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ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis

The Only Research Based Approach to Autism Approved by the Surgeon General


ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis

ABA builds on the relationship of a teacher and his/her students

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Applied Behavior Analysis, better known as ABA, is an instructional "technology" based first on the work John B Watson, and later on that of B.F. Skinner, the father of "Behaviorism," the psychological science of behavior. Further developed as an approach to educate children with autism spectrum disorders, it has gained international recognition as the single most effective science based strategy for teaching children with serious behavioral and cognitive disorders from Autism Spectrum Disorders.

The research of Ivar O Lovaas, a Norwegian Clinical Psychologist at UCLA made significant strides in exploring the efficacy of reinforcement, discrete trial teaching and other ABA techniques that support appropriate behavior, language development and academic learning.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board was created in 1997 to certify professionals for governmental and insurance purposes, assuming the licensing responsibility of several state agencies. Applied Behavior Analysis is used with diverse individuals across diverse settings, in schools, private homes and treatment settings.

The Building Blocks of Behavior Analysis


Rather than focusing on the "internal state" of a person, which is neither visible nor measurable, ABA looks at Behavior. Theoretical Behaviorism even considers cognition as behavior, but for it's purposes, ABA is interested in behavior that is observable and measurable. This behavior is any sort of human activity. Once a behavior is identified, it needs to be defined "Operationally" so that any observer will agree when they see the behavior.


  • John slaps the top of his head repeatedly with an open hand.
  • Emeline leaves her desk during instruction, walks slowly around the back of the room, and returns when prompted (asked) by her teacher.
  • Marcos lets out a high pitched screeching sound and falls to the floor.

You will note that I do not address the circumstances or outcomes of the behaviors, which will be addressed in "antecedent" and "function." You will never find that I address "attitude" which can be assigned but never assessed or measured. (Though I have a plan for applying ABA to improving "attitude".)

The ABC's of ABA:

ABA uses the acronym ABC to describe the critical, pivotal elements of behavior and also behavior change. They stand for:

  • Antecedent: The Antecedent includes the environment, the "setting events" (which may include people, events or preferred items) and the part of the day (routine.)
  • Behavior: This is the target of an ABA intervention. Behavior needs to be defined operationally, so that anyone who sees the behavior would identify it.
  • Consequence The Consequence, in ABA is what follows the behavior. It is in the "consequence" that reinforcement occurs. It may be what the adults do in response to the behavior that reinforces it, it may be what the child's peers do, it may just be the outcome of the behavior.

The Function of the Behavior

Identifying the function of a behavior helps you identify how the behavior is being reinforced. It also reveals how to find an appropriate and powerful replacement behavior.


Reinforcement has a very specific definition in ABA. It is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. We think of reinforcement as "reward," though it can be any number of things. It occurs on a continuum, from primary reinforcers, like food, water, or preferred items. It moves to secondary reinforcers, such as stickers, praise, and tasks that place a child in a position to get attention, such as being line leader.

Discrete Trial Teaching

Discrete Trial Teaching is the primary method of teaching "learning to learn" skills that create a foundation for a student's future academic success. Discrete Trial Teaching usually begins one to one at "the table" with a teacher or therapist. When a child has learned the "Learning to Learn" skills, they are ready to expand their repertoire of academic behaviors.

The strategies used in discrete trial teaching can be expanded to small groups and higher level thinking skills. It requires the ongoing use of reinforcement, trials with beginning, middle and end (ABC.)


This is the end goal of ABA: the independence of the child. The best outcome is for a child with autism, or any child for whom ABA is the most effective teaching strategy, to have a full set of age and socially appropriate skills.

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