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Applied Behavior Analysis

Tammi Reynolds, BA & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is a useful method for teaching children with autism spectrum disorder. It is based directly on learning theories developed by behavioral psychologists. The approach focuses on rewarding positive behavior and discouraging negative behavior. This is done by making use of control over rewarding and aversive (not desired) consequences of children's choices. Basically, if children behave in ways that are desirable, they are rewarded. If they behave in ways that are not desirable, they are not rewarded.

ABA leans heavily on several behavioral principles: shaping, chaining and successive approximation. It is difficult to learn new complex behaviors. However, if complex behaviors are broken down into simpler behaviors, the task of learning becomes easier to manage. ABA requires that complex desirable behaviors that therapists hope to teach to children be broken down or analyzed into a series or chain of small doable steps. Instead of trying to teach the entire complex behavior desired all at once, ABA therapists teach only one simple step at a time. As children master each step, the next sequential step is introduced. This chained step approach is effective for teaching children who have difficulty staying focused.

For ABA methods to work well, both therapeutic and home environments must be consistent and organized. Rewards and consequences for various behaviors must be made clear to students always and delivered as promised. Rewards that are not given as promised are not rewarding and will quickly stop having a motivating effect. Similarly, aversive consequences (such as not getting a desired reward) also lose their effectiveness if they are not enforced.

Except for our discussion of Discrete Trial methods in the next section, we won't be going into the details of ABA in this document. If you want more detailed information, we recommend you visit a specialized ABA website, such as the toolkit made available by Autism Speaks here - ABA methods are highly useful for teaching children on the spectrum new skills, such as language and social skills, and for teaching them how to appropriately apply their skills across a variety of settings.

Normally, children acquire language and social skills quite spontaneously and naturally simply by participating in daily life and by observing and modeling other's behavior. Children with autism spectrum disorder cannot and do not pay attention to social models. Because of this, they do not learn these skills spontaneously. If they have learned language or social skills it is because someone has broken down those skills into teachable steps for them and has taken the effort to teach them those skills, step by step. Even when skills have been taught, they will not easily know how to generalize them to new situations. They will require very clear training in how to apply those skills in each different setting. Those with autism spectrum disorder must acquire language and social skills intellectually, the way most children learn how to read or do math skills. ABA methods make this learning process easier to accomplish.