I’m sure the most often searched topic about our field is this question.

When I searched the topic, I unfortunately received a bunch of explanations that I don’t think mean anything to anyone outside of our field.

Someone I have a ton of respect for is Dr. Pat Friman. He has an interesting take on our field and how we can do better at spreading the good word.  Lots of people use principles of ABA to deal with all sorts of mainstream issues, but the term "behavior analysis" isn’t being used.  As he said “our fingerprints are on it”.

  • Read a book about potty training - it probably uses principles of ABA,
  • Read a book about getting employees to do what you want them to do - it probably uses principles of ABA,
  • Read anything to do with parenting and discipline - it probably uses principles of ABA,
  • and the list goes on.

Dr. Friman has an idea about marketing ABA; he thinks we should use less technical language when talking to people outside of behavior analysis about behavior analysis.  At the ABAI annual conference a few years ago, he said, “When in Rome, speak as the Romans do”... and that makes sense to me.  Oddly enough, there is opposition to this (within our field), but I’m ignoring that for now.   

If you search “What is Applied Behavior Analysis?” you will read this, “Applied Behavior Analysis is the science of human behavior.” Hmmm, that's not quite the thorough explanation one might be seeking.  You will also read the definition written in 1968 by Baer, Wolf, & Risley (this is the big one, and the one we in the field quote the most):

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

So being brand new to ABA, you have a pretty firm grasp on what it is, how it is used, and what it can do for you, right?  Probably not. So here goes nothing, I am going to attempt to explain ABA in plain, non-technical language as it applies to individuals with autism. And I'm going to start with the type of information that I think people are looking for when they type ‘ABA’ into a search engine.


Applied Behavior Analysis for Children with Autism

ABA is often discussed in relation to working with children with autism. This is not how applied behavior analysis came about, and is not the only way it can be used. ABA can be used on anyone (or anything) that is in need of behavior change, your dog, your husband, your kids, and rats and pigeons. Behavior change can be eliminating problem behaviors (your child’s bedtime tantrums/your friend’s behavior of complaining about work) or to increase behaviors you want to see more of (your dog’s behavior of fetching the paper/your husband’s dishwashing). All behaviors can be changed through a series of consequences, such as reinforcement. The most common focus of ABA programs for children with autism is teaching them to use language. It is common misconception that speech therapy does this, but, in fact, it is the primary focus of applied behavior analysis with children with autism.


Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

If you have a child with autism for whom Applied Behavior Analysis has been recommended you will next hear the term Discrete Trial Training or DTT. So what is that? Essentially DTT is taking a skill, breaking it down into manageable steps and doing it over and over again. Reinforcement is provided to the child when they perform an individual step correctly, and is repeated until an individual masters the skill. Some people argue against the use of reinforcement and even become upset when it is recommended. This has never made sense to me. I just think if a five year old comes into my office and can’t talk or play or do things that other five year olds can do then I’m willing to give them a skittle or some bubbles to get them to be able to do this. I mean obviously they haven’t learned from the natural contingencies that their environment have provided thus far, so something has to change.

When we do something correct we probably notice the changes in the environment or respond to the praise of people around us. However, a child with autism might not understand a “yay, you did it,” but might respond to being thrown in the air and thus repeats a behavior we want to see more of. If this is the case, let’s do it… and people may argue that life doesn’t work that way, but guess what IT DOES!  We get paid to go to work, we respond to the praise of our peers and coworkers when we do things right. Our environment is full of reinforcement whether it looks like an M&M or not—it’s there.

I remember when I was a front line staff working with individuals with autism and I asked my husband, “do you even know what I do?” He said, “ you go in a room and tell a kid to do something over and over again and give them a toy or treat or play with them when they do it.” So, I guess that’s what it looks like to an outsider. There is a little more to it, but it is a procedure of repetition and reinforcement to help people learn.

I hope that this post gives an elementary glimpse into ABA for children with autism. The main thing parents (or teachers or anyone else) need to know is that Applied Behavior Analysis is effective in changing the behavior of children with autism (and everyone else for that matter). It has been proven time and time again for eliminating problem behaviors and teaching new appropriate/necessary skills (like communication). There are a lot of treatments out there, and some sound great, but are not evidence based; let’s go with what is tried and true and has the research to back it. A credentialed behavior analyst should oversee programs and they can be found all over the world world. They are listed on the Behavior Analysis Certification Board’s website. If you are just getting a diagnosis or want to see real behavior change in an individual you know, this is great place to start. For anyone with a child with autism who is interested in changing their behavior, i.e., reducing their tantrums and teaching them to talk, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the key.