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What is ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA is a type of therapy for autism spectrum disorders based on the science of behavior. Many children benefit from a course of ABA treatment specifically designed to meet their needs, interests, level of development, and life situation. ABA works with wide range of autism disorders in children and learners of all ages.

Using Behavior Analysis, we can understand how behavior works in an individual, the effects of the environment on behavior, and the ways in which people learn. ABA puts our scientific understanding of behavior to work in real-world situations. The overall goal of ABA is to increase helpful behaviors and reduce the number and occurrence of harmful behaviors and behaviors that interfere with learning.

Evidence-Based Treatment

Evidence based treatment means that objective tests prove the effectiveness of ABA treatment. ABA is evidence-based treatment for autism disorders. The record of trials and experiments demonstrate the benefits of ABA across many settings, age groups, and types of autism. The evidence used intensive and long-term studies to confirm gains in intellectual functioning, language development, life skills, and social functioning. The improved outcomes reflected many though not all children in the studies.

Customized Treatment

One size of treatment does not fit all autism spectrum disorders, and ABA is a flexible treatment. The treatment must be carefully constructed to meet the needs and situation of the individual and their environment. ABA is not a canned program that therapists apply by the numbers. It is a highly individualized approach to understanding, improving, and assessing behavior. The program sets goals to help the person develop or improve skills that will help in the immediate term and long-term future.

Potential Benefits of ABA Therapy

For many decades, educators have studied and used the methods of behavior analysis. It has helped people learn many skills and in many types of educational settings. The subjects range from healthy living to acquiring a different language. Since the early 1960’s, therapists have used Applied Behavioral Therapy to treat children with autism or developmental disorders.

Follow the ABC’s

While the ABA therapy consists of a range of techniques, all treatment approaches focus on the antecedents (what comes before) and the consequences (what comes after) the behavior under study. In the ABA approach it is essential to understand the events before and after a behavior occurs. One way to present the approach is the A-B-C’s of Applied Behavior Analysis.

A is for Antecedent.

This word identifies external things that happen just before the target behavior. The possible things of interest include sounds, lights, words, or anything in the child’s environment. The antecedents can also be internal such as a thought, feeling, or memory.

B is for Behavior.

The resulting behavior is the reaction to the antecedent occurrence. It can be a response or a lack of response when we expect one. The reaction can be physical, verbal, or internal and emotional.

C is for Consequence.

A consequence is part of the therapy. It can be some positive reinforcement of beneficial actions and it can be no reaction for incorrect or inappropriate actions.

Building an ABA Program

An ABA program for autism requires an approach based upon the individual and their behaviors. The initial steps are the assessment and the ABA plan. A trained and qualified behavior analyst must conduct an initial assessment, design the plan, and oversee its implementation.

Applied Behavior Analysis involves many techniques for understanding and changing behavior. As the below-listed items describe, ABA is a flexible treatment.

  • Therapists can adapt programs to meet the child’s unique situation.
  • ABA can work in a range of locations including home, school, and community facilities.
  • ABA develops useful skills for common life situations
  • Therapy works in individual or group settings

Positive Reinforcement is Key

Positive reinforcement is a reward system. When a positive behavior occurs, the program provides something the child values. This can be praise, a privilege, or a toy. The reward is always something of value for the child. Positive reinforcement creates incentives for the child to repeat the beneficial behavior.

Managing the ABA Plan

Each treatment program begins with a thorough assessment. The therapist or team then creates a treatment plan. Rather than a fixed or rigid formula, the plan sets goals and a set of learning techniques that might be effective. The goal setting is an intensive process and it involves the learner, the family, and other support persons in the learner’s life. Goals can cover communications and language skills, social skills, and motor skills. Depending on the learner’s needs and interests, goals can also include play, leisure activities, formal learning, and academics.

The program typically uses steps and builds on each step to make further advances. For example, in speech improvement, the lessons might begin with a simple phrase and build over time to a detailed conversation.

The assessment process is continuous and ongoing. The therapist or team can adjust the schedule and add as needed to achieve goals

How Does ABA Therapy Work?

The techniques help learning and reinforce beneficial behaviors. It works on learners of all ages and has been shown to be effective in children with autism disorders. Positive reinforcement sustains progress towards the plan goals and repetition offers opportunities to practice the skill in many settings.

The program must involve family members, parents, and caregivers. ABA offers training to these critical support persons to provide continuous learning and skill practice outside of the treatment sessions.

The learner gets many opportunities to practice the new skills both in sessions and in the regular day-to-day routines. The program provides positive benefits from demonstrating new, helpful, and beneficial skills. The learner gets no reinforcement for harmful behaviors or those that interfere with learning.

ABA Qualifications 

ABA therapists are highly trained professionals that must also stay up to date on current developments in their fields. Board-certified analysts must have a Behavior Analyst Certification Board credential called the BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst). The Analyst must meet the below-listed requirements.

  • Education- have a master’s degree or PhD in psychology or behavior analysis
  • Exam- They must pass a national exam
  • License- Apply for a state license where required by state law.

Finding ABA Services

Parents and caregivers can get referrals and prescriptions for ABA services from pediatricians and other medical professionals. Medicaid covers medically necessary treatments for children under the age of 21 if accompanied by a doctor’s prescription. The key is the medical doctor’s determination of medical necessity.

Getting the right match for a child’s problems is important. The ABA provider should have BCBA certification and all licenses required in the state. The family and other parts of the child’s environment must also work well with the ABA program. The below-listed items are among the important options and choices to consider.

  • How many therapists will work with the child?
  • Do therapists get regular training and refresher courses?
  • Does the program offer home-based or clinic-based therapy?
  • Do parents have input in setting goals?
  • How often will the program get an assessment? progress report?
  • Is there immediate availability or a wait list?
  • Does the program accept my insurance?


Last Updated: 9/9/2020

Note: You should consult with your doctor or applied behavioral analyst for recommendations on treatment.