Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied systematically to improve socially significant behavior and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for behavior change. (Baer, Wolf, Risely, 1968)
ABA uses scientifically derived techniques related to the theory that learning occurs as a result of the consequences of behavior. Research shows that ABA is the ONLY empirically validated form of treatment for children with autism.
Based on the well-established principles of learning and operant conditioning, as influenced by the works of researchers such as Edward L. Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, ABA recognizes that behaviors can be modified by altering the consequences that follow a behavior. Specifically, positive or preferred consequences increase the frequency of a given behavior, while negative or non-preferred consequences reduce the frequency of behavior.
All overt behavior exhibited by humans may be explained through the principles of learning. For example, infants may learn and be motivated to talk due to the positive consequences received following this social behavior: the screams of delight from parents following a baby’s first word, the joy of expressing one’s desires, or the concrete reward of getting the ice-cream one has asked for. Many ABA techniques are applied in all clinical and educational settings, with examples including the treatment of anxiety, depression, diet and exercise, aggression, substance abuse, job performance, educational performance, and daily living skills.
Based on over thirty years of research, treatment approaches grounded in Applied Behavior Analysis are now considered to be at the forefront of therapeutic and educational interventions for children with autism. In general, this behavioral framework utilizes manipulation of antecedents and consequences of behavior to teach new skills and eliminate maladaptive and excessive behaviors.
The Discrete Trial is a particular ABA teaching strategy which enables the learner to acquire complex skills and behaviors by first mastering the subcomponents of the targeted skill. For example, if one wishes to teach a child to request a desired food, as in “I want cookie,” one might first teach subcomponents of this skill, such as the individual sounds comprising each word of the request, or labeling small round pastries that taste good as “cookie.”
By utilizing prompting and fading teaching techniques, the learner gradually is able to complete all subcomponent skills independently. Once the individual components are acquired, they are linked together to enable mastery of the targeted complex and functional skill. This methodology is highly effective in teaching basic communication, play, motor, and daily living skills.
Initially, ABA programs for children with Autism utilized only Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT), and the curriculum focused on teaching basic skills as noted above. However, ABA programs, such as the program implemented at CARD, continue to evolve, placing greater emphasis on the generalization and spontaneity of skills learned, as well as higher-order cognitive processes.
As patients progress and develop conversational and reasoning skills, the strict DTT approach gives way to treatments including a cognitive component. Specifically, in order for high functioning children with autism or a related disorder to succeed both academically and socially in a typical educational setting, treatment must address their particular deficits in complex social understanding.
As such, treatment must address deficits in joint attention, emotional understanding, perspective taking, and friendship maintenance skills. Treatment may address some of these deficits by helping the learner to identify and understand the difference between thoughts, feelings/emotions, words, and actions. In addition, a solid understanding of mental states will also enable the learner to be successful in these areas.
Finally, Executive Functions such as problem solving skills, impulse-control and cognitive flexibility must be taught utilizing a cognitive behavioral framework to ensure normal intellectual and educational functioning.