Applied Behavior Analysis

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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Basic Characteristics

  • Description

ABA style interventions aim to apply scientifically validated principles of behavior to improve the social deficits exhibited by those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. This technique uses the principles of operant conditioning to teach specific social , communicative, and behavioral skills to children with ASD. Children are taught new favorable behaviors using explicit reinforcement and problematic behaviors are solved by analyzing the environmental triggers before the behavior occurs to change any environmental factors that contribute to the problem. This technique uses careful collection of data to assess its success in the individual and modify the treatment as needed.

Initial interest in ABA style interventions started when Lovaas reported that 47% of children in his study who received intensive, 40 hours per week early ABA had outcomes that were similar to those typically developing children. Studies following up this study led many to conclude that while intensive ABA is an effective interention, it is unlikely that the success rate of 47% is realistic.

These studies have been used to formulate some key characteristics of effective interventions, which include having the children participate in at least 20 hours per week of organized services that starts at an early age, younger than 4 years if possible, and involving direct adult attention in individual or very small group instruction. Recent studies show that the minimum of 20 hours a week is extremely important in the effectiveness of the intervention and that ABA is superior to other intervention strategies.1

Some popular ABA style interventions include
Discrete trial training
Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI)
Incidental Teaching
Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
Verbal behavior intervention (VBI)
Other common interventions that may be recommended along with ABA by your clinician depending on the child's needs include
Developmental, individual differences, relationship-based approach (also called Floortime)
Relationship development intervention (RDI)
Treatment and education of autistic and communication-related handicapped children (TEACCH)

The basic learning principle behind ABA is that behaviors that are followed by desirable consequences or the removal of aversive consequences will be strengthened. Behaviors followed by undesirable consequences or the removal of desirable conditions will be weakened. Behaviors which are not reinforced will become extinct.3


There have been no multi-site randomized clinical trials that measured outcomes in the three deficit areas of ASD. Many studies use different methods (DTT or PRT, for example), making it difficult to figure out if lack of significance in findings is a result of the teaching method, or ABA. Additionally, much of the scientific literature supporting ABA is based off of single case study designs.2

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  • References

1. Barbaresi et. al. Autism: A Review of the State of the Science for Pediatric Primary Health Care Clinicians. Arch Pediatr adolesc med/Vol. 160, Nov 2006. pg. 1171

2. Spreckley M et. al. Efficacy of applied behavioral intervention in preschool children with autism for improving cognitive, language, and adaptive behavior: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Pediatr. 2009 Mar;154(3):338-44. PMID 18950798

3. Granpeesheh D et. al. Applied behavior analytic interventions for children with autism: a description and review of treatment research.Ann Clin Psychiatry. 2009 Jul-Sep;21(3):162-73. PMID 19758537

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