What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), also known as Intensive Behavioral Intervention, was derived from the operant conditioning theory of B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s research demonstrated that behavior can be modified by the use of positive or negative reinforcement (rewards or punishments). ABA uses positive reinforcement to increase desirable behavior while decreasing unwanted behavior in autistic children.
The use of ABA as a treatment for autism was pioneered in the early 1980s by the late Dr. Ivar Lovaas, a researcher at UCLA. Dr. Lovaas discovered that many hours per week of intensive, one-on-one training using positive reinforcement can produce dramatic changes in the behavior of autistic children. The Surgeon General has recognized ABA as an effective and safe treatment for autism.
How Applied Behavior Analysis is Used to Treat Autism
ABA treatment is individualized to address the strengths and needs of each child. It focuses on teaching the child desirable behaviors, while redirecting unwanted behaviors that are commonly seen in autistic children, such as repetitive or self-stimulatory behaviors. ABA is carried out by trained behavior analysts who work individually with the autistic child.
The main method of instruction in ABA programs is called Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT). This method of teaching breaks down each skill into small parts. These sub-skills are taught one at a time by repetition, and maintained by positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement may be in the form of smiles, hugs, verbal messages, treats, or other things that the child finds desirable. The technique of DTT is used for a wide variety of skills, including behavioral, cognitive, fine motor, play, self-help and social skills.
ABA treatment sessions are usually held for two or three hours at a time. Therapy involves 3-5 minutes of structured time concentrating on one task, interspersed by a similar amount of time for free play. After each hour, there is a 10-15 minute break. Intensive intervention takes place 35-40 hours per week. Facilitated play with peers is also a part of the treatment, so children can become accustomed to social interaction in natural environments. Parental involvement is an important part of ABA, and many parents become familiar with the technique so that they can continue the training at home.
Since autism can frequently be recognized and diagnosed in very young children, intervention and treatment can be started early. The ABA approach can be used with children as young as two years of age. With early intervention, some children achieve enough language acquisition and social and behavioral skills to allow them to be mainstreamed into regular classrooms by the time they are old enough to start school. Among children who cannot be mainstreamed, those who are placed in special education classrooms are still greatly benefited by these methods, with significant decreases in inappropriate behavior and enhanced social and language skills.
The use of ABA treatment for autism is not limited to young children. This method can also be used effectively for older children, adolescents and adults with autism.