Applying the Science of Learning

What is ABA?

Effective ABA Treatment of Autism (NAS 2001 report)

Characteristics of Effective Intervention Programs:

Beginintervention as soon as an autism diagnosis is considered


Intensive programming for a minimum of the equivalent of a full school day, five days a week (25+ hours) - with full-year programming according to the child's age and current developmental needs​

Planned teaching opportunities that occur repeatedly, organized around brief periods of teaching for early learners (15-20 minutes, may increase for older children) with enough time to meet individual goals

A program should have a family component that includes parent training

Low student/teacher ratio - typically this means 1:1

Ongoing formal program evaluation and frequent evaluation of individual progress


Teaching Priorities:

1. Functional, spontaneous communication training for early learners 

2. Social instruction delivered throughout the day, and in settings appropriate to the development of the child 

3. Play skills instruction that focuses on play with peers 

4. Other necessary cognitive skills instruction taught in the context they are to be used 

5. Problem behavior intervention that relies on research-based techniques such as functional assessment, functional communication training and replacement behavior training 

​6. Functional academic skills as appropriate 


How is ABA Different From Other Types of Teaching?


The ABA approach is largely centered around what's know as an ABC analysis.  This stands for Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence.  To teach a certain skill it first requires analysis - what is the target behavior to be taught?  Under what circumstances would we like to see the behavior happen?  Only after determining these in an ABC format we can begin teaching.  In order to gain proper generalization of the skill we may need to teach a similar response in a different context.  For example, if a child needs to learn his body parts, how do we define the ABC's of teaching this skill?  One way is to take a target response, say, 'ear', and define the response as using an index finger to touch either ear within 3 seconds.  The antecedent will be the verbal instruction "Touch ear" and the consequence will be verbal praise ("Nice job touching ear!!") delivered with a tangible reinforcer (toy).  After learning this response, is it safe to say the child 'knows what ears are?'  We may need additional teaching that requires him to perform a similar skill by requiring him to touch an ear within a picture of a face, or, when presented with three pictures of body parts, find the ear in the array, or, alternatively, when presented with a picture of an ear, say the word "ear" when asked "What's this?"  


This speaks to the need for good generalization training, as well as constantly being aware of the skills in the child's repertoire.  But it also highlights the importance of the ABC analysis in the teaching process to ensure that there is a high degree of fidelity in what is being taught and how.  Each presentation of the ABC (in this example: A:"Touch ear" B:touches ear C:"Good job!!"+ reinforcer delivered) is a trial, and through repeated practice of consistent presentation of the trials the child learns the target skill.  During the course of ABA therapy, many learning trials are presented and data is recorded immediately to keep track of progress.  There are many ways of presenting trials, and a good program will have a varied set of skills available to teach during a given session.  

Some Terms You May Have Heard

Here are some common terms that are associated with ABA and the ABC analysis that behavior analysts frequently use:


SD - This stands for discriminative stimulus.  It is a stimulus associated with reinforcement for a particular behavior - in the above example, saying "Touch ear" is an SD once the child learns the target response.  Note that verbal and non-verbal stimuli can be SD's.


Reinforcement - A procedure in which there is an increase in the frequency of a behavior due to the application of a consequence immediately following the behavior.


Extinction - A behavior decreases in frequency because a reinforcer is no longer available following the response.  The response happens, there is no consequence, and therefore the response stops happening.  


Antecedent - A stimulus or stimulus condition that immediately precedes a particular behavior


Target behavior - A behavior that is to be either increased or decreased in frequency and assigned a behavioral definition


Consequence - A stimulus or stimulus condition that immediately follows a particular behavior


Motivative Operation/Establishing Operation - A condition or stimulus change that affects the value of something as a reinforcer (or punisher).  For example, food deprivation leads to an increase in the ability of food to reinforce behavior.  


Mand - A verbal response in which a particular motivative operation sets the occasion for a particular response.  For example, thirst leads to the verbal response "Water, please."


Tact - A verbal response in the presence of a particular non-verbal stimulus.  For example, seeing a lamp and saying "That's a lamp." (motivation for light is not involved)


Intraverbal - A particular verbal response that occurs in the presence of a particular verbal stimulus.  For example, hearing "What did you eat for breakfast this morning?" and saying "Cereal with orange juice." (no visual stimuli are available)

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis.  Simply put, It is learning technology.  It's perhaps best known as a highly effective, extensively research-based treatment for autistic disorder, though it can be used as an approach to improve the lives of many different types of individuals.  ABA is not new!  It has been around for well over 40 years.  As my specialty is in the application of behavior analytic therapy for children on the autism spectrum, I'll outline a few points here that detail some best practices for this area of intervention.  These represent brief summaries of some of the primary recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences 2001 report on the best practices for autism intervention (a high quality ABA program will address these needs).