Links and Contacts

What is Applied Behavioral Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis is the design, implementation, and evaluation of environmental modifications to produce socially significant improvement in human behavior.  ABA includes the use of direct observation, measurement, and functional analysis of the relations between environment and behavior. ABA uses antecedent stimuli and consequences, based on the findings of descriptive and functional analysis, to produce practical change. ABA is based on the belief that an individual’s behavior is determined by past and current environmental events in conjunction with organic variables such as genetics. Thus, it focuses on explaining behavior in terms of external events that can be manipulated rather than internal constructs that are beyond our control.

Applied Behavior Analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior (Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991).

"Socially significant behaviors" which have been successfully treated via an ABA approach and validated in Peer Review Scientific publications, include: 

  • Reading
  • Academics
  • Social skills
  • Communication
  • The reduction of challenging behaviors (i.e., self-injurious behavior, aggression, property destruction, etc.)
  • Adaptive living skills. Adaptive living skills include gross and fine motor skills, eating and food preparation, toileting, dressing, personal self-care, domestic skills, time and punctuality, money and value, home and community orientation, and work skills.
  • Language (i.e. receptive and expressive skills, augmentative communication)
  • Community living skills (vocational, public transportation and shopping skills)
  • Social skills (reciprocal social interactions, age-appropriate social skills).

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is based on the science of human behavior. Over the past 30 years, several thousand published research studies have documented the effectiveness of ABA across a wide range of: 

  • Populations (children and adults with mental illness, developmental disabilities and learning disorders)
  • Interventionists (parents, teachers and staff)
  • Settings (schools, homes, institutions, group homes, hospitals and business offices); and Behaviors (see above)

Applied Behavior Analysis is a broad-based profession, whose only limitations are the application to observable human behavior.   Examples of how Applied Behavior Analysis has been demonstrated as an effective intervention in various populations and socially significant behaviors are presented below. ABA is an objective discipline. ABA focuses on the reliable measurement and objective evaluation of observable behavior.  One critical feature of all these examples is the basis in science in which these applications are demonstrated, including the demonstration of experimental control and the collection of objective data to support that the intervention was in-fact, responsible for the change in behavior.

  • Child Development
    o Goetz, E.M. & Baer, D.M. (1973).  Social Control of form diversity and the emergence of new forms of children’s block building. JABA, 6, 209-217. 
    o Glover, J. & Gary, A.L. (1976).  Procedures to increase some aspects of creativity.  JABA, 9, 79-84.
  • Classroom Management
    o Bushell, D., Wrobel, P., & Michaelis, M. (1968).  Applying “group” contingencies to the classroom study behavior of preschool children. JABA, 1, 55-61.
    o Pfiffner, L., Rosen, L., & O’Leary, S.G. (1985).  The efficacy of an all-positive approach to class-room management.  JABA, 18, 257-261.
  • Developmental Disabilities
    o Azrin, N., & Foxx, R.M. (1971).  A rapid method of toilet training the institutionalized retarded. JABA, 4, 89-99.
    o Van den Pol, R., Iwata, B.A., Ivancic, M., Page, T., Neef, N., & Whitley, F. (1981).  Teaching the handicapped to eat in public places: Acquisition, generalization, and maintenance of restaurant skills.  JABA, 14, 61-69.
  • Clinical Disorders
    o Woods, D., Miltenberger, R., & Lumley, V. (1996).  Sequential application of major habit-reversal components to treat motor tics in children.  JABA, 29, 483-493.
    o Leitenberg, H., Agras, W., Thompson, L., & Wright, D. (1968).  Feedback in behavior modification: An experimental analysis in two phobic cases.  JABA, 1, 131-137.
  • Behavioral Medicine
    o Iwata, B.A., & Becksfort, C.M. (1981).  Behavioral research in preventive dentistry: Educational and contingency management approaches to the problem of patient compliance.  JABA, 14, 111-120.
    o Renne, C., & Creer, T. (1976).  Training children with asthma to use inhalation therapy equipment.  JABA, 9, 1-11.
  • Crime and Delequency
    o Kifer, R., Lewis, M., Green, D., & Phillips, E. (1974).  Training predelequent youths and their parents to negotiate conflict situations.  JABA, 7, 357-364.
    o Schnelle, J., Kirchner, R., Galbaugh, F., Domash, M., Carr, T., & Larson, L. (1979). Program evaluation research: An experimental cost-effectiveness analysis of an armed robbery intervention program.  JABA, 12, 615-623.
  • Orgnizational Behavior Management
    o Goltz, S.M. (1992).  A sequential learning analysis of decisions in organizations to escalate investments despite continuing costs or losses. JABA, 25, 561-574.
    o Johnson, M., & Fawcett, S. (1994).  Courteous service: Its assessment and modification in a human service organization. JABA, 27, 145-152.
  • Gerentology
    o Burgio, L.D., Burgio, K.L., Engel, B.T., & Tice, L.M. (1986).  Increasing distance and independence of ambulation in elderly nursing home residents.  JABA, 19, 357-366.
    o Bourgeois, M. (1990).  Enhancing conversation skills in patients with Alzheimer's Disease using a prosthetic memory aid.  JABA, 23, 29-42.
  • Community Applications
    o Jason, L., Billows, W., Schnopp-Wyatt, D., & King, C. (1996).  Reducing the illegal sales of cigarettes to minors: Analysis of alternative enforcement schedules.  JABA, 29, 333-344.
    o Van Houten, R., Rolider, A., Nau, P., Friedman, R., Becker, M., Chalodovsky, I., & Scherer, M. (1985).  Large scale reductions in speeding and accidents in Canada and Israel: A behavioral ecological perspective.  JABA, 18, 87-93.
  • Sports and Recreation
    o McKenzie, T., & Rushall, B. (1974).  Effects of self-recording on attendance and performance in a competitive swimming training environment.  JABA, 7, 199-206.
    o Osborne, K., Rudrud, E., & Zezoney, F. (1990).  Improving curveball hitting through enhancement of visual cues.  JABA, 23, 371-377.
  • Substance Abuse
    o Sitzer, M., Bigelow, G., Liebson, I., & Hawthorne, J. (1982).  Contingent reinforcement for benzodiazepine-free urines: Evaluation of a drug abuse treatment intervention.  JABA, 15, 493-503.
    o Foxx, R.M., & Brown, R.A. (1979).  Nicotine fading and self-monitoring for cigarette abstinence of controlling smoking.  JABA, 12, 111-125.
  • Academic Interventions
    o Gardner, R., Heward, W., & Grossi, T. (1994).  Effects of response cards on student participation and academic achievement: A systematic replication with inner-city students during whole class instruction. JABA, 27, 63-71.
    o Greenwood C., Terry, B., Arreaga-Mayer, C., & Finney, R. (1992). The class wide peer-tutoring program: Implementation factors moderating students’ achievement.  JABA, 25, 101-116.

Applications of ABA with Autism

The effectiveness of ABA-based interventions with persons diagnosed with autism is well documented, with current research replicating already-proven methods and further developing the field. Documentation of the efficacy of ABA-based interventions with persons with autism emerged in the 1960s, with comprehensive evaluations beginning in the early 1970s. 

ABA methods are used to support persons with autism in at least six ways:

  1. To increase behaviors (e.g., reinforcement procedures increase on-task behavior, social interactions, etc.)
  2. To teach new skills (e.g., systematic instruction and reinforcement procedures teach functional life skills, communication skills, or social skills)
  3. To maintain behaviors (e.g., teaching self control and self-monitoring procedures to maintain and generalize job-related social skills)
  4. To generalize or to transfer behavior from one situation or response to another (e.g., from completing assignments in their home to performing as well in the community)
  5. To restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviors occur (e.g., modifying the learning environment)
  6. To reduce interfering behaviors (e.g., self injury or stereotypy)

Hingtgen & Bryson (1972) reviewed over 400 research articles pertinent to the field of autism that were published between 1964 and 1970. They concluded that behaviorally based interventions demonstrated the most consistent results. In a follow-up study, DeMeyer, Hingtgen & Jackson (1981) reviewed over 1,100 additional studies that appeared in the 1970s. They examined studies that included behaviorally based interventions as well as interventions based upon a wide range of theoretical foundations. Following a comprehensive review of these studies, DeMeyer, Hingtgen & Jackson (1982) concluded "the overwhelming evidence strongly suggest that the treatment of choice for maximal expansion of the autistic child's behavioral repertoire is a systematic behavioral education program, involving as many child contact hours as possible, and using therapists (including parents) who have been trained in the behavioral techniques" (p.435).

Support of the consistent effectiveness and broad-based application of ABA methods with persons diagnosed with autism is found in hundreds of additional published reports. Baglio, Benavidiz, Compton, et al (1996) reviewed 251 studies from 1980 to 1995 that reported on the efficacy of behaviorally based interventions with persons with autism. Baglio, et al (1996) concluded that since 1980, research on behavioral treatment of autistic children has become increasingly sophisticated and encompassing, and that interventions based upon ABA have consistently resulted in positive behavioral outcomes. In their review, categories of target behaviors included aberrant behaviors (i.e. self injury, aggression), language (i.e. receptive and expressive skills, augmentative communication), daily living skills (self-care, domestic skills), community living skills (vocational, public transportation and shopping skills), academics (reading, math, spelling, written language), and social skills (reciprocal social interactions, age-appropriate social skills).

Support for such a treatment approach is well documented in the professional literature, including support from: 

  • The United States Surgeon General
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education
  • The National Science Foundation
  • The New York Department of Health Clinical Practices, among others

In recently published statement, the United States Surgeon General stated that “Thirty years of research has demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning, and appropriate social behavior” in her report on the Treatment of Autism (Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, 1999).  The New York State Department of Health Clinical Practice Guideline states, "It is recommended that principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and behavior intervention strategies be included as an important element of any intervention program for young children with autism."  Educational services for children diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder/Autism, requires consistent attention to detail, including the application of scientifically validated educational approaches (No Child Left Behind Act of 2003).  In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) commissioned the National Research Council (a program of the National Academy of Science) to assemble a “Blue Ribbon” task force to address the establishment of educational standards for children diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder/Autism.  They selected a broad based group of professionals from a variety of disciplines, including Special Education, Psychology, Psychiatry, Neurology, Speech, and Language Pathology, among others to serve on this panel.  The committee found that “the strongest studies (i.e., research based techniques) in terms of validity were developed out of an ABA approach.”  

Some of the general characteristics of a successful ABA based program serving children diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum include the following:

  1. The program employs an array of scientifically validated behavior analytic teaching procedures, including (but not limited to) discrete trial instruction, modeling, incidental teaching and other "naturalistic" teaching methods, small group instruction, activity-embedded instruction, task analysis, fading, shaping, and chaining.
  2. Each child's program is individualized according to his/her strengths and needs, with clearly stated objectives and specific written protocols for each educational activity and behavior reduction goal.
  3. Goals and Objectives (Benchmarks) meet the accepted standard for such, including a Verb, Objective criterion for success, and the conditions under which the behavior will be demonstrated.
  4. Goals/Benchmarks are written with appropriate objective measurement systems.
  5. Individual programs are selected from a curriculum that focuses on specific tasks, and follows a particular developmental sequence (e.g., The ABLLS). Outcomes measures are used to make decisions regarding changes in Goals.
  6. There is minimal down time, with scheduled opportunities for active responding followed by brief breaks.
  7. Incorporates the following techniques into skill-building programs: prompting; error correction; reinforcement and manipulation of motivational variables; stimulus control (including discrimination training); and choice procedures.
  8. Goals are written to teach to each skill to mastery, with a pre-determined mastery criteria, and include specific criterion for:
    • Fluency
    • Application in problem-solving situations
    • Generalization
    • Maintenance
    • Independence.
  9. Mastered skills are interspersed within trials of acquisition skills in order to both enhance the acquisition process as well as to continually assess the child’s retention of previously mastered skills.
  10. Children are provided immediate, frequent feedback; reinforcing accurate responding regarding their response to learning opportunities.  Staff uses consistent error correction procedures for incorrect responding.
  11. Procedures are implemented in a self-paced, individualized manner.
  12. Contemporaneous empirical data is recorded for all behavioral goals.
  13. Staff employs a wide array of strategies to program for and assess skill acquisition, generalization and maintenance.
  14. Staff modifies instructional programs based on frequent, systematic evaluation of direct observational data that is presented in graphic form.
  15. Staff modifies behavior reduction programs based on frequent, systematic evaluation of direct observational data.
  16. Staff reintroduces acquisition and/or behavior reduction goals that are not successfully maintained or generalized.
  17. Staff conducts functional assessments (including functional analyses) of challenging behavior and becoming familiar with the array of considerations that would indicate certain assessment methods over others.
  18. Formal preference assessments are conducted and modified as appropriate, and are documented for each child.
  19. The design and implementation of programs to reduce stereotypic, disruptive, and destructive behavior are based on formal Functional Assessments, which systematically analyze the variables that cause and maintain the behavior and matching treatment to the determined function(s) of the behavior.
  20. Incorporating differential reinforcement of appropriate alternative responses into behavior reduction programs and efforts to teach functionally equivalent replacement skills, based on the best available research evidence.
  21. Staff collaborates effectively with professionals from other disciplines involved in the treatment of each child, and with family members to promote consistent interventions and to maximize outcomes.
  22. Parents, Habilitation staff, Paraprofessionals, Aides and staff are appropriately trained in the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis and the education of students with the specific age, behavioral disorders, and diagnosis in their classroom.

One of the few concerns in the use of Applied Behavior Analysis in the treatment of children diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum is the fact that many individuals lacking sufficient formal training and appropriately supervised experience in the application of these techniques often are retained to develop, supervise and provide direct ABA services to this highly vulnerable population.  Many of the techniques utilized within an ABA model, especially in the treatment of challenging behaviors, can include elements that present a risk to the individual if not applied correctly and under the appropriate supervision. Standard for the use of ABA approaches can be found in:

  • The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), Special Interest Group on Autism “Guidelines for consumers of applied behavior analysis services to individuals with autism” (1998)
  • Identifying qualified professionals in behavior analysis" by G.L. Shook & J.E. Favell in Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Autism, edited by C. Maurice, G. Green, & S.C. Luce; Austin, TX: PRO-ED, 1996;
  • "Essential content for training behavior analysis practitioners," by G. L. Shook, F. Hartsfield, & M. Hemingway, The Behavior Analyst, 1996, Vol. 18, pp. 83-91.
Print Friendly and PDF