What is ABA Therapy and How is it Used to Treat Autism?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy based on learning and behavior. Therapists have used ABA therapy to help children with autism and other developmental disorders since the 1960s. It can help increase language and communication skills; improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics; and decrease problem behaviors. Here is a breakdown of what ABA therapy is and how it can be used to help children with autism.

What is ABA Therapy?

Simply put, the goal of ABA therapy is to increase good behaviors and decrease harmful behaviors. In order to do this, a behavior analysis has to take place. This involves looking at antecedents, behaviors, and consequences – the ABC’s.

An antecedent is what happens before a behavior occurs. It can be any number of things – something someone says, an object, even a situation or environment. It is the thing that causes the behavior to happen. The antecedent is found by simply observing a person and watching for the behavior.

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The tricky part of antecedents is that what is actually causing the behavior may not be obvious. For example, a child gets upset and throws a temper tantrum every night when it is time for bed. The antecedent may seem like it is the fact that it is bedtime, but it could actually be something else that is taking place at the same time, like having to brush teeth or take a bath. So it is important to look at all the factors that come into play when a behavior happens.

The “B” or behavior is then the individual’s response to the antecedent. In the example of the child having a temper tantrum at bedtime, the behavior is the temper tantrum. That is what ABA therapy would target, changing the temper tantrum with a goal behavior.

Following the antecedent and the behavior is the consequence. The consequence is what comes directly after the behavior. In ABA therapy, the consequence is either some sort of positive reinforcement, often in the form of a reward, that encourages the goal behavior, or no reaction for an inappropriate behavior.

How does ABA Therapy Work?

The goal of ABA therapy is to help a person work on skills to become more independent and successful in both the short term and the future. ABA therapy looks at the ABC’s to understand why a behavior is happening and the way different consequences affect whether the behavior is likely to happen again. One of the main techniques used in ABA therapy is positive reinforcement. Typically, a goal behavior is identified. Then, every time that goal behavior happens, the person is rewarded. The reward, like the goal behavior, is specific to the individual person. It has to be something meaningful that will motivate the person to work towards the goal behavior.

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The theory behind this technique is that a positive reward encourages the person to repeat the goal behavior. Over time, the person becomes accustomed to performing the goal behavior until it becomes habit. Once the good behavior becomes habit, that behavior has been effectively changed.

ABA therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The goal of ABA therapy is to try to understand an individual’s behavior and work to change it, so one person’s ABA therapy will look very different from another person’s. It is not the type of therapy that happens solely in a therapist’s office. It is implemented at home, at school, and everywhere in between. It becomes a part of daily life. That is the only way this type of therapy can work – it has to take place during real situations in order to take advantage of actual behaviors.

Typically, ABA therapy works by having a therapist assess an individual’s skills and preferences. They will use this to write specific age-appropriate goals for the person. Family goals and preferences, especially when young children are being evaluated, are often included as well. The therapist then develops a plan that breaks down each of the goal behaviors or skills into small, actionable steps. The therapist works with the individual (and family, when appropriate) through each step one by one, starting with the simpler goals first. Through the process, the therapist usually meets with family members regularly to review the child’s progress and adjusts the plan and goals as needed.

ABA Therapy and Autism

Numerous studies have shown that intensive and long-term ABA therapy improves behaviors for many children with autism. These studies showed improvement in intellectual functioning, language development, daily living skills, and social functioning in those children with Autism for whom this therapy was successful.

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Although ABA therapy is often used to curb unwanted behaviors, it can also be used to teach simple and complex skills. For example, ABA therapy can be used to reward a child for brushing teeth correctly or for sharing toys. While ABA therapy can teach a child to shake hands or greet another person, it won’t help that child to feel an emotional connection with another person. In other words, it is not meant to teach emotional or social skills.

However, for children with autism, ABA therapy can help them learn what behaviors to use in certain situations and how to control some of their challenging impulses. Learning those types of skills can make a huge difference in how a child with autism navigates through something like a typical school day.

ABA therapy is effective for both children and adults, and for those individuals with or without autism. It is not a miracle cure or the answer to all behavior issues, but it has been found to dramatically help children with autism learn to navigate the sometimes confusing social situations that they have to face regularly. However, not every child responds to this type of therapy. Before starting on this (or any) type of therapy, be sure to find professionals trained in ABA therapy, and be sure to work closely with your child’s team to establish and work through appropriate, measurable goals.

Check out this article on 11 Tips for Dressing Your Sensory Sensitive Child

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Sources: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), What is ABA Therapy for Autism?



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Michelle Frick
Michelle Frick
Born in Massachusetts, Michelle currently lives in North Carolina. She has two teenage boys who are growing up way too fast. Besides her love of writing, she enjoys running, practicing yoga, watching hockey, and cheering on the Boston Red Sox.