Applied Behaviour Analysis and Autism Ranking: Unable to rate

Key Features

Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is a systematic way of observing someone's behaviour, identifying desirable changes in that behaviour and then using the most appropriate methods to make those changes.

It is based on the idea that someone's behaviour can be changed by altering what happens before the behaviour occurs (known as the antecedent) and /or by altering what happens after the behaviour occurs (known as the consequence).  

So, for example, an ABA practitioner may try to improve a child's communication and social skills (the behaviour) by demonstrating more effective ways to interact with other children (the antecedent) and then rewarding him (the consequence) when he demonstrates the improved behaviours.

The practitioner will then analyse how well that approach has worked and, if necessary, make changes to the intervention to improve the child's behaviour next time around.

Systematic procedures

The process of applied behaviour analysis is intended to be very scientific, objective and systematic.

According to Schoen (2003),

“Children are first individually analyzed to assess the behavior that needs to be altered. Once the behavior is identified, intervention strategies are determined to suit the situation and, then, used to modify the behavior. During this time, the instructor provides reinforcement to elicit and maintain the desired behavior. Evaluations are made throughout the modification process to assess the effectiveness of the intervention. When an intervention is found to be ineffective, another strategy is substituted.

“Each case of applied behavior analysis (ABA) must be conducted around the context of the environment and particular characteristics of the individual. The behavior that is targeted for change must also be observable and measurable. Five more specific steps are followed in the ABA process. First, the positive behavior is measured directly. Second, the behavior is measured daily based on the target responses. Then, systematic procedures are followed so that, if successful in modifying the behavior, those procedures can be replicated. Fourth, data is recorded on the individual level, usually by graphing progress. Finally, the interventionist demonstrates that the results were completed in a controlled manner in an attempt to prove that the intervention accounted for the change in behavior.”

Specific approaches and interventions

A practitioner using the principles of ABA may use one or more specific approaches and interventions, including

  • discrete trial training - a highly-structured form of training that involves a trainer instructing an individual using a series of learning opportunities or trials.
  • early intensive behavioural intervention - highly structured and intense intervention in which a child is taught a range of skills by a team of practitioners beginning in the pre-school years.
  • functional assessment - the process for gathering information that can be used to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of behavioural support interventions.
  • functional communication training  - teaching people to use other forms of communication as substitutes for the messages underlying challenging behaviours.
  • incidental teaching - form of teaching in which a teacher takes advantage of naturally occurring incidents or situations to provide learning opportunities for the student.
  • milieu training - form of teaching in which the teacher takes advantage of the child's interest in the things around him, the milieu, to provide learning opportunities for the child.
  • pivotal response training - form of training in which the trainer concentrates on changing pivotal areas in order to change the behaviours which depend on them.
  • positive behavioural support - intervention in which individuals are assisted in acquiring adaptive, socially meaningful behaviours and encouraged to overcome maladaptive behaviours.
  • verbal behaviour approach - intervention which focuses on teaching specific components of expressive language first (such as the ability to make a demand).

Specific techniques

In addition, the practitioner may use one or more of many specific techniques within one or more of the interventions listed above.

  • chaining - the linking of component behaviours into a more complex, composite behavior.
  • fading - gradually reducing the strength of a prompt.
  • fluency building - building up complex behaviours by teaching each element of those behaviours until they require less effort.
  • modelling - method of teaching in which an individual learns a behaviour or a skill by watching someone demonstrating that behaviour or skill.
  • prompting - verbal or physical cue or hint that is used to encourage an individual to perform a desired behaviour.
  • reinforcement - a response (such as praising or attending to the child's behaviour) that affects the likelihood of that behaviour recurring.
  • shaping - technique, in which successively closer approximations of a desired behaviour are reinforced.
  • time out and extinction - a procedure to ensure that unwanted behaviours are no longer rewarded.

Specific programmes

There are many comprehensive, multi-component programmes for people on the autism spectrum which incorporate the principles of applied behaviour analysis.

Some specific programmes that have been evaluated in peer-reviewed journals include the Autism Preschool Program, the Douglas Developmental Disabilities Center Program, the Early Achievements program, the Early Start Denver Model, the JASPER: Joint Attention, Symbolic Play and Engagement Regulation program, the Lovaas method/UCLA Young Autism Project, the May Institute Program, the Murdoch Early Intervention Program, the Princeton Child Development Institute Program, Project ImPACT, the SCERTS model and many others.

Traditional versus contemporary forms of applied behaviour analysis

The early forms of applied behaviour analysis were very directive, with the practitioner controlling all aspects of the intervention. For example, in discrete trial training, the practitioner would often structure the learning environment and specify what would be learnt and when - although this might not bear any relationship to the individual's activities or interests.

Later forms of applied behaviour analysis are more naturalistic in their approach, with the practitioner taking account of the child's own interests and activities. For example, in milieu teaching, the practitioner takes advantage of the child's interest in the things around him, the “milieu”, to provide learning opportunities for the child.

In practice, few practitioners are totally directive or totally naturalistic. Instead, most use a range of techniques, incorporating some directive and some naturalistic elements.

ABA techniques can be used in highly structured situations - such as formal instruction in classrooms - as well as in less structured situations such as during play or mealtime at home.

They can also be used in one to one instruction or in whole group instruction.

Needs of the individual

According to Green et al. (200?),

“Done correctly, ABA intervention for autism is not a one size fits all approach consisting of a set of programs or drills. On the contrary, every aspect of intervention is customized to each learner's skills, needs, interests, preferences, and family situation. For those reasons, an ABA program for one learner might look somewhat different than a program for another learner. But genuine, comprehensive ABA programs for learners with autism have certain things in common:

  • Intervention designed and overseen directly by qualified, well-trained professional behavior analysts
  • Detailed assessment of each learner's skills as well as learner and family preferences to determine initial treatment goals
  • Selection of goals that are meaningful for the learner and the family
  • Ongoing objective measurement of learner progress
  • Frequent review of progress data by the behavior analyst so that goals and procedures can be fine tuned - as needed
  • Instruction on developmentally appropriate goals in all skill areas (e.g., communication, social, self-care, play and leisure, motor, and academic skills)
  • Skills broken down into small parts or steps that are manageable for the learner, and taught from simple (such as imitating single sounds) to complex (e.g., carrying on conversations)
  • An emphasis on skills that will enable learners to be independent and successful in both the short and the long run
  • Use of multiple behavior analytic procedures - both adult-directed and learner-initiated - to promote learning in a variety of ways
  • Many opportunities - specifically planned and naturally occurring - for each learner to acquire and practice skills every day, in structured and unstructured situations
  • Intervention provided consistently for many hours each week
  • Abundant positive reinforcement for useful skills and socially appropriate behaviors
  • An emphasis on positive social interactions, and on making learning fun
  • No reinforcement for behaviors that are harmful or prevent learning
  • Use of techniques to help trained skills carry over to various places, people, and times and to enable learners to acquire new skills in a variety of settings
  • Parent training so family members can teach and support skills during typical family activities
  • Regular meetings between family members and program”
31 Oct 2017
Last Review
01 Sep 2016
Next Review
01 Sep 2019