What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

As an avid reader of this blog, you are undoubtedly familiar with interventions that utilize Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is the application of the science of human behavior to improve behaviors of social significance (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). ABA, as a field, rests its head on the principles of behaviorism and early experimental research. Behaviorism is the philosophy of the science of human behavior, originally characterized by J.B Watson. After the theory of behaviorism was established, researchers used its concepts in a branch of science called the experimental analysis of behavior (EAB). EAB utilizes controlled settings to alter and improve behavior; principles derived from behaviorism. ABA, as identified by Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968) uses the principles of scientific research (EAB), but in applied settings that are occupied by loved ones we encounter in our everyday lives, including but not limited to: schools, clinics and home settings.

Why is ABA used?
ABA is used to improve socially significant behaviors because of its successful history of doing so in an ethical manner. The Right to Effective Behavioral Treatment, written by Van Houten and colleagues outlines the ethical concerns that are evident for individuals receiving behavioral services and provides detailed guidelines for practicing behavior analysts. Here, clients’ rights are discussed in terms of therapeutic environment, practitioner and personal welfare, and functional living skills; along with ongoing evaluation and the right for most effective treatment available (Van Houten et al., 1988). As an evidence-based intervention, ABA employs precise technology and objective measurement systems. ABA also uses visual representation in the form of graphs to display data that can be replicated by practitioners and parents. Visual representation are beneficial for parents and practitioners because progress may be viewed and shared amongst parties at IEP and parent meetings, giving a launching point for discussion of intervention and maintenance of desirable behavior.

Who does Applied Behavior Analysis benefit?
ABA has had an impact on a variety of disciplines and populations including economics, public health, and public education systems. ABA is also used effectively in behavioral therapy services of those with a variety of developmental diagnoses including Autism Spectrum Disorders. ABA is the only autism treatment approved by the U.S. Surgeon General. When delivered at 25-40 hours per week, it is considered the most effective of interventions by many within the autism community. (Surgeon General, 1999)Research on the benefits of ABA suggests that earlier initiation of programming increases potential gains. Early Intensive Behavior Intervention (EIBI) has proven to be an important tool for improving the lives’ of children diagnosed with ASD (Reichow et al., 2012).

The utilization of behavior analytic principles in the treatment of individuals diagnosed with developmental disabilities has resulted in improvements in socially significant behaviors of individuals whom are near and dear to us as their therapists, parents and caregivers. With the continuation of evidence-based treatment in a wide variety of settings, we should be optimistic that therapists can provide effective treatment, significantly improving the lives of those diagnosed with developmental disabilities.


Baer, D.M., Wolf, M.M., & Risley, T.R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91-97.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.

Reichow, B., Barton, E., Boyd, B., & Hume, K. (2012). Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) for young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, 10.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon
General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 1999.

Van Houten, R. Axelrod, S. Bailey, J. S. Favell, J. E. Foxx, R. M. Iwata, B. A. & Lovaas, O. I. (1988). The right to effective behavioral treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21, 381-384.

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