What is ABA?

ABA: Getting to Know You

There are a lot of ideas and perceptions about ABA therapy, and many prepackaged plans that ostensibly provide a family with an ABA program. It is critical to remember that there is no single program or plan that is ABA.

ABA, applied behavioral analysis, is simply the application of behavioral principles, to everyday situations, that will, over time, increase or decrease targeted behaviors. ABA therapy has been used to help individuals acquire many different skills, such as language skills, self-help skills, and play skills; in addition, these principles can help to decrease maladaptive behaviors such as aggression, self-stimulatory behaviors, and self-injury. There are many providers of ABA services, many of whom are quite good. Frequently, a parent will choose a qualified provider with whom they share similar philosophical approaches in the application of intensive behavioral interventions.

What is ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior.


ABA is a discipline that employs objective data to drive decision-making about an individual’s program. That is, data is collected on responses made by the individual to determine if progress is being made or not; if there is no progress under a particular intervention, we need to reevaluate the program and change it so that the child begins to make progress.

Program Analysis

Sometimes an ongoing program needs a fresh eye. Program analysis looks at the current interventions, goals and objectives as well as the implementation of the intervention to assess its effectiveness. This type of assessments requires a records review and direct observations in the home, school and community, as appropriate. Finally, a program analysis will include an analysis of the data collected and recommendations for future planning.

What can ABA be used for?

The short answer is: almost anything. If it is a behavior, and it can be observed, ABA principles exist that can be used to either increase or decrease that behavior. As a discipline, ABA providers are charged with the improvement of socially significant behaviors. Socially significant behaviors include communication, social skills, academics, reading and adaptive living skills such as gross and fine motor skills, toileting, dressing, eating, personal self-care, domestic skills, and work skills.

How much ABA is enough?

This commonly asked question has no single answer. Research supports, at a minimum, 25 hours per week of intensive behavioral intervention for children diagnosed with autism for 12 months a year.


The original Lovaas studies showed that approximately half the children were able to achieve typical development with, on average, 40 hours per week.

There is no single study that can inform a parent of the optimal number for their child. But, frankly, ABA, like breathing and eating, should be incorporated into a family’s lifestyle. This does not mean doing flashcards all day long, or sitting at a desk for every waking hour. It does mean that the family should learn ABA principles and how to apply them in the context of daily activities.

It also means that parents need to work with the student’s teachers to ensure that skills are being taught across multiple environments. After all, a student will not be able to use newly learned skills in new environments unless those skills are specifically targeted for generalization. Parents should also work with their child’s school to ensure consistent treatment of behaviors across environments. Remember, even if one person on the team inadvertently reinforces a maladaptive behavior, that behavior will be strengthened over time. Consistency is key to an effective intervention program.

What is the role of the parent in an ABA therapy program?

Parents are indispensable in the child’s program. Parents are indispensable. They play a necessary and critical role. Studies show that children whose parents are actively engaged in the process make measurable gains. First, no one knows the child better than the parent; the parent’s provide critical and insightful information that will help guide the ABA program. Second, parents are able to continue to prompt and reinforce the child through the his and her various daily activities – an essential component to generalizing skills. Finally, parents are in a position to be able to record and track ABC data in the home and community setting. This information is vital in hypothesizing the function (the “why”) of specific behaviors

Components of an Effective ABA Therapy Program:

Based on the National Standards Report, the following components meet the criteria of research-based, effective interventions for children with autism:

Antecedent manipulation:

Modification of situational events that precede the target behavior. These alterations are designed to increase the likelihood of success of the targeted behavior. Examples include: prompt/fading procedures, behavioral momentum, contrived motivational operations, inter-trial intervals, incorporation special interests, etc.

Behavioral treatment:

Programs designed to decrease problem behaviors and to increase functional alternative behaviors. Examples include: functional communication training, chaining, discrete trial training, mand training, generalization training, reinforcement, shaping, etc.

Comprehensive intervention:

Low student to teacher ratio (1:1, or low as appropriate) in a variety of settings, including clinic, home, school and community. Programs are based on treatment manual, provide intensive treatment (25hrs/wk+), data-driven decision-making.

Joint attention intervention:

Programs designed to teach a child to respond to the social bids of another, or to initiate joint attention interactions. Examples include: pointing to objects, showing items, activities to another, and following eye gaze


Adults or peers provide a demonstration of the target behavior; the student is expected to imitate. Thus, imitation skills are a necessary prerequisite to this type intervention. Modeling is often combined with prompting and reinforcement strategies which can assist the student to acquire imitation skills

Naturalistic teaching strategies:

Use of child-directed interactions to teach functional skills in the natural environment. This intervention requires providing a stimulating environment, modeling play, providing choices, encouraging conversation and rewarding reasonable attempts

Peer training:

Involves training peers without disabilities strategies for interacting (play and social) with children with autism. Some commonly known peer-training programs include: circle of friends, buddy skills, peer networks, etc.

Pivotal response training:

Program designed to target specific, “pivotal,” behaviors that lead to improvement across a broad range of behaviors. These pivotal behaviors include: motivation to engage in social communication, self-initiation, self-management, responsiveness to multiple cues, etc.


Teaching a student to follow a task list (picture- or word-based) through a series of activities or steps in order to complete a specific activity. Schedules are accompanied by other behavioral interventions, including reinforcement


This treatment intervention teaches a student to regulate his or her behavior by recording the occurrence or non-occurrence of the target behavior, and secure reinforcement for doing so.

Story-based interventions:

Involves a written description of the situations under which specific behaviors are expected to occur. The stories seek to teach the who, what, when, where and why of social interactions to improve perspective taking. The most well-known of these interventions Carol Gray’s “Social Stories.”

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