What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the process of using behavioral principles to teach new skills and increase desirable behaviors. ABA methods break skills down into small, measurable units and use high rates of positive reinforcement. ABA is committed to objective measurement and data-driven analysis of behavior within relevant settings, like home, school, and the community.  ABA uses many different teaching strategies to increase and maintain desirable behaviors, teach new skills, and generalize behaviors to new environments or situations.

•        Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is devoted to understanding and improving human behavior. It objectively defines and measures behavior, and it focuses on socially significant behavior.

•        Research has shown that individuals with autism do not learn readily from typical environments, but many can learn a great deal given appropriate instruction, namely intensive behavioral intervention.

•        ABA focuses on teaching behavior systematically in a highly structured environment.  Every skill a child with autism does not demonstrate – from relatively simple responses like looking at others, to more complex acts like spontaneous communication and social interaction – is broken down into small steps. Each step is taught using positive reinforcement for appropriate responses. The function of problematic behavior such as tantrums, non-contextual noise, self-injury and withdrawal, is analyzed to determine what in the child’s environment is reinforcing that behavior. By carefully constructing reinforcement in the child’s environment and by teaching him or her replacement skills, many problem behaviors can be reduced or eliminated.

•        Children are given many opportunities to practice new and emerging skills until desired responses are performed readily, easily and independently. Data are collected, graphed and analyzed to quantify a child’s progress.

•        As a child progresses, skills are also practiced and reinforced in less structured situations, and instruction may be delivered not only in one-on-one settings, but also in group instruction.  Emphasis is given to teaching children to generalize learning and skill demonstration from one environment to another, from school to home, from one instructor to another, and ultimately to community settings.

What Behavior Analysis is Not:

•        A teaching method (e.g. miss-miss-prompt, discrete trial, verbal behavior, etc). These methods use the principles of behavior analysis, but do not define ABA.

•        A quick fix. ABA is not a miracle cure. It is labor intensive and takes a lot of time.

•        Specific to autism. The principles of behavior apply to everyday life, and ABA can be effective in many settings, including typical classrooms, work environments, and at home.

Is ABA the same thing as discrete trial instruction or the Lovaas Method?

No.  Discrete trial instruction is a specific instructional method that can be used in the context of an ABA program.  It involves multiple trials of presenting a direction (called the discriminative stimulus or SD), eliciting an independent or prompted response, and delivering a consequence (reinforcement).  The Lovaas Method or Model is a program based heavily on discrete trial instruction, with specific guidelines in terms of intensity and focus of intervention.  More information about the Lovaas Method can be found at http://www.lovaas.com/.  

Other teaching strategies that fall under the umbrella of ABA include incidental teaching, Verbal Behavior, Pivotal Response Training, task analysis instruction, and fluency-based instruction.  For more information on specific ABA-based teaching methodologies, visit the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.

Is ABA just for students with autism?

No. ABA is a much broader science that is used in many fields, including marriage counseling, sports psychology, corporate management, animal training, and many more.  Parents and teachers can certainly apply these principles to working with their children and students without autism as well.

What is behavior?

Behavior is anything a person or animal does.  The term behavior is sometimes used to refer to disruptive behavior (e.g. “He had a lot of behaviors today.”), but actually refers to anything a person does, whether positive, negative, or neutral.  In a school setting, reading, working out a math problem, kicking a ball, greeting someone, and washing your hands are all behaviors that can be taught and reinforced.  

What is reinforcement and why is it important?

Reinforcement is a process in which an event follows a behavior and increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring in the future.  In positive reinforcement, something is added to the environment and increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future (e.g. If a child asks for a cookie and gets a cookie, he is more likely to ask in the future. If I go to work and get a paycheck, I am more likely to go to work in the future).  In negative reinforcement, something is removed or avoided, thereby increasing the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future (e.g. If a student asks appropriately for a break and gets a break, he is more likely to ask in the future, If taking Ibuprofen gets rid of my headache, I am more likely to take that type of pain reliever in the future).  Punishment is often confused with negative reinforcement, but they are not the same thing; punishment is a procedure that decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future.

The behavioral approach is based on an assumption that, if a behavior is occurring, it is being reinforced in some way.  For students with autism, the social and intrinsic reinforcers that affect many of us may not be as powerful.  Therefore, we often must begin by offering more explicit reinforcers (preferred activities, toys, or foods) to build appropriate skills, and pair these with other more normalized reinforcers over time.  In a classroom setting, reinforcers may include access to privileges, verbal praise, stickers, or breaks from work.  It is important, however, to recognize that an item is not a reinforcer if it is not successful in increasing the desired behavior.


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