Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a therapy that aims to change a person’s behavior by applying the principles of learning. It has a proven history and has been very successful in helping children with behavioral problems in public schools. In addition to managing behavior, some groups find that ABA also improves focus, communication, and social skills.

How Does ABA Work?

When a parent punishes their child by placing them in a time-out, they are applying applied behavior analysis, often unconsciously. By making careful observations of the surrounding environment and other factors, experts can determine how they affect behavior. This allows them to provide more positive influences to adjust a person’s behavior and actions toward more socially acceptable alternatives. The theory has origins dating back several decades, though its most notable influence is B.F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning.

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The ABCs of ABA

Much of the theory behind applied behavior analysis rests on a process of observation and consequence many experts call the ABCs, which entails

  • Antecedent: The prompt or initial trigger that leads to a behavior. For example, a child wants attention.
  • Behavior: The behavior or action responding to the antecedent. The child might throw a tantrum to receive attention.
  • Consequence: The reinforcement mechanism with ties to the behavior. Any adult or peer attention, even negative, reinforces the child’s desire.

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Measuring Behavior

Professionals must consider many factors when measuring a person’s behavior. Generally, experts rely on three quantifiable measures : repeatability, temporal extent, and temporal locus. Repeatability is how often a behavior occurs. It is important to record the number of occurrences, their frequency, and how the frequency changes over time. Temporal extent is the duration of a behavior. Temporal locus is the specific point in time that the behavior occurs. Recording the latency between the trigger and the response, as well as the time between behaviors, is common.

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Behavior analysts utilize many techniques to adjust behavior. These include

  • discrete trial training: breaking down complex behaviors into easily understandable pieces and treating each piece.
  • pivotal response training: targeting a patient’s motivations and responsiveness.
  • natural environment training: using reward systems with which a patient is already familiar to create a more natural behavioral response.
  • token economies: systems of offering placeholder rewards for desirable behaviors. Receiving gold stars in exchange for turning in homework is a classic example.

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ABA and Autism

Many organizations use applied behavior analysis when working with individuals with autism. According to experts, the therapy helps clients improve their social abilities, learn new skills, and manage negative feelings. Many people with autism struggle to transition positive behaviors from one situation to another. Another goal of ABA is to enable them to do this more easily and comfortably. Behavior analysts will also provide parents and teachers with the skills necessary to maintain ABA results over time.

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Other Conditions

In addition to autism, behavior analysts also treat clients with a variety of other issues, including depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. People with extreme phobias or anger management issues may also find ABA helpful. There is a lack of research confirming the effectiveness of ABA for individuals with conditions other than autism, so guardians need to be observant during therapies to ensure their child is receiving adequate care.

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After many decades, researchers have amassed a significant amount of evidence supporting the efficacy of applied behavior analysis. Dozens of studies indicate that long-term ABA therapy improves outcomes for many children with autism. Though they are less numerous, other studies investigating the therapy with adults show similar results. These research projects come from many established and respected institutions and journals, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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While most experts find applied behavior analysis to be an effective and safe therapy method, it is not without its critics. Notably, there is a lack of studies confirming its effectiveness beyond autism. Some former behavior analysts also claim they had very little training in treating specific issues, which this led to methods that many viewed as cruel. Additionally, many people within autism advocacy and protection groups claim that ABA forces clients to conform to a narrow conception of normalcy. Some critics even compare ABA to conversion therapy.

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Who Performs Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy?

To practice ABA, a person must receive a certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). This requires a master’s degree or PhD in either psychology or behavior analysis and passing a national certification exam. Some states also require a license before practicing. Many ABA therapy programs enlist the help of other professionals, such as therapists or registered behavior technicians. The BACB chooses these individuals as well.

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What to Look for

Parents, guardians, and teachers may worry about seeking ABA therapy for their children, given the possible risks. It is important to be wary of individuals without certifications and licensing. Plus, because ABA is only effective after long-term and intensive sessions, a behavior analyst must be readily available for the foreseeable future. Guardians considering the treatment should ask questions of prospective analysts to gauge what the therapy may entail and how the practitioner manages safety concerns. Requesting reviews or references for each analyst can help eliminate less-qualified individuals.

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