Science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

The characteristics of Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, were first described by Baer, Wolf and Risley in 1968. You can find these in the first volume of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, titled, aptly, Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis.

However, the simplest way to describe ABA in a broad sense is that it is a science of human behavior, using experimentally derived principles of behavior to improve socially significant behaviors. In particular, behaviors are assessed within the context of their functional relationship with their environment. That is, for example, how does my behavior (e.g., my language or my social interactions with other people) change my environment—the things and people around me—to such a degree that it is more or less likely to occur in the future?

Over the past half-century, thousands of research studies have shown the effectiveness of ABA to improve a wide variety of behaviors, both increasing positive behaviors, such as language, social, play and leisure skills, self-help skills, and academics, as well as decreasing inappropriate behaviors such as aggression, self-injury, and repetitive behaviors. This is true across a wide range of ages, from toddlers to senior citizens, and in nearly every conceivable setting, from schools and homes to institutions, hospitals, and in community settings, such as restaurants and public transportation, just to name a few; and these are just within the area of developmental disabilities.

A substantial number of young learners who receive such treatment can achieve near normal or even normal levels of functioning!

reading with girlAgain, one of the critical features of ABA is an emphasis on the functional relationship between behavior and the environment (i.e., how a person’s behaviors change the world around him/her, and how those changes affect the future likelihood on the same behaviors). The strategies that IBS includes in treatment packages are engineered to make positive behaviors more functional (to “work” better) and inappropriate behaviors less functional (to “work” less well). For example, if language is targeted for increase—a wider variety, longer sentences, or even just single utterances more often—it must be functional to use more language. There needs to be a “reason,” and providing quality intervention includes increasing motivation—making targets more functional.

Observation and Measurement

boy stacking blocksA second characteristic of Applied Behavior Analysis is an emphasis on behaviors that can be observed and measured. Performance measures are essential for program evaluation and adjustments, and while emotions or “states” such as anger, depression, anxiety, or overstimulation are certainly real and affect our behavior, they are simply descriptors of various behaviors that can be observed. In other words, you only know someone is anxious based on his/her behavior. This might include an increase in repetitive or self-injurious behaviors, but both are behaviors that can be observed and measured. Thus, even though treatment may even include strategies to reduce anxiety, the only way to evaluate the effectiveness of that treatment is to measure observable behavior(s).

Another important aspect of ABA is the use of graphic representations of data. The data that are collected based on the observable target behaviors are graphed. This provides a good visual image of each skill targeted for acquisition and each behavior targeted for reduction.

Also, in comprehensive ABA program, it is vital to identify very precisely the skills that should be targeted for intervention. Furthermore, those should generally be sequenced beginning with the “simplest” skills and progressing toward the more complex skills, breaking them down as necessary along the way. This certainly involves a great deal of precision and specificity, but the global objective is to teach individuals to learn from typical environments—to not require specialized and specific instruction—in short, to be as independent as possible.

Another characteristic of ABA is an emphasis on repeated measurements. Because much of human behavior does not change immediately or uniformly, simple before-and-after measures can often be inaccurate. Repeated measures allow us to make more accurate assessments of our treatment effects. It is important to have objective and accurate measures of behavior so appropriate adjustments can be made when necessary. IBS utilizes a program called Catalyst for data collection and management.

Another aspect of Applied Behavior Analysis is the importance of changing the environment to change behavior. That is, intervention “points” (or “teachable moments”) include the stimuli around you—the ways in which adults respond to a child’s behavior, the ways in which peers respond to a child’s behavior, how the physical environment changes based on a child’s various behaviors. For example, what should change about a child’s environment when he/she says, “Can I watch TV please?” If someone turns on the TV, he/she may be likely to engage in that same behavior again (provided that he/she actually wants the TV on). If the TV is not turned on, that speaking behavior is less functional and the child may be less likely to engage in that behavior in the future. In other words, the lens through which IBS views its ABA programs is simple—we change our behavior to change that of our students.

It is also imperative that methods and rationales are defined precisely. That is, there is a written program or set of instructions for teaching each skill; the Board Certified Behavior Analyst in charge of each student’s programming trains those who work with the student to implement those programs consistently; and parents learn to implement the strategies outside of formal teaching sessions. In short, a high-quality ABA program has behavior change procedures specified clearly so that effective program components can be implemented with precision by everyone.

What Applied Behavior Analysis is not

It may also be important to understand what Applied Behavior Analysis is not. First, ABA and discrete trial teaching (sometimes referred to as Lovaas training, or discrete trial instruction or training) are not the same thing. Discrete trial teaching, when done well, is based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, but they are not the same. A quality ABA program should include discrete trial teaching, but also a number of other strategies that are not discrete trial teaching, such as naturalistic teaching procedures and using task analyses to teach complex skills.

It is certainly critical for a learner with autism to have several opportunities throughout every day to learn and practice targeted skills. And, one way to engineer those opportunities is for an instructor to present a series of discrete trials—these are critical for teaching a wide variety of new skills to students with autism. However, a state-of-the-art ABA program cannot rely exclusively on these DTT procedures.

Another misconception about Applied Behavior Analysis is that using its principles results in “trained robots.” For example, certain speaking patterns and rote responses certainly present as robotic, but these aren’t somehow caused by behavior analysis. In fact, there’s a great deal of data to indicate that ABA programs can actually be successful at producing spontaneous behaviors, social behaviors, and even creative behaviors.

Finally, it is also important to understand that ABA is a comprehensive science, not a “cookie-cutter” treatment package or a “cure” for autism. There are no “cures” for autism. Nonetheless, intensive ABA programming has clearly been identified as the treatment of choice for children with autism, and a substantial number of young learners who receive such treatment can achieve near normal or even normal levels of functioning!