What is Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)?


While there may be many treatments available for autism out there, with new alternative treatments on the rise, the treatment that is evidence-based and thoroughly research-based is Applied Behavioural Analysis (Lovaas, 1993).

ABA has been endorsed by the US Surgeon General, the New York State Department of Health as well as in the National Standards Project by the National Autism Center, USA (Autism Speaks). There have been over 1000 journal articles to support the efficacy of the ABA approach (Schrek & Miller, 2010) and 40 states in the USA have state funding or insurance coverage for ABA treatment for children with autism (Autism Speaks).

Studies show that almost 50% of children with autism who receive good quality intensive ABA treatment at an early age are able to catch up to their typical age.

So how does ABA actually work? Well firstly, ABA is based on the principles of operant conditioning, whereby consequences have an impact on increasing or decreasing behaviour. This means that whatever behaviour we reward (through attention or external/internal motivation) will increase. This includes appropriate behaviours we do want to increase as well as inappropriate behaviours that we may not want to increase.

For example,

  • A child says “book” and gets a cookie from his teacher. This is an appropriate behaviour of communication and the reinforcement in this case will be the book the child requested for. In this example, it is likely that the appropriate behaviour of using words to communicate will increase.
  • However, in another example, a child says “book” and the teacher say “No book” initially. The child starts to scream and push the teacher. Then, the parents say “Okay fine, here is the book!”. This is an example where the appropriate behaviour of communicating through words was not reinforced but instead the inappropriate behaviour of screaming and pushing was reinforced with the book. Therefore, it is likely that the inappropriate behaviour of screaming and pushing around will increase.

Secondly, it is important to note that ABA is not a syllabus or a curriculum but more so, a teaching methodology. While there are basic curriculums that trained ABA professionals know how to utilise, some children with autism may not complete this curriculum, may need adaptations or even individualised unique programmes. Over the last 10 years of our experience, we find that the principles of ABA can be applied to all ages of children and even adults, with or without autism.

The reason being that complex skills, be it language, cooperation, academic skills, play skills, or even social skills, can be broken down into its component parts. These component skills are then paired with positive reinforcement. Initially, this positive reinforcement may be external rewards that are individualised to the child’s preference with the purpose of becoming internally rewarding. Then, it is critical that these component skills have sufficient practice in order to become established skills over time and environments.

So in summary, ABA principles boil down to:

  1. Breaking complex skills down to their component part;
  2. Pairing this with positive reinforcement; and
  3. Providing sufficient practice!

A closing reminder tip is that whatever behaviour you give attention to will increase, both good and inappropriate behaviours.

Reference List
  1. 10 Years Of Progress: What We've Learned About Autism. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/news/news-item/10-years-progress-what-we039ve-learned-about-autism
  2. Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA). (2016). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/applied-behavior-analysis-aba
  3. Lovaas, O.I. (1993). The Development Of A Treatment-research Project For Developmentally Disabled and Autistic Children. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 26(4), 617-630.
  4. Schrek, K.A. & Miller, V.A. (2010). How To Behave Ethically In A World Of Fads. Behavioral Intentions, 25(4), 307-324.