What is ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a non-medical treatment for autism that was first described in the 1930’s by B.F. Skinner. Since then, Skinner’s technique has been successful in helping learners develop language and communication skills. In 1957, B.F Skinner came up with a certain technique referred to as Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB). This technique aimed at teaching children with autism that language could get them anything they wanted: all they had to do was make a request. AVB has been endorsed and studied by behavior analysts such as Dr. Mark Sundberg, Dr. Vincent Carbone and Dr. James Partington. Today, most ABA programs incorporate AVB techniques. In fact the acronyms ABA and AVB are sometimes used interchangeably.With regards to AVB, Skinner describes four major verbal operants for children with autism: echoics, mands, tacts and intraverbals.

ABA programs have also been known to draw upon Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas’ 1987 study. Dr. Lovaas who was a renowned researcher in the field of psychology conducted a study that involved intensive behavioral intervention for 19 preschoolers. The study’s findings indicated that children who received up to 40 hours of intense ABA therapy every week were able to function normally by first grade. At that time, Dr. Lovaas advocated the use of mild physical punishment to discourage severe behaviors. However, he later changed his mind about the physical punishment and rejected it.


What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Applied behavior analysis is a technique for teaching desirable behavior to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders through the use of scientific principles. This scientific technique aims to understand how the environment impacts on a person’s behavior. In this case, behavior refers to both ‘good” and “bad” behavior and environment refers to any physical and social situation that might impact behavior. Behavior analysis is based on specific laws / principles; positive reinforcement is one such principle. When “good” behavior is rewarded/ reinforced, the individual is more likely to repeat it. On the other hand children with autism are less likely to repeat behaviors that aren’t reinforced. After 30+ years of research, experts have come up with various ways of encouraging useful behaviors and discouraging harmful ones.

There are various forms of ABA for children with Autism. However, the most popular one is Discrete Trial Training (DTT). DTT is a technique where skills are divided into small tasks so that each of these tasks is taught individually. This way, children can begin by learning simple skills before they move on to more complex ones.

Most ABA programs today also utilize a technique known as errorless learning. Instead of telling the child “no” whenever they make a mistake, the child is guided towards the correct response.


Who can benefit from ABA?

Everyone can benefit from ABA regardless of whether or not they have a developmental disorder. Behavior analysts began experimenting with children who had autism and other developmental disorders in the 1960’s. They came up with some techniques where the adults would lead and the children would follow and others where the children themselves took the lead. Since the 1960’s, researchers have developed various techniques for teaching desirable skills to children with autism and other developmental disorders. While most of these techniques are mostly used in formal situations such as classrooms, they can also be used in everyday situations at home. Whether the techniques are used one on one or in a group setting, they can help individuals to develop observation, listening and imitation skills.

Today, the use of ABA techniques and principles to help individuals with autism develop desired skills is more widespread than ever before. In fact, ABA is considered an effective non-medical treatment for autism. The technique has even been recognized by the US Surgeon general and the New York State Department of Health.


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ABA Research

Over 30 years of research that has been carried out on ABA, shows that it can be quite useful in teaching children and adults with autism communication, play, self care and community participation. In addition, quite a few researchers have been studying the benefits of incorporating the ABA techniques into other comprehensive, specialized and early interventions for the treatment of autism. In this case, the word comprehensive refers to programs that target a variety of skills including social, communication, play, academic and motor skills. In addition, “Early” refers to programs that begin before the child’s fourth birthday. In the above mentioned studies, the techniques and principles of ABA were used to create learning opportunities for the children in both formal and informal settings. Since these learning opportunities took up 25-40 hours per week, the interventions were described as “intensive.”

The incorporation of learning opportunities into informal/ unstructured situations in the home enabled children with autism to spend as much time with their parents as other children without autism. The findings of the above studies indicated that when children with autism received ABA treatment for 1-3 years, their communication, cognitive and adaptive skills improved. Some children who received intensive ABA treatment for about 2 years were able to function independently in regular classrooms with very little help. However, some children who took part in the studies weren’t able to participate independently in regular classrooms despite having learnt many skills. Therefore, at the moment, it is not possible to predict how a particular child is going to respond to ABA. More research needs to be carried out so as to determine why some children respond much better than others to intensive ABA treatment.

In the past, there were studies that attempted to compare the effectiveness of intensive ABA against that of less intensive ABA, regular special education and a combination of methods of varying intensities. The studies found that ABA as a treatment for autism was more effective than any of the other techniques. The children who received intensive ABA developed a wider range of skills compared to children who received other forms of treatment.


Can ABA Be Used For Older Persons With Autism?

Research has shown that ABA is effective in children, teens and adults with Autism. ABA techniques are also effective in the management of some undesirable behaviors that are associated with autism. Over the years, there are several programs that have incorporated ABA into other comprehensive treatment options designed for children and adults with autism. However, it is unfortunate that there have only been a few studies on the effectiveness of ABA in adults.


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What does ABA Involve?

ABA treatment is by no means a “one size fits all” kind of approach. On the contrary, a unique program must be developed for each and every individual depending on their interests, needs, skills, preferences and living situation. However, there are some things that are common to all ABA intervention programs.


What Can One Expect from ABA?

While ABA intervention can help individuals with autism learn a wide variety of skills, most learners require properly planned interventions implemented over a long period of time. Since a different ABA program must be developed for every individual, such programs are bound to vary depending on the individual’s age, strengths and weaknesses among other factors. The rate of improvement also varies from one individual to the next. While some are quite fast in acquiring skills, others are very slow. In addition, an individual may acquire a certain skill very fast e.g. reading but struggle with other skills.


Where can one get ABA Intervention?

Due to the high demand for ABA intervention, there all sorts of individuals and agencies out there claiming that they provide ABA intervention. Parents should be cautious when choosing someone or an agency to do ABA their child. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) is an excellent source when attempting to locate a Behavior Analyst. All board certified individuals have been through rigorous coursework/supervision and have passed the certification exam. When selecting a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) it is important to ensure that they have an extensive background/experience with Autism and are familiar with developing intensive ABA programs for children on the spectrum.

Here are a few points that parents should consider when selecting an ABA program.


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