INTRODUCTION TO APPLIED
by Barry K. Morris B.ScWk
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a process of
studying and modifying behavior. It has been rigorously tested and
is effective for many individuals with Autism
and other developmental disorders. It changes the environment and
monitors changed responses from the person, to result in changed
behavior or learning of life skills.
Definitions of Applied Behavior Analysis vary
considerably. In one example, Applied Behavior Analysis is:
“...the design, implementation, and evaluation
of environmental modifications to produce socially significant improvement
in human behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis includes the use of
direct observation, measurement, and functional analysis of the
relations between environment and behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis
uses antecedent stimuli and consequences, based on the findings
of descriptive and functional analysis, to produce practical change.”
This definition places emphasis on socially significant changes,
but Applied Behavior Analysis can be used to alter virtually any
behavior irrespective of its social relevance.
the abc model: the basis of Applied Behavior Analysis
The first step in Applied Behavior Analysis is
to analyze the behavior. This is done using the ABC model:
A - Antecedent
A directive or request for the child to perform
B - Behavior
A behavior, or response from the child - successful
performance, noncompliance, or no response.
C - Consequence
A consequence, defined as the reaction from the
therapist, which can range from strong positive reinforcement (ie.
a special treat, verbal praise) to a strong negative response, “No!”
techniques used in Applied Behavior Analysis
Task analysis is a process in which a task is
analyzed into its component parts so that those parts can be taught
through the use of chaining: forward chaining, backward chaining
and total task presentation.
The skill to be learned is broken down into the
smallest units for easy learning. For example, a child learning
to brush teeth independently may start with learning to unscrew
the toothpaste cap. Once the child has learned this, the next step
may be squeezing the tube, and so on.
The parent or therapist provides assistance to
encourage the desired response from the child. The aim is to use
the least intrusive prompt possible that will still lead to the
desired response. Prompts can include:
• Verbal cues ie. "Take the toothpaste cap
• Visual cues ie. pointing at the toothpaste
• Physical guidance ie. moving the child's hands
to unscrew the lid
• Demonstration ie. taking the cap off to show
the child how it is done.
The overall goal is for a child to eventually
not need prompts. This is why the least intrusive prompts are used,
so the child does not become overly dependent on them when learning
a new behavior or skill. Prompts are gradually faded out as then
new behavior is learned. Learning to unscrew the toothpaste lid
may start with physically guiding the child's hands, to pointing
at the toothpaste, then just a verbal request.
Shaping involves gradually modifying the existing
behavior of a child into the desired behavior. An example here is
a young boy who only engages with the pet dog by hitting it. Although
time consuming, the parents intervene every time he interacts with
the dog, grab his hand and turn the hit into a stroking motion.
This is paired with positive reinforcement "It's great when
you are gentle with Pooch!" and doing a favorite activity immediately
afterwards as a reward.
Reinforcement provides a response to a child's
behavior that will most likely increase that behavior. It is “differential”
because the level of reinforcement varies depending on the child's
response. Difficult tasks may be reinforced heavily whereas easy
tasks may be reinforced less heavily. We must systematically change
our reinforcement so that the child eventually will respond appropriately
under natural schedules of reinforcement (occasional) with natural
types of reinforcers (social).
Reinforcement can be positive (verbal praise or
a favorite activity) or negative (an emphatic 'no'). Positive
reinforcement is an incentive given to a child who complies
with some request for behavior change. The aim is to increase the
chances the child will respond with the changed behavior. Positive
reinforcement is given immediately after the desired behavior has
occurred so that it will shape the child's future behavior.
Some examples of positive reinforcement include:
• Preferred activities (e.g., specific job; coffee
with a friend; concert; sporting event)
• Free time
• Verbal praise
• Food-related activities (special treats - not food they have the
right to access anyway)
• Desired objects (if affordable)
• Privileges (e.g., team leader for a day or week; certificate;
badge; choice of outing)
• Tokens (e.g.: a special trip when the child earns five gold stars
on the fridge).
Once a skill is learned in a controlled environment
(usually table-time), the skill is taught in more general settings.
Perhaps the skill will be taught in the natural environment. If
the student has successfully mastered learning colors at the table,
the teacher may take the student around the house or his school
and then re-teach the skill in these more natural environments.
Behavior analysts have spent considerable amount of time studying
factors that lead to generalization.
One teaching technique found to be effective with
some students, particularly children, is the use of video modeling
(the use of taped sequences as exemplars of behavior). It can be
used by therapists to assist in the acquisition of both verbal and
motor responses, in some cases for long chains of behavior..
Why Applied Behavior Analysis is a common intervention for Autism
Applied Behavior Analysis is one of the most common,
and most evidence-based
methods used to treat Autism. Applied Behavior Analysis has been
shown to be an effective means of intervention for adults and children
with pervasive developmental disorders, and is one of the most widely
used within this population. The Applied Behavior Analysis approach
teaches social, motor, and verbal behaviors and reasoning skills,
and can also be effective in managing challenging
Applied Behavior Analysis therapy is especially
useful in teaching behaviors to children with Autism who do not
otherwise “pick up” on these behaviors on their own as other children
would. Applied Behavior Analysis teaches these skills through use
of careful behavioral observation and positive reinforcement or
prompting to teach each step of a behavior. Generally Applied Behavior
Analysis involves intensive training of the therapists, extensive
time spent in Applied Behavior Analysis therapy (20-40 hours per
week) and weekly supervision by experienced clinical supervisors
known as a certified behavior analyst.
an example of applied behavior analysis in social skills
Here is a child's interaction with a teacher or
other adult who is being as helpful as possible without appropriate
Teacher: Hi, Alex, are you excited about Christmas?
A: [no response]
Teacher: What are you going to do on Christmas?
A: I don't know.
Teacher: Are you going to get presents?
Teacher: What else are you going to do?
A: [no response]
Teacher: Do you have a tree?
Teacher: Who's going to bring presents on Christmas?
A: I don't know.
Teacher: Is it Santa Claus?
Teacher: [smile] Thanks, Alex!
This is the child's half of the conversation:
"I don't know, Yes, Yes, I don't know, Yes."
Here's how a trained person might make this an
opportunity for practicing conversation skills:
Teacher: Hi, Alex, are you excited about Christmas?
A: [no response]
Teacher: Are you excited about Christmas? Say, Yeah, I want to open
A: Yeah, I want to open my presents!
Teacher: [Smile] Me too! What presents did you ask for?
A: I asked for presents.
Teacher: What presents did you ask for? Say, For Christmas, I asked
A: I asked for a bike. For Christmas.
Teacher: Cool! [Small tickle] Are you excited about Christmas?
A: Yeah, I want a bike.
Teacher: [Bigger tickle] A bike! That's great! I've got my tree
all decorated with ornaments. I put lots of ornaments on MY tree.
[Point to A's tree.]
A: I put heart ornaments on my tree.
Teacher: Alex, that's so great! [Great big tickle]
A: Ahhhhh! Cut it out!
Example used courtesy of Richard Saffran
Here are some examples of what an 'ABA drill sheet'
looks like for various activities. A therapist will create these
sheets for each activity the child will be learning. These have
been kindly supplied by abaresources.com
who offer some free free ABA resources:
drill sheet for making a sandwich
drill sheet for doing a simple puzzle
drill sheet for voice modulation.
parental and professional relationships in the ABA approach
An adequate communication and a supportive relationship
between educational systems and families allow children to receive
a beneficial education. This pertains to typical learners as well
as to children who need additional services. It was not until the
1960s that researchers began exploring Applied Behavior Analysis
as a method to educate those children who fall somewhere on the
Behavioral analysts agree that consistency in and out of the school
classroom is key in order for autistic children to maintain proper
standing in school and continue to develop to their greatest potential.
Applied Behavior Analysis involves an entire team working together
to address a child's needs. This team includes professionals such
as speech therapists as well as the children's primary caregivers,
who are treated as key to the implementation of successful therapy
in the Applied Behavior Analysis model. The Applied Behavior Analysis
method relies on behavior principles and a recommended curriculum
that reflects an individual child's needs and abilities. As such,
regular meetings with professionals to discuss programming are one
way to establish a successful working relationship between a child's
family and their school.
When a caregiver can be the outlet source for
the generalization of skills outside of school, it helps the child's
therapy process by catering to the child's individual needs. In
the Applied Behavior Analysis framework, developing and maintaining
a structured working relationship between parents and professionals
is essential to ensure consistency of thought and practice of behavioral
Problems with Applied Behavior Analysis
Applied Behavior Analysis has several problems
or criticisms. For one thing, it is very expensive - generally therapists
are required from 20 to 40 hours per week, plus the time of clinical
supervisors. This not only puts this therapy out of most parents'
range, but induces guilt as parents may feel they are neglecting
their autistic child unless they sell the family home to pay for
therapy. Get in touch with your nearest Autism association to see
what options are available in your area, and at what cost.
It is also criticized for producing ‘robot-like’
behavior in children, as well as its use of punishment to reduce
or eliminate problem behavior, though some of these criticisms are
frequently seen as addressed by more recent practices.
It is also suggested that Applied Behavior Analysis
trials are less effective for improving language than naturalized
teaching. Naturalized teaching mimics the use of language in
the natural environment, focusing on manding (requesting) tacting
(labeling) receptive language (physical manipulation based on commands
or requests) and the other functions of language.
Applied Behavior Analysis has come into widespread
use in the 1990s, and the demand is outstripping the supply of committed
and experienced service providers in some countries. As a result,
parents of children need to be extra vigilant in choosing appropriate
interventions for their children; this is especially so with regard
to choosing providers, who may be inexperienced, use questionable
methods or even deceive parents about their competency with Applied
Behavior Analysis or any other program. Such problems have led to
reports of poor outcomes from some parents.
can I do Applied Behavior Analysis myself?
Applied Behavior Analysis is one of the few evidence-based
treatments that prove effective in the majority of cases, so
parents are often interested in applying Applied Behavior Analysis
themselves if it too expensive or if therapies are not available
in their region. While the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis
are simple to learn, applying them in practice is very time-consuming
and takes a lot of skill and care to get right. Parents interested
in home-based interventions can read the Do-it-yourself
early intervention fact sheet.
A lack of trained ABA therapists has seen many
families run their own programs, with the occasional support of
a consultant where possible. One study found that in comparison
with clinic-based programs, most children in home-based
programs start intervention at a later age, have fewer hours
of treatment (32 hours/week compared to 40 hours/week), and are
less frequently supervised (Mudford, Martin, Eikeseth, & Bibby,
2001). Another study found that home-based programs has the same
positive results as clinic-based programs (Sallows and Grauper 2005).
It would be important to determine the amount of support parents
had from the researchers and how this parent managed program compared
with other parent based IBI programs.
It is difficult to predict whether parents will
be able to use Applied Behavior Analysis effectively to help their
child. It depends on issues such as the expertise of the parents
in applying ABA, the hours they can commit to intervention, the
quality of professional supervision received, and support from the
There are books available on running home-based
ABA programs but parents should remember that Applied Behavior Analysis
is only one of various strategies for supporting their child. See
the Behavior &
Life skills page for tips on developing programs you may be
able to implement at home.
to read detailed answers to the most common questions about ABA.
to read about choosing an ABA provider.
to read an example of ABA used to develop listening skills.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and Autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU