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Applied Behavior Analysis

Tammi Reynolds, BA & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavioral Analysis is a useful method for teaching children with autism, PDD, and MR that is based directly on learning theories developed by behavioral psychologists. The approach focuses on rewarding positive behavior and discouraging negative behavior by exerting control over rewarding and aversive consequences of children's choices. Essentially, if children behave in ways that are desirable, they are rewarded. If they behave in ways that are not desirable, they are not rewarded.

ABA leans heavily on several behavioral principles: shaping, chaining and successive approximation. It is difficult to learn new complex behaviors. However, if complex behaviors are broken down into simpler behaviors, each a more accurate successive approximation of the goal behavior, the task of learning becomes easier to manage. ABA requires that complex desirable behaviors that therapists hope to teach to children with autism be broken down or analyzed into a series or chain of small doable steps. Instead of trying to teach the entire complex behavior desired all at once, ABA therapists teach only one simple step at a time. As children master each step, the next sequential step is introduced. This chained step approach is effective for teaching individuals who have difficulty staying focused.

In order for ABA methods to work well, both therapeutic and home environments must be consistent and organized. Rewards and consequences for various behaviors must be made clear to students at all times and delivered as advertised. Rewards that are not delivered as promised are not rewarding, and will quickly cease to have a motivating effect. Similarly, aversive consequences (such as not getting a desired reward) also lose their motivational effectiveness if they are not enforced.

Save for our discussion of Discrete Trial methods (below), we won't be going into the details of ABA in this document. If you want more detailed information, we recommend you visit a specialized ABA website, such as http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/applied-behavior-analysis-aba. Suffice it to say that ABA methods are highly useful for teaching children with autism new skills, such as language and social skills, and for teaching those children how to appropriately apply their skills across a variety of settings.

Normally, children acquire language and social skills quite spontaneously and naturally simply by participating in daily life and by observing and modeling other's behavior. Children with autism cannot and do not pay attention to social models and thus do not learn these skills spontaneously. If they have learned language or social skills it is because someone has broken down those skills into teachable steps for them, and has taken the effort to teach them those skills, step by painstaking step. Even when skills have been taught, children with autism will not easily know how to generalize them to novel situations, and will require explicit training in how to apply those skills in each likely setting. In short, those with autism have to acquire language and social skills intellectually, the way most children learn how to read or add. ABA methods make this painstaking learning process easier to accomplish.