How Behavioral Scientists Treat Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Applied Behavior Analysis

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis

A little boy in overalls smiles at the camera.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a therapy that uses constructive behavioral strategies to help people, usually those with developmental disabilities. The tactics the therapy employs typically stem from an array of behavioral theories that were designed to demonstrate the rewards and consequences of specific behaviors that occur in real-world situations. ABA has proven successful in encouraging positive behaviors in people with autism.

Approaches differ on how to treat autism. Behavior analysts emphasize that the science of behavior should be considered a natural science as opposed to a social science. Analysts focus on observable connections between behavior and environments, as opposed to speculation.

ABA therapists may use a variety of methods to teach — pivotal response training, discrete trial training, and verbal behavior intervention (VBI), to name a few — depending on the needs of the individual. For instance, a therapist may take a VBI-based approach if the primary goal is to teach verbal skills. If the primary goal is to prepare an individual for independent living, the therapist may use an approach that promotes self-management.

The Importance of Early Intervention

It can be vital that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), receive ABA therapy at an early age. Early treatment can help prepare them for successful independent living as an adult. With ABA therapy, children with autism can cultivate a wide range of fundamental behaviors and skills, such as language development, proper social functioning, and independent care skills. Early intervention has been important to achieving a higher level of behavior improvement, and ultimately, a higher quality of life. Additionally, ABA therapists can work with the family members, caregivers, and teachers of people with ASD, teaching this supportive community how to use various ABA tactics to promote and maintain a sense of independence for those with ASD.

Understanding the ABCs: Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence

ABA therapy can help people with ASD gain a better understanding of behavioral mechanics. This is achieved through what is referred to as the ABC therapy model, which consists of the following:

1. Antecedent. The actions leading up to the behavior before it happens. This precursor could be verbal, physical, or related to an external environmental force, such as another person.
2. Behavior. The individual’s positive or negative response to the antecedent. Like the antecedent itself, it can be a verbal or physical response.
3. Consequence. The follow-up action once the behavior is completed. This could be a reward-driven response, such as positive reinforcement for good behavior. In this case, incorrect or inappropriate responses are commonly met with no reaction.

These components can be designed to contain variant factors that may affect their behavior and how learning occurs. Collectively, they can allow a therapist to pinpoint the root of a behavior and how various consequences could potentially alter behavioral outcomes. They can help therapists design strategies to correct inappropriate behavioral issues. Once these challenges are resolved, it can then be possible for the therapist to develop strategies that boost positive behaviors, such as communication competency and focus. Concurrently, these strategies could decrease negative behaviors, such as self-inflicting behavior.

ABA strategies have been used to treat children for more than 50 years. While these strategies are commonly associated with ASD, they have also been used to treat children with similar developmental disorders. ABA has remained as a popular human service discipline due to its high practical versatility and how well it can be used to meet the unique needs of individuals from of any age across the spectrum of cultures and backgrounds. ABA can be used in a host of settings, from a one-to-one setting at home to a group setting at school.

Teaching Communication, Social, and Life Skills

Therapists using ABA techniques suited for specific needs have found success in encouraging socially appropriate behaviors in people with ASD. This encouragement has translated into children developing the foundational skills and competencies that will help them maintain a high level of independence when they reach adulthood. ABA techniques have successfully helped a wide range of children with autism spectrum disorders learn skills that increase their independence and improve the quality of their life into adulthood by encouraging positive behaviors.

Therapists can also be responsible for providing accurate details to concerned parents about ABA, as information they may find online could be inaccurate and thus give them pause. Data from trusted sources like the National Autism Council’s National Standards Project make it easier for therapists to ease parental worries. These types of sources use carefully researched studies to demonstrate the evidence-based positive effects of ABA, particularly on children at a young age, so it is important for parents and caregivers to seek out a qualified therapist to provide ABA therapy to their children.

While many approaches can be incorporated into a therapy session, the concept of positive reinforcement serves as a chief approach in the process. In positive reinforcement, the individual receives a reward for exhibiting a socially appropriate behavior. The reward may prompt the individual to repeat that behavior, resulting in positive behaviors in the long run. For positive reinforcement to work, the therapist must select a behavior-related goal, then follow through with a significant reward whenever the individual attains that goal. Ultimately, this will lead the individual to exhibit this behavior independently.

The Benefits of Frequent and Consistent Therapy

It is important for the therapist to be adept at constructing custom ABA models that optimally align with the particular needs, skill set, and family dynamic of an individual. To do so, it is vital for the therapist to conduct a complete pretreatment evaluation. It is also important to work with the family of the individual to create goals for the treatment.

The goals themselves are determined by age and ability and can focus on specific skills, such as communication, social competency, and self-care. Once the goals are set, the therapist can work toward achieving them through a combination of teaching skills, monitoring behaviors, assessing the information derived from the process, and sharing results with the family of the individual.

Therapy can be initiated by either the individual or the instructor leading the session. This instructor could be a therapist, but it could also be the parents, caregivers, or family members of the individual who have received proper training. This peripheral training is important because it provides the individual with multiple opportunities throughout the day to hone their skills. It also gives the individual several chances to receive positive reinforcement when warranted.

ABA offers several other important benefits. For example, the fact that ABA therapy is personalized and not a catchall treatment enables the therapist to create individualized assessments that focus on specific behavioral improvements.  ABA therapy will allow them to make critical behavioral improvements that make it easier to have self-sufficient lives.

ABA therapy can also teach individuals to manage behaviors that society has deemed inappropriate. These behaviors can range from simply not making proper eye contact with others during social engagements to displaying aggression. Techniques and strategies such as the use of positive reinforcement can teach individuals how to cope with these negative behavioral tendencies as they learn to replace them with positive ones.

Additionally, individuals who partake in ABA therapy early in life can get a head start on learning larger positive behaviors. This is because therapists can teach children fundamental positive behaviors at their most basic levels. Mastery of these building blocks can make it easier to learn more sophisticated behaviors.

Finally, ABA treatment strives for the individual to be less dependent on the therapy over time. While early stages of the treatment focus on establishing support for the individual, this focus eventually graduates to supervised behavior, and culminates in the individual living independently. This leveling process is not merely attained by the therapist. It takes a strong support group of family members and caregivers, as well as the efforts and commitment of the individual.

These benefits collectively allow ABA therapists to make a substantially positive impact on the lives of individuals, one that can fundamentally change how their life is lived. Learn how Regis College’s masters in Behavior Analysis online can prepare aspiring ABA therapists to deliver that impact.

Recommended Readings:

Defining Verbal Behavior: A Key Concept in Applied Behavior Analysis

How Behavior Therapists Analyze Social Behavior

Where Do Behavior Therapists Work? Providing Support Services in Many Settings


Autism Speaks, What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder

National Autism Center, National Standards Project

Parents, “Is ABA Therapy the Best Choice for Kids with Autism?”

U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Applied Behavior Analysis: Behavior Management of  Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Dental Environments”

WebMD, Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorder