Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
What is ABA?
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) utilizes the principles of behaviorism and learning theory to understand why behaviors occur and how we can effectively teach skills that will directly benefit the individual receiving treatment. The goal of ABA therapy is to increase socially significant behaviors while reducing nonfunctional, or problematic, behaviors that inhibit and individual’s ability to participate safely and independently in daily routines. The goal of ABA therapy is to break down skills and behaviors into small, teachable units that can be targeted in both structured and naturalistic formats. ABA relies on data collection and objective observation to make decisions.
The principles of ABA are often used in parenting, classrooms, and in other forms of habilitative therapy. Because of this, a variety of people can provide services that resemble ABA. It is important to understand the differences in these services, as individuals that implement authentic ABA therapy are required to undergo extensive training, maintain high levels of treatment integrity, be closely supervised by credentialed professionals, and follow a strict ethical code to protect client dignity and serve clients’ best interests.
The field of ABA is closely monitored for quality assurance and ethical compliance by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, as well as state licensing boards such as Oregon’s Behavior Analyst Regulatory Board. Individuals that are certified to assess, develop, and implement ABA interventions are called Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA). Individuals that are certified to implement ABA interventions developed and overseen by a BCBA are called Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT).
How does ABA work?
Before starting services, your child’s BCBA will conduct assessments via parent interview, observation, and direct testing. A detailed treatment plan will then be developed based on the needs of the specific learner, as identified through the various forms of assessment. The treatment plan will aim to strengthen skill deficits and will incorporate your child’s unique interests and personality to ensure therapy is engaging, fun, and effective. Each goal included in the treatment plan will consist of clear, observable behaviors that will be measured by data collection during each therapy session.
Although there are many simple and complex strategies that may be used to meet the needs of a specific learner, there are several prominent concepts present in every ABA intervention.
- Reinforcement: Reinforcement is used to increase behavior. Reinforcement can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement occurs when something is added to increase behavior. Negative reinforcement occurs when something is removed to increase behavior. While the word “negative” is sometimes associated with “bad” or “punishment”, this is not the case when referring to negative reinforcement.
- Motivation: The presence or absence of motivation shapes all individuals’ behavior. In ABA, motivation is analyzed based on a learner’s habits and observable behavior, such as frequently playing with the same toys, moving towards or away from specific people or items, or closely adhering to daily routines and schedules. By understanding what motivates a learner, we can begin to shape behavior and tailor interventions to an individual’s preferences and learning style.
- ABC’s: Applied Behavior Analysis seeks to understand and modify behavior based on something called a 3-term contingency. The 3-term contingency consists of the following:
- Antecedent (A): This is what happens immediately before a behavior of interest
- Behavior (B): This is the behavior of interest, or the behavior we are seeking to understand
- Consequence (C): This is what happens immediately after a behavior. In ABA, “consequences” simply refer to conditions immediately after a behavior. Consequences can be desirable, (e.g. reinforcement), undesirable (e.g. punishment or otherwise aversive conditions), or neutral (e.g. have no effect on behavior).
By identifying the ABC’s of any behavioral event, we can identify patterns that influence behavior and make targeted changes to increase or decrease behaviors.
- Data Collection: ABA relies on data to measure and analyze behavior. Throughout the entirety of therapy, your child’s behavioral progress will be monitored through data collection. These data help the BCBA understand the effects of the environment and specific interventions on behavior. Data collection is the cornerstone of effective ABA treatment.
What does ABA treat?
The concepts applied in ABA can be used for a variety of different purposes. While ABA is considered the ‘gold standard’ of autism treatment, it is also utilized by individuals and groups of varying demographics. Some examples of the different environments and contexts in which ABA can be applied are:
- Organizational Behavior Management
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Behavioral Medicine and Health
- Mental Health Disorders (Such as oppositional defiant disorder, depression, etc.)
- Environment/Sustainable Societies
- Animal training
- Physical Health
What will my child work on in ABA therapy?
When used as a treatment for autism, ABA focuses on teaching and increasing socially significant behaviors that correspond with the core deficits of autism. The focus of each learner’s treatment plan will depend on his or her specific areas of need, as well as strengths and deficits identified during assessment. Some examples of the types of skills that may be targeted in treatment goals are:
- Development and functional application of vocal (e.g. speaking) or non-vocal (e.g. using alternative methods such as picture cards or assistive technology) language.
- Making requests
- Labeling items
- Conversation skills
- Expressing needs
- Expressing preferences
- Understanding spoken language
- Understanding written language
- Social and environmental awareness
- Play skills
- Group participation
- Making and maintaining friendships
- Responding to verbal and nonverbal cues
- Understanding and maintaining personal boundaries
- Restrictive/repetitive behavior
- Reducing nonfunctional/problematic behaviors
- Maintaining safety of the individual and others
- Identifying functional replacements for behavior
- Teaching cognitive and behavioral flexibility
- Teaching coping skills
- Functional Living Skills
- Personal hygiene
- Domestic care
- Community participation
- Vocational skills
- Independent living skills
- Community and personal safety skills
What is the time commitment for ABA therapy?
There is no “one size fits all” approach to ABA, therefore the short-term and long-term time commitments will vary across individuals. Depending on your child’s needs, the recommended hours or treatment may fall into one of the following categories:
- Comprehensive treatment: 25-35 hours per week
- Focused treatment: 10-20 hours per week
- Parent/family training only: 1-5 hours per week
Parent/family education and training is a required component of all ABA treatment packages, and must be completed at least 1-4 times per month, depending on the recommendations of your child’s BCBA. While it is important to follow recommendations for treatment as closely as possible, you should discuss availability with you ABA team prior to and throughout the course of treatment to ensure the prescribed schedule will work for your child and provide the maximum benefit despite potential scheduling limitations.
Your child’s BCBA will reassess his or her needs every 6-months to 1-year. At this time, the BCBA will discuss the ongoing recommendations for treatment and/or discuss how and when treatment will be faded. While the individual and family have the right to terminate ABA treatment at any time and for any reason, your BCBA will provide you with a thorough, systematic plan to fade treatment only when appropriate. Recommendations to end treatment will be made once data indicate that your child has made and sustained meaningful progress, or in the event that barriers to treatment are so significant that alternative methods or providers of therapeutic intervention are considered more appropriate for the individual.
What is the caregiver’s role in ABA therapy?
Caregivers are expected to attend family education and training sessions and are encouraged to actively participate in on-going treatment. Before beginning services, your child’s BCBA will seek input regarding parent and family concerns and will incorporate corresponding goals into the treatment plan when appropriate. The BCBA may also ask the parents to take notes or data on their child’s behavior to monitor progress and develop treatment goals for implementation outside of direct therapy sessions. Parents will be able to access their child’s daily session notes and discuss progress with the BCBA throughout the course of treatment. Parents are encouraged to reach out to their child’s BCBA whenever they have questions, major concerns, or would like to provide behavioral updates. ABA therapy is most effective when clinicians and family members maintain open communication and work together as a team.
What should I do if ABA has been recommended for my child?
If ABA has been recommended for your child with autism and you would like to begin therapy, follow the steps below to register at Starfish:
- Patients must register as a new patient by calling our office at 541-751-7948. A patient services representative will assist you with the registration process.
- Before an evaluation is scheduled, a physician’s referral is typically required. This referral usually comes from your child’s pediatrician, family physician or psychiatrist. You may call your provider and ask them to fill out our referral form. For your convenience, a downloadable referral form is available at the top Starfish Youth Therapy Center’s webpage.
If ABA therapy has been recommended for your child and you have questions or are not sure if you would like to begin services:
- Refer to the resources list below for supplemental information about ABA and evidence-based treatments for autism.
- Call Starfish Youth Therapy Center at 541-751-7948. From there, a patient services representative can provide you with general information or transfer you to Starfish’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), Gina Mastroianni, for questions and inquiries about ABA.
- Association for Science in Autism Treatment:
- A Closer Look at Pivotal Response Training:
- The Autism Helper: ABA 101:
- Oregon Association for Behavior Analysis (BARB):
- Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB):
- Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts:
- Kearney, A. J. (2015). Understanding Applied Behavior Analysis, Second Edition: An Introduction to ABA for Parents, Teachers, and Other Professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.