the individual and reduce behaviors that interfere with their quality of life.
The Principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA is derived from behaviorism, which is a theory of learning that states behaviors are learned and modified through interactions with one’s environment.
Some of the fundamental principles of ABA include
- Behavior is strengthened (reinforced) and weakened (punished) through consequences that occur directly after the behavior.
- Behaviors can be “extinguished” by withholding reinforcement for behaviors that were previously reinforced.
- All behavior occurs for a reason. There are four potential functions of behavior–escape/avoidance, attention/connection, access to tangibles, and automatic reinforcement (sensory).
- Behaviors targeted must be observable and measurable.
- Modifying environmental variables (antecedents and consequences) can increase or decrease the likelihood of target behaviors.
ABA encompasses a wide range of techniques and methods. Some ABA clinicians are trained and experienced in specific methodologies. Others are trained across multiple practices and individualize care based on the needs of their learner.
Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
Discrete-trial teaching (DTT) is a common teaching strategy used in ABA therapy sessions. DTT is a structured method for teaching new skills. In DTT, one skill is focused on at a time. Each skill is taught individually, with a discrete beginning and end for each learning opportunity. DTT consists of an instruction, followed by the response, immediately followed by a consequence of reinforcement or correction. DTT requires a considerable amount of repetition until targeted skills are mastered.
Incidental training is a method of providing instruction within a child’s natural environment. Incidental teaching uses a child’s natural interests and motivation to target learning opportunities. While DTT is therapist-led, Incidental teaching is a child-led method of instruction.
Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)
Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is a method built on ABA principles that is similar to incidental teaching but with more structure and repetition. The goal of PRT is to target pivotal areas in a child’s development, such as motivation, responding to multiple cues, self-management, and self-initiation. PRT uses a child’s natural motivation and interests and builds on these while teaching vital life skills. Communication, language, play, and social skills are key areas of focus in PRT.
The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)
The Early Start Denver Model is an application of ABA for children with autism between the ages of 12 and 48 months. ESDM uses play-based joint attention routines to teach early communication and social skills. Learning opportunities are embedded into play with natural reinforcers. Caregiver coaching is a primary component of this model. One unique aspect of the ESDM is that intervention goals are created based on a specified curriculum.
Verbal Behavior (VB) Approach
The Verbal Behavior (VB) approach can be used with all ages, though is commonly used with toddlers and preschoolers who are rapidly acquiring language. Therapists trained in the verbal behavior approach teach children to use language based on the function or meaning behind the word. In the VB approach, children are taught to mand (request), tact (label), respond to receptive instructions, imitate actions, intraverbally communicate, and more.
ABA therapy is most commonly used with children with autism and other neurodevelopmental challenges. Roughly 72% of ABA professionals work with the autism population. Through ABA, these children develop language and communication skills, social skills, improve focus, learn academic skills, reduce interfering behaviors, and more.
Other applications of ABA include
Brain Injury Rehabilitation
There are seven main characteristics of ABA. These characteristics are known as the seven dimensions of ABA. The seven dimensions are a set of guiding principles for ABA therapy. When evaluating whether a particular therapy is indeed ABA, consider whether they meet the following seven criteria.
Other applications of ABA include
- Generality: Behavior change carries over into other settings, with other people, and with different stimuli.
- Effective: Behavior change procedures result in a significant level of improvement.
- Technological: Procedures are written with enough clarity and conciseness that another individual can replicate them.
- Analytic: Interventions are derived based on functional relationships between behaviors and the environment. All decisions are data-driven.
- Conceptually systematic: Interventions are consistent with behavioral principles supported via research.
- Applied: Behaviors targeted are socially significant.
- Behavioral: Behaviors targeted are observable and measurable.
There are a number of common techniques used in ABA. We’ll review a few commonly used behavioral techniques.
At the heart of behavior change is positive reinforcement. By adding something valuable after a desired behavior, the behavior is more likely to occur again in the future. Positive reinforcement is embedded throughout ABA sessions to increase socially significant behaviors
By reinforcing successive approximations toward an end goal, we can shape target behaviors. Behavior change does not happen overnight. Through shaping, you’ll see small progress toward the optimal goal.
Functional communication training (FCT)
FCT is a process of identifying the function of a learner’s interfering behavior and implementing functional ways of communicating their needs. If a child, for example, hits others to gain their attention, FCT would work by teaching and reinforcing alternative ways of communicating their desire for someone’s attention.
There are many potential benefits to ABA therapy. ABA can help a child develop skills in a wide range of areas.
Benefits to ABA may include
- The development and improvement of communication skills
- Reduction in behaviors that interfere with a child’s quality of life
- Improved social engagement
- Enhanced independent living skills
- Improved pre-academic skills
While ABA can greatly improve a child’s quality of life through the development of vital life skills, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It may not be a great fit for all families.
Some of the cons to ABA therapy include
- ABA can be time-consuming. ABA therapy is commonly prescribed for 15-30 hours/week, which is a big time commitment.
- Behavior change takes time. Skill development and behavior modification do not happen overnight. It takes time, dedication, and consistency. You may celebrate several small wins before observing bigger changes.
- Not all providers practice the same way. Some clinicians may follow outdated methods. Others might simply not be a good fit for a child’s personality or individualized needs.
ABA for Autism FAQs
Behavior is anything an organism does or says. Essentially, any interaction with one’s environment is behavior. Behaviors can be overt, meaning they are objectively observable and measurable. Behaviors can also be covert. Covert behaviors are internal events such as thoughts and feelings. While most behavioral professionals recognize internal events as behaviors, typically, only observable behaviors are the focus of ABA therapy.
ABA has been found in numerous research studies to be beneficial for children with autism. ABA is considered an evidence-based practice due to the strong research backing its efficacy.
ABA can be effective for changing behavior at any age. However, for children with autism and other neurodevelopmental challenges, early intervention has been shown to improve outcomes. Therefore, ABA is often recommended as soon as a diagnosis is made. The first five years of a child’s life is when the brain develops at the fastest pace—as such, starting therapy during this time is encouraged.
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