Applied Behavior Analysis
What It Is
Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, uses the principles of learning based on psychological research to systematically change behavior. It is a mainstay of autism interventions and is used for everything from teaching young children how to sit at a table and pay attention to a teacher, to potty training, talking, and learning to read.
How It Works
ABA guides changes in behavior by using items that reinforce positive things a child does. Reinforcing items can be anything highly preferred, from bits of desired food (say, a bite of cookie or Goldfish crackers) to access to a favorite toy or a teacher's cheers, to the awarding of symbolic tokens. Parents of young children with autism often will see ABA practiced in the form of discrete trial training at a table, with a teacher instructing a toddler how to perform basic tasks such as touching her nose or labeling objects when instructed.
The teachers take data which demonstrate a child's progress (or lack of progress) over time, and when a child masters one skill with a teacher, the goal is to generalize the performance of that skill to more than one setting (for example, at school, at home, and in the community). The data are central to the ABA approach, which relies on this information to evaluate how a child is doing, and what adjustments may be needed to continue progress. ABA also involves regular "preference assessments" that reexamine what motivates a child to perform at his best.
Important to Know
The AAP notes that as soon as an autism diagnosis is seriously considered, doctors and parents should consider getting services like ABA started for at least 25 hours per week, 12 months per year. Why so much? Therapies like ABA can take time and perseverance. But as the pediatricians' group points out:
"Children who receive early intensive behavioral treatment have been shown to make substantial, sustained gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behavior as well as some measures of social behavior, and their outcomes have been significantly better than those of children in control groups."
- Management of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, guide published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, November 2007.
- Behavior Analysis Certification Board (the group that certifies professional ABA practitioners—the people who are qualified to teach using ABA and to train and supervise other teachers who use ABA)
- The Association for Behavior Analysis International
- Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies