Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) 101

child with colorful paint on hands

Behavior Analysis, or the study of behavior, was introduced a century ago. Science has since validated that the general reason a behavior occurs and may be repeated, can be understood by observing surrounding events, this is known as the principle of reinforcement. ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, is an evidence-based treatment method for Autism Spectrum Disorders which uses these techniques and principles to bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior. Through decades of research, the field of ABA has developed many techniques for increasing useful behaviors and reducing those behaviors that may cause harm or interfere with learning, especially in children diagnosed with Autism. ABA was first applied to the treatment of individuals with Autism, and since, intensive ABA treatment has been widely recognized as an effective intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder by several sources including The US Surgeon General, American Academy of Pediatrics and National Institute of Mental Health. Beyond serving individuals with Autism, ABA has also shown to be an effective treatment in a variety of areas including parent training, brain injury rehabilitation, substance abuse and more.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Tutor/Behavioral Technician, BRAINS

Analysts who practice ABA first address biological and environmental factors that may contribute to a behavior before recommending treatment. This assessment will include the individual and significant supports as the analysts observes behaviors and obtains information relevant to potential treatment. The purpose of this assessment is to identify the function of a behavior and measure current performance in a variety of areas including social, functional, verbal communication skills, etc. Using this information, the analyst will recommend evidence-based interventions and treatment approaches that will assist with skill-acquisition and behavior change. ABA will address antecedent or consequent events that effect the duration, frequency or intensity of the behavior and therefore, techniques generally involve teaching individuals more appropriate responses while changing the social consequences of existing behavior.

ABA can occur in any environment including at home, school or in the community. A variety of behavior analytic procedures, some of which are directed by the therapist and others initiated by the individual will be used during treatment. Applied interventions may be taught using structured techniques such as Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT), a method which teaches skill-acquisition in simple, repetitive steps or using Incidental Teaching, an approach that uses naturally occurring events to teach functional or social skills. ABA is often implemented in a one-on-one interaction between the individual and therapist; however, group ABA sessions can be recommended when it is determined that this approach would further support behavior change.

An effective ABA program will be customized to address an individual’s skills, needs, interests, preferences and family situation. Treatment plans will vary as a therapist implements interventions based on individualized behavioral goals and introduces programs to target specific skills based on an individual’s current level of performance. All ABA programs should have a foundation that emphasizes the function of the behavior, defines the behavior in observable and measurable terms, has a stated plan for data collection and analyzes treatment efficacy. The individual and significant others should be involved treatment planning as ABA seeks to only change those behaviors which are considered socially significant, having a substantial impact on the individual and society.

During treatment, the analysts regularly meets with family members and therapists to review progress, adjust interventions or goals, and plan for future treatment or discontinuation of services. In ABA, parents or other significant supports receive training to assist with generalization of skills outside of sessions. This training can introduce positive reinforcement techniques and guide responses to behavior. Promoting consistency outside of the treatment program by involving significant others is a key factor in creating lasting behavior change and increasing an individual’s independence.

In recent years several peer-reviewed studies have reported on the potential benefits of implementing numerous ABA techniques into comprehensive, individualized and intensive early intervention programs for children with autism. These programs which involve a wide array of life skills, from communication and sociability to self-care and readiness for school, mirror ABA treatment for young learners. Findings support that many children with ASD show significant improvements in learning, reasoning, communication and adaptability when they have participated in high-quality ABA programs. Some individuals who participated in early, intensive ABA programming for two or more years acquired sufficient skills to participate in regular classrooms with little or no additional support.

ABA, as an intervention method can be effective with all ages and is used not only to treat maladaptive behaviors, but also teach skill-acquisition. The goal of ABA is increase quality of life by changing behavior that limits an individual’s ability to participate in society independently. There are no predetermined standards or goals as programs are tailored to address the unique behaviors, environmental variables, assessment results and goals of each client served. For more information about the ABA program at BRAINS please contact a support staff at [email protected] or call us at 616-365-8920.


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Howard, J. S., Stanislaw, H., Green, G., Sparkman, C. R., & Cohen, H. G. (2014). Comparison of behavior analytic and eclectic early interventions for young children with autism after three years. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35(12), 3326-3344.

Sainato, D. M., Morrison, R. S., Jung, S., Axe, J., & Nixon, P. A. (2015). A comprehensive inclusion program for kindergarten children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Early Intervention, 37(3), 208-225.

Vinen, Z., Clark, M., Paynter, J. et al. J Autism Dev Disord (2018) 48: 1673.