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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for Autism

Applied behavior analysis is a popular autism treatment. However, there is no one way to design an ABA program. Based on a specific set of scientific behavioral principles, its incentives and positive reinforcements, behavior observation, data collection, and analysis forms the foundation for many different teaching and correctional methodologies.

For most diagnosed children, autism is permanent. Therefore, treatment goals need to focus on correcting any behavior, language impairment, or social inadequacy that interferes with learning or day-to-day life. In a report from the Surgeon General of the United States, early intervention through the method of behavioral therapy, is said to increase the possibility that an autistic child can “acquire language and ability to learn.”

In addition, the report firmly backs the effectiveness of behavioral analysis: “Thirty years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing the communication, learning, and appropriate social behavior.”


Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy Session

What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is not exclusive to autism. Nor is it a single teaching method. Many different correctional facilities and business plan strategies, as well as developmental disability programs, use these principles. Looking at the basic characteristics that make up these programs can help parents of autistic children understand them better.

Applied: Behavioral analysis starts with the observation of particular behaviors that carry social significance. Modifying inappropriate actions or teaching life skills will make life better for the individual. The goal is to increase appropriate behaviors long term, and thereby decrease anything that prevents learning. Generally, the focus involves replacing inappropriate conduct with something more socially acceptable, rather than concentrating on decreasing an action.

Related: Teaching Life Skills to Autistic Children

Behavior: While words, thoughts, and ideas form a part of behavior, ABA-based interventions only deal with observable actions – what an individual can see, measure, record, and analyze. In a clinical setting, several different individuals take detailed notes that pinpoint the problems. Initially, notations center on how often the behavior occurs, when it occurs, when it’s least likely to occur, and how disruptive it is. This gives a behavioral analyst the concrete information necessary to design a good treatment plan.

Analysis: Behavior analysts look at recorded data and create or modify individual intervention programs. When teaching skills, a multiple task design is used. This design utilizes small steps introduced in a sequential manner. These specific plans serve to create change. However, behavioral science requires a demonstration of the events that cause the shift. So when behavior switches, additional trials, altered variables, and sometimes reversal type programs (where the variable is removed) are used to verify the effect.

Parents Play an Important Role in ABA Therapy

While ABA therapy programs consist of valuable, universally applied principles, implementation is unique to each autistic child. For example, many significant autism traits like:

  • communication problems
  • social interaction difficulties
  • academic learning
  • vocational preparedness
  • and every day living skills

can improve with the incentives and positive reinforcement used with applied behavior analysis. However, the decisions and choices made about how to motivate the child towards improved behavior and which reinforcements work best strongly depend on the objective data collected during observation periods.

For some autistic children, intervention works more like an on-going experiment, rather than a detailed list of what to do, or not to do. That’s why parents play an important role in the application of behavioral intervention. Understanding the effect each incentive and reinforcement has on the child is essential to make quick adjustments and corrections when needed. It’s also important for parents to pay particular attention to what immediately preceded any inappropriate conduct, as well as what happened afterward, and report those actions to the medical professionals working with their child.

Parents are with their autistic children more than a therapist or behavioral analyst. They know which behaviors they want to see change, and which life skills are seriously lacking. By working together with therapists and behavioral specialists to discover what is driving the child’s behavior and what benefits he gets from acting in a certain way, parents can learn how to use those same principles over a wider range of behaviors and skills at home.

Discrete Trials and the 80/20 Rule

A common method used in ABA therapy is a discrete trial. During a trial, an instructor such as a therapist, teacher, or parent presents the child with an instruction known as a Discriminative stimulus (SD), and then waits for him to respond. For example, a therapist attempting to shape an autistic child’s vocal patterns might ask him to say the word “ball.” If the child gives the correct response (he repeats the word “ball”), the child receives praise and possibly a reward that motivates the child to respond appropriately in the future. In the same way, parents use a discriminative stimulus when they want their child to do something. Go and get their coat or put on their shoes, for example.

If the child doesn’t respond or reacts inappropriately, the instructor prompts him in such a way as to ensure he responds correctly at least 80% of the time. As the failure rate rises above 20%, the child becomes more frustrated, so most demands are designed to help the child correctly respond – with or without a prompt.

When parents use a discriminative stimulus at home, it’s important that the instruction is clear and direct. Rambling only serves to confuse the child. If the goal is to have the child to put on his shoes, the wrong way is, “Go and find your shoes. I think they might be sitting by your bed, but I don’t know for sure.” It’s always better to use short, easily understood sentences, something like, “Please go to your room and get your shoes.”

Learning occurs when the child follows the request. The same trial often repeats several times, until some amount of learning takes place. But even when discontinued, a therapist will often repeat the exercise later to verify permanent change. Discrete trials offer direct feedback to the instructor, but ABA-based therapy also accurately tracks the result from each trial. These results are then analyzed and corrections or adaptations made, when necessary.

Applied Behavior Analysis Programs Work Well

A discriminative stimulus, waiting for a response, using a prompt when necessary, and then giving a motivational reinforcement once the stimulus is accomplished correctly is a good model for how to teach autistic children. However, what to teach the child is always up to the parent and therapist. While hard tasks are always broken down into smaller, easier-to-accomplish steps, what behaviors and life skills therapists and parents focus on first depends on the child’s deficits.

For example, to teach an autistic child on how to brush his teeth, all the skills required to do that task should be considered. A child must be physically able to hold a toothbrush, be tall enough and strong enough to turn on the faucet, wet the toothbrush, and squirt toothpaste onto the brush before he can be taught how to brush. The needed skills should be taught first.

When targeting inappropriate behaviors using the principles of applied behavioral analysis programs, success often results. However, the child’s strengths and weaknesses should always be in mind. If a verbal discriminative stimulus is not working at least 80% of the time, even with many prompts, then a different method like using pictures can be tried.

Applied behavior analysis needs to be adapted and molded to an autistic child’s needs. It’s not just about discrete trials. As long as there is observation, data collection, analysis, and change based on incentives and positive reinforcement, it is still an ABA-based therapy. When autism treatments keep reinforcements high, it motivates the child to respond, making him less likely to try to escape the situation or engage in inappropriate behaviors.

  • References
    • 1.Howard, J., C. Sparkman, H. Cohen, G. Green, and H. Stanislaw. “A Comparison of Intensive Behavior Analytic and Eclectic Treatments for Young Children with Autism.” Research in Developmental Disabilities 26.4 (2005): 359-83. Print.
    • 2. Kearney, Albert J. Understanding Applied Behavior Analysis. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008. Print.
    • 3. Matson, Johnny L. Applied Behavior Analysis for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. New York: Springer, 2009. Print.
    • 4. Richman, Shira. Raising a Child with Autism: a Guide to Applied Behavior Analysis for Parents. London: Jessica Kingsley Pub., 2001. Print.
    • 5. ”Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General – Chapter 3.” Office of the Surgeon General (OSG). Web. 14 Aug. 2011. <>.
    • 6. ”2 Avril 2010 : Journée Mondiale De Sensibilisation à L’autisme | Flickr – Photo Sharing!” Welcome to Flickr – Photo Sharing. Web. 14 Aug. 2011. <>.

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