by Barry K. Morris B.ScWk

applied-behavior-analysisApplied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a process of studying and modifying behavior. It has been rigorously tested and is effective for many individuals with Autism and other developmental disorders. It changes the environment and monitors changed responses from the person, to result in changed behavior or learning of life skills.

Definitions of Applied Behavior Analysis vary considerably. In one example, Applied Behavior Analysis is:

“…the design, implementation, and evaluation of environmental modifications to produce socially significant improvement in human behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis includes the use of direct observation, measurement, and functional analysis of the relations between environment and behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis uses antecedent stimuli and consequences, based on the findings of descriptive and functional analysis, to produce practical change.” This definition places emphasis on socially significant changes, but Applied Behavior Analysis can be used to alter virtually any behavior irrespective of its social relevance.

the abc model: the basis of Applied Behavior Analysis

The first step in Applied Behavior Analysis is to analyze the behavior. This is done using the ABC model:

A – Antecedent

A directive or request for the child to perform an action.

B – Behavior

A behavior, or response from the child – successful performance, noncompliance, or no response.

C – Consequence

A consequence, defined as the reaction from the therapist, which can range from strong positive reinforcement (ie. a special treat, verbal praise) to a strong negative response, “No!”

techniques used in Applied Behavior Analysis

Task Analysis

Task analysis is a process in which a task is analyzed into its component parts so that those parts can be taught through the use of chaining: forward chaining, backward chaining and total task presentation.


The skill to be learned is broken down into the smallest units for easy learning. For example, a child learning to brush teeth independently may start with learning to unscrew the toothpaste cap. Once the child has learned this, the next step may be squeezing the tube, and so on.


The parent or therapist provides assistance to encourage the desired response from the child. The aim is to use the least intrusive prompt possible that will still lead to the desired response. Prompts can include:

• Verbal cues ie. “Take the toothpaste cap off, Bobby”

• Visual cues ie. pointing at the toothpaste

• Physical guidance ie. moving the child’s hands to unscrew the lid

• Demonstration ie. taking the cap off to show the child how it is done.


The overall goal is for a child to eventually not need prompts. This is why the least intrusive prompts are used, so the child does not become overly dependent on them when learning a new behavior or skill. Prompts are gradually faded out as then new behavior is learned. Learning to unscrew the toothpaste lid may start with physically guiding the child’s hands, to pointing at the toothpaste, then just a verbal request.


Shaping involves gradually modifying the existing behavior of a child into the desired behavior. An example here is a young boy who only engages with the pet dog by hitting it. Although time consuming, the parents intervene every time he interacts with the dog, grab his hand and turn the hit into a stroking motion. This is paired with positive reinforcement “It’s great when you are gentle with Pooch!” and doing a favorite activity immediately afterwards as a reward.

Differential reinforcement

Reinforcement provides a response to a child’s behavior that will most likely increase that behavior. It is “differential” because the level of reinforcement varies depending on the child’s response. Difficult tasks may be reinforced heavily whereas easy tasks may be reinforced less heavily. We must systematically change our reinforcement so that the child eventually will respond appropriately under natural schedules of reinforcement (occasional) with natural types of reinforcers (social).

Reinforcement can be positive (verbal praise or a favorite activity) or negative (an emphatic ‘no’). Positive reinforcement is an incentive given to a child who complies with some request for behavior change. The aim is to increase the chances the child will respond with the changed behavior. Positive reinforcement is given immediately after the desired behavior has occurred so that it will shape the child’s future behavior.

Some examples of positive reinforcement include:

• Preferred activities (e.g., specific job; coffee with a friend; concert; sporting event)
• Free time
• Verbal praise
• Food-related activities (special treats – not food they have the right to access anyway)
• Desired objects (if affordable)
• Privileges (e.g., team leader for a day or week; certificate; badge; choice of outing)
• Tokens (e.g.: a special trip when the child earns five gold stars on the fridge).


Once a skill is learned in a controlled environment (usually table-time), the skill is taught in more general settings. Perhaps the skill will be taught in the natural environment. If the student has successfully mastered learning colors at the table, the teacher may take the student around the house or his school and then re-teach the skill in these more natural environments. Behavior analysts have spent considerable amount of time studying factors that lead to generalization.

Video modeling

One teaching technique found to be effective with some students, particularly children, is the use of video modeling (the use of taped sequences as exemplars of behavior). It can be used by therapists to assist in the acquisition of both verbal and motor responses, in some cases for long chains of behavior.[23][24].

Why Applied Behavior Analysis is a common intervention for Autism

Applied Behavior Analysis is one of the most common, and most evidence-based methods used to treat Autism. Applied Behavior Analysis has been shown to be an effective means of intervention for adults and children with pervasive developmental disorders, and is one of the most widely used within this population. The Applied Behavior Analysis approach teaches social, motor, and verbal behaviors and reasoning skills, and can also be effective in managing challenging behaviors.

Applied Behavior Analysis therapy is especially useful in teaching behaviors to children with Autism who do not otherwise “pick up” on these behaviors on their own as other children would. Applied Behavior Analysis teaches these skills through use of careful behavioral observation and positive reinforcement or prompting to teach each step of a behavior. Generally Applied Behavior Analysis involves intensive training of the therapists, extensive time spent in Applied Behavior Analysis therapy (20-40 hours per week) and weekly supervision by experienced clinical supervisors known as a certified behavior analyst.

an example of applied behavior analysis in social skills

Here is a child’s interaction with a teacher or other adult who is being as helpful as possible without appropriate training:

Teacher: Hi, Alex, are you excited about Christmas?
A: [no response]
Teacher: What are you going to do on Christmas?
A: I don’t know.
Teacher: Are you going to get presents?
A: Yes.
Teacher: What else are you going to do?
A: [no response]
Teacher: Do you have a tree?
A: Yes.
Teacher: Who’s going to bring presents on Christmas?
A: I don’t know.
Teacher: Is it Santa Claus?
A: Yes.
Teacher: [smile] Thanks, Alex!

This is the child’s half of the conversation:

“I don’t know, Yes, Yes, I don’t know, Yes.”

Here’s how a trained person might make this an opportunity for practicing conversation skills:

Teacher: Hi, Alex, are you excited about Christmas?
A: [no response]
Teacher: Are you excited about Christmas? Say, Yeah, I want to open my…
A: Yeah, I want to open my presents!
Teacher: [Smile] Me too! What presents did you ask for?
A: I asked for presents.
Teacher: What presents did you ask for? Say, For Christmas, I asked for…
A: I asked for a bike. For Christmas.
Teacher: Cool! [Small tickle] Are you excited about Christmas?
A: Yeah, I want a bike.
Teacher: [Bigger tickle] A bike! That’s great! I’ve got my tree all decorated with ornaments. I put lots of ornaments on MY tree. [Point to A’s tree.]
A: I put heart ornaments on my tree.
Teacher: Alex, that’s so great! [Great big tickle]
A: Ahhhhh! Cut it out!
Example used courtesy of Richard Saffran at http://rsaffran.tripod.com

Here are some examples of what an ‘ABA drill sheet’ looks like for various activities. A therapist will create these sheets for each activity the child will be learning. These have been kindly supplied by abaresources.com who offer some free free ABA resources:

ABA drill sheet for making a sandwich

ABA drill sheet for doing a simple puzzle

ABA drill sheet for voice modulation.

parental and professional relationships in the ABA approach

An adequate communication and a supportive relationship between educational systems and families allow children to receive a beneficial education. This pertains to typical learners as well as to children who need additional services. It was not until the 1960s that researchers began exploring Applied Behavior Analysis as a method to educate those children who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. Behavioral analysts agree that consistency in and out of the school classroom is key in order for autistic children to maintain proper standing in school and continue to develop to their greatest potential.

Applied Behavior Analysis involves an entire team working together to address a child’s needs. This team includes professionals such as speech therapists as well as the children’s primary caregivers, who are treated as key to the implementation of successful therapy in the Applied Behavior Analysis model. The Applied Behavior Analysis method relies on behavior principles and a recommended curriculum that reflects an individual child’s needs and abilities. As such, regular meetings with professionals to discuss programming are one way to establish a successful working relationship between a child’s family and their school.

When a caregiver can be the outlet source for the generalization of skills outside of school, it helps the child’s therapy process by catering to the child’s individual needs. In the Applied Behavior Analysis framework, developing and maintaining a structured working relationship between parents and professionals is essential to ensure consistency of thought and practice of behavioral methods.

Problems with Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis has several problems or criticisms. For one thing, it is very expensive – generally therapists are required from 20 to 40 hours per week, plus the time of clinical supervisors. This not only puts this therapy out of most parents’ range, but induces guilt as parents may feel they are neglecting their autistic child unless they sell the family home to pay for therapy. Get in touch with your nearest Autism association to see what options are available in your area, and at what cost.

It is also criticized for producing ‘robot-like’ behavior in children, as well as its use of punishment to reduce or eliminate problem behavior, though some of these criticisms are frequently seen as addressed by more recent practices.

It is also suggested that Applied Behavior Analysis and discrete trials are less effective for improving language than naturalized teaching. Naturalized teaching mimics the use of language in the natural environment, focusing on manding (requesting) tacting (labeling) receptive language (physical manipulation based on commands or requests) and the other functions of language.

Applied Behavior Analysis has come into widespread use in the 1990s, and the demand is outstripping the supply of committed and experienced service providers in some countries. As a result, parents of children need to be extra vigilant in choosing appropriate interventions for their children; this is especially so with regard to choosing providers, who may be inexperienced, use questionable methods or even deceive parents about their competency with Applied Behavior Analysis or any other program. Such problems have led to reports of poor outcomes from some parents.

can I do Applied Behavior Analysis myself?

Applied Behavior Analysis is one of the few evidence-based treatments that prove effective in the majority of cases, so parents are often interested in applying Applied Behavior Analysis themselves if it too expensive or if therapies are not available in their region. While the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis are simple to learn, applying them in practice is very time-consuming and takes a lot of skill and care to get right. Parents interested in home-based interventions can read the Do-it-yourself early intervention fact sheet.

A lack of trained ABA therapists has seen many families run their own programs, with the occasional support of a consultant where possible. One study found that in comparison with clinic-based programs, most children in home-based programs start intervention at a later age, have fewer hours of treatment (32 hours/week compared to 40 hours/week), and are less frequently supervised (Mudford, Martin, Eikeseth, & Bibby, 2001). Another study found that home-based programs has the same positive results as clinic-based programs (Sallows and Grauper 2005). It would be important to determine the amount of support parents had from the researchers and how this parent managed program compared with other parent based IBI programs.

It is difficult to predict whether parents will be able to use Applied Behavior Analysis effectively to help their child. It depends on issues such as the expertise of the parents in applying ABA, the hours they can commit to intervention, the quality of professional supervision received, and support from the wider family.

There are books available on running home-based ABA programs but parents should remember that Applied Behavior Analysis is only one of various strategies for supporting their child. See the Behavior & Life skills page for tips on developing programs you may be able to implement at home.

Click here to read detailed answers to the most common questions about ABA.
Click here to read about choosing an ABA provider.
Click here to read an example of ABA used to develop listening skills.

Click here for the full range of Asperger’s and Autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation.


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