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What is ABA

ABA — Applied Behavior Analysis — is a science of human behavior, using empirically validated principles to change socially significant behaviors.  Observable and measurable behaviors are analyzed within an environment to determine why those behaviors are — or are not — occurring.  Treatment strategies can then be applied within that environment to bring about positive and meaningful change.

The unequivocal and powerful effectiveness of ABA is clear in the research literature related to the treatment of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  An ABA approach emphasizes positive reinforcement and precise teaching procedures for a comprehensive set of necessary behaviors for children with ASD, including cognitive, reasoning, language, social, self-help, motor, and academic skills.

ABA treatment strategies are particularly useful in teaching behaviors to children on the autistic spectrum who may not otherwise "pick up" these behaviors spontaneously through imitation, or as a result of traditional modes of instruction.  ABA strategies can be learned and applied with accuracy by parents, teachers, instructional assistants, and other professionals and family members.

What ABA is not?

ABA is often confused with table-time sorts of therapies, or strictly discrete-trial teaching. State-of-the-art ABA programming should certainly include structured instructional times — including those that might occur at a table — but should not be limited to those scenarios. Effective implementation of an ABA approach to the treatment of ASD should also include incidental teaching opportunities.  Once a student has mastered skills in structured situations, those skills must be generalized to other settings, with various people and materials, and under differing motivational conditions.

What is the theory behind it?

Researchers have shown that children with autism are less likely than their typically-developing peers to spontaneously learn skills from other children and adults in their everyday environments without specific instruction.  Using an ABA approach can help children with autism lead more independent and socially active lives.

The research literature indicates that these positive outcomes are more common for children with ASD who receive early — as soon as a child is diagnosed — and intensive intervention.  This may be due to critical brain development that occurs prior to and during the preschool years, which can be affected by instruction (3, 5).

Does it work?

ABA is one of the most common — and the one with the most evidence to support its effectiveness — methods used to treat autism.(6)(7)(8)(9)  By many researchers and clinicians, ABA is known to be the most effective evidence-based therapeutic approach demonstrated thus far.(10) The U.S. Surgeon General states that thirty years of research on the ABA approach have shown very positive outcomes when ABA is used as an early-intervention tool for autism (11).  Many parents have seen great success in typical behavior using ABA.

Since my son has started to receive ABA services, we have noticed a significant difference in his abilities. Through highly-structured and goal-oriented sessions, my son is being taught more effective behavior strategies through his social and environmental interactions that will ultimately better prepare him to learn in school and be more functional in handling daily life demands and transitions. ABA has provided more effective tools for communication and is helping him to build a stronger foundation for learning.
Leeli Taylor
Mother of 5 Year Old ASD Boy

As a parent, what is the benefit of doing it myself?

ABA has been shown to be effective when used in programs implemented by clinicians or parents. One of the important strengths of a parent-directed approach is that parents know their children best, and can tailor their child’s curriculum to suit the needs of the child. (2) In addition, parents will generally have a better understanding of their own children’s reinforcers—what excites and makes their children happy day to day.

Research has also shown that ABA is more effective when used intensively—often more than 25 to 40 hours per week. (3) Difficulties that parents may have with this include identifying and selecting appropriate therapists and/or clinician to supervise and direct programs, as well as simply supporting the program financially. Parents frequently spend $20,000 to $60,000 or more annually for intensive programming. Consequently, conducting ABA in-home with your existing family resources can assist in overcoming these obstacles.

An article written  by Sandra L. Harris,  Ph.D., and  Lara Delmolino, Ph.D.,  has shown that children that work at home after institutional instruction perform better. Parents are not always satisfied with having their children work exclusively with outside therapists. They need to have a way to work with their children and expand upon what therapists have accomplished.  See


  1. Simpson, R.L. (2001). "ABA and students with autism spectrum disorders: Issues and considerations for effective practice". Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 16 (2): 68-71. Retrieved on 2007-05-25.
  2. Harris, S.L.P.; Delmolino, L.P. (2002). “Applied behavior analysis: Its application in the treatment of autism and related disorders in young children". Infants and Young Children 14 (3): 11-17.
  3. Jensen, V.K., and L.V. Sinclair. 2002. "Treatment of Autism in Young Children: Behavioral Intervention and Applied Behavior Analysis." Infants and Young Children 14(4):42-52.
  4. Lovaas, O.. 1987. "Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children." J Consult Clin Psychol. 55(1):3-9.
  5. Rosenwasser B., and S. Axelrod. 2001. "The contribution of applied behavior analysis to the education of people with autism." Behav Modif. 25(5):671-677.
  6. Smith, T; Groen, A.D & Wynn, J.W. (2000). "Randomized Trial of Intensive Early Intervention for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorder". American Journal on Mental Retardation 105 (4): 269-285. PMID 10934569. Retrieved on 2007-05-24.
  7. McConachie, H; Diggl, T. (2006). "Parent implemented early intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review". Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice 13 (1): 120-9. PMID 17286734. Retrieved on 2007-05-24.
  8. Sallows, G.O.; Graupner, T. D. (2005). "Intensive behavioral treatment for children with autism: Four-year outcome and predictors". American Journal on Mental Retardation 110 (2): 417-438. PMID 16212446. Retrieved on 2007-05-24.
  9. Eikeseth, S; Smith, T., Jahr, E. & Eldevik, E. (2002). "Intensive behavioral treatment at school for 4- to 7-year-old children with autism: A 1-year comparison controlled study". Behavior Modification 26 (1): 49-68. PMID 11799654. Retrieved on 2007-05-24.
  10. Simpson, R.L. 1999. "Early Intervention with Children with Autism: The Search for Best Practices." Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps 24(3):218-221.
  11. U.S.Department of Health and Human Services. 1999. "Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General - Executive Summary." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. Rockville, MD.
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