Behavior analysis is the science of behavior. It’s called a science because it’s based on the principles that have been found, through scientific research over years of study, to govern human behavior. Applied behavior analysis is a discipline whereby the principles of behavior are applied to real-life important problems that affect individuals, in order to improve their lives to a meaningful degree. Applied behavior analysis also relies on the measurement of behaviors in order to make decisions about what to do next. This measurement allows behavior analysts to make informed decisions regarding how best to increase socially significant behaviors and how best to reduce maladaptive behaviors.
Since the beginning of research involving behavior analysis, a wide variety of ABA techniques have been developed for building useful skills in learners – from toddlers through adulthood. Applied behavior analysis is a technique that is effective for all populations and all ages. It focuses on the principles that explain how learning takes place. Positive reinforcement is one such guiding principle. When a behavior is followed by some sort of reward, that behavior is more likely to be repeated. Through decades of research, the field of behavior analysis has developed many techniques for increasing useful behaviors and reducing those that may cause harm or interfere with functioning in the natural environment. These techniques can be used in structured situations such as a 1:1 lesson as well as in “everyday” situations such as a trip to the grocery store or family dinnertime or an outing to the park.
What are the components of a quality ABA program?
Effective ABA intervention for autism is not a “one size fits all” approach and should never be viewed as a “canned” set of programs or drills. On the contrary, a skilled therapist customizes the intervention to each learner’s skills, needs, interests, preferences and family situation. For these reasons, an ABA program for one learner will look different than a program for another learner. That said, quality ABA programs for learners with autism have the following in common:
1. Planning and Ongoing Assessment
- A qualified and trained behavior analyst designs and directly oversees the intervention.
- The analyst’s development of treatment goals stems from a detailed assessment of each learner’s skills and preferences and may also include family goals.
- Treatment goals and instruction are developmentally appropriate and target a broad range of skill areas such as communication, sociability, self-care, play and leisure, motor development and academic skills.
- Goals emphasize skills that will enable learners to become independent and successful in both the short and long terms.
- The instruction plan breaks down desired skills into manageable steps to be taught from the simplest (e.g. imitating single sounds) to the more complex (e.g. carrying on a conversation).
- The intervention involves ongoing objective measurement of the learner’s progress.
- The behavior analyst frequently reviews information on the learner’s progress and uses this to adjust procedures and goals as needed.
- The analyst meets regularly with family members and program staff to plan ahead, review progress and make adjustments as needed.
2. ABA Techniques and Philosophy
- The therapist uses a variety of behavior analytic procedures, some of which are directed by the instructor and others initiated by the learner.
- Parents and/or other family members and caregivers receive training so they can support learning and skill practice throughout the day.
- The learner’s day is structured to provide many opportunities – both planned and naturally occurring – to acquire and practice skills in both structured and unstructured situations.
- The learner receives an abundance of positive reinforcement for demonstrating useful skills and socially appropriate behaviors. The emphasis is on positive social interactions and enjoyable learning.
The learner receives no reinforcement for behaviors that pose harm or prevent learning.
Is ABA Effective?
Today, ABA is widely recognized as an extremely effective treatment for autism. It has been endorsed by a number of state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health. Over the last decade, the nation has seen a particularly dramatic increase in the use of ABA to help persons with autism live happy and productive lives. In particular, ABA principles and techniques can foster basic skills such as attending, listening and imitating, as well as complex skills such as reading, conversing and understanding another person’s perspective.
A number of completed studies have demonstrated that ABA techniques can produce improvements in communication, social relationships, play, self care, school and employment. These studies involved age groups ranging from preschoolers to adults. Results for all age groups showed that ABA increased participation in family and community activities.
A number of peer-reviewed studies have examined the potential benefits of combining multiple ABA techniques into comprehensive, individualized and intensive early intervention programs for children with autism. “Comprehensive” refers to interventions that address a full range of life skills, from communication and sociability to self-care and readiness for school.
Such studies have demonstrated that many children with autism experience significant improvements in learning, reasoning, communication and adaptability when they participate in high-quality ABA programs. Some preschoolers who participate in early intensive ABA for two or more years acquire sufficient skills to participate in regular classrooms with little or no additional support. Other children learn many important skills, but still need additional educational support to succeed in a classroom.
In some studies, researchers compared intensive ABA with less intensive ABA and/or other early intervention or special education programs for children with autism. Generally, they found that children who receive intensive ABA treatment make larger improvements in more skill areas than do children who participate in other interventions. In addition, the parents of the children who receive intensive ABA report greater reductions in daily stress than do parents whose children receive other treatments.