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.
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.”
A practitioner using the principles of ABA may use one or more specific approaches and interventions, including
In addition, the practitioner may use one or more of many specific techniques within one or more of the interventions listed above.
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.
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.
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: