When a caregiver is told their child has autism, many are also told they should get ABA, but are often never given any other information about it. What is ABA exactly and what will it mean for your child? For starters, ABA is not just a therapy for autism, it can be used in a variety of situations. ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis and is defined as “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” (Eden II). So let’s break that down a little and translate it into English.
The first person to really start studying behavior was B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who began studying the behaviors of rats and pigeons. Over many years of researching, it was found that the laws of behavior can apply to any organism. Be it a rat, a goldfish, a dog, or even a human being, they all learn under the same general patterns. Eventually, someone decided to try applying these principles to individuals with developmental disabilities. At the time, it was thought that people with disabilities were not able to learn, but by rewarding a simple arm movement, it was shown that they can. In 1968, Ivar Lovaas conducted a famous study in which he took a group of children with autism and used these laws to help them learn a variety of skills and decrease inappropriate behaviors. The study was a massive success and ABA for developmental disabilities was born!
So when enrolled in an ABA program, what happens? A good program is overseen by someone with skills and knowledge in ABA, such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (or BCBA). When a child starts a program, he or she will be assessed. An assessment will look at the child’s strengths and weaknesses as well as take into account any inappropriate behaviors and compare their skills to what is typically seen in child development. Then, the person in charge of the program (e.g. the BCBA) will use the assessment to create a customized program to fit the child’s individual needs. The goal is to catch him or her up to what is developmentally appropriate as well as reduce behaviors that are inhibiting them from progressing.
Each long-term goal gets broken down into “baby steps” based on the child’s current levels. For example, if the long-term goal is to request wants and needs using sentences, it might get broken down by first having the child request using single words such as “ball” or “candy.” Once they get good at that, then they would be taught to say “want ball” or “want candy,” etc. Once they get good at that, they can work on completing the whole sentence “I want ball,” or “I want candy.” Trained therapists will work with the child on these specific targets every day, taking data on their progress. The data is how we know when a child is making progress. The person in charge of the program looks at the data and decides when they are ready to move on to new targets or if changes need to be made to help them be more successful.
The key to learning is motivation. No one would ever do anything if there was nothing motivating them to do it. Would you eat if you never felt hungry or tired or work a long day if you never got paid? Probably not. The same principle applies to children with autism. Each program is designed based on what the particular child thinks is fun and exciting to help bring about desired responses.
For example, if a child is not speaking but loves M&Ms, then their program may involve rewarding speaking with an M&M. When running the programs, therapists try to be upbeat and fun, someone with whom a child would want to interact and approach. An ABA program should be fun, something a child looks forward to.
So what is ABA? ABA is using the science of learning and behavior to help bring about positive change, whether it’s teaching a dog to sit or a nonverbal child to speak. It’s bringing about improvements that you can not only see but that you can prove through scientific data. ABA makes changes to an individual’s environment in order to set them up for success. By avoiding a one-size-fits-all curriculum, ABA becomes something that actually can be used for anyone.