Task Analysis in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy: Strategies and Examples
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined by the American Psychiatric Foundation as “a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted/repetitive behaviors.” There is a wide range of effects and severity of symptoms experienced by people who are diagnosed with ASD.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism spectrum disorders are present in 1 in 59 children. ASD is about four times as prevalent in boys than in girls, with 1 in 37 boys diagnosed as having ASD, compared to 1 in 151 girls.
The most popular treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder is applied behavior analysis (ABA), which the Association for Science in Autism Treatment describes as the use of interventions to improve “socially important behavior.” Behavior analytic interventions are based on learning theory and methods that have been studied scientifically and shown to be effective in improving the lives of people with autism spectrum disorders.
The antecedent-behavior-consequence (ABC) method of assessing functional behavior can be combined with an intervention such as task analysis as the basis for effective interventions in children with autism spectrum disorder. These types of assessments and interventions work to “increase appropriate skills and decreas[e] maladaptive behaviors,” as Psych Central reports. The goal of a task analysis is to break down and simplify complex tasks in order to provide step-by-step guidance on how to complete specific behaviors. This guide describes several specific task analysis techniques and presents examples of their application in diverse settings.
What Is Task Analysis?
The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders defines task analysis as a teaching process that breaks down complex activities into a series of simple steps that students are able to learn more easily. Researchers have shown that task analysis meets the criteria for evidence-based practice by improving adoption of “appropriate behaviors and communication skills” by children in preschool, elementary school, and middle school.
Task analysis techniques fall into two broad categories, as the Autism Classroom blog explains:
- The desired skill can be broken into discrete steps that are performed in sequence, such as the appropriate way to wash one’s hands. The steps are linked via “chaining,” which signals the completion of each step as a cue to begin the next step.
- Alternatively, a task can be divided into short chunks of time, so a 20-minute activity may be broken into five four-minute segments. This approach is frequently associated with “shaping,” which teaches new behaviors by reinforcing “successive approximations” of the behavior rather than repeating previous approximations, as the Association for Science in Autism Treatment explains.
However, a simple definition of what task analysis is doesn’t explain why the approach has become so important in educating children with ASD. Three characteristics are vital to the success of task analysis as a teaching method:
- Consistency: If three different people demonstrate to a student how to perform a specific activity, such as brushing teeth, the student will likely be shown three different methods, because each “teacher” performs the activity in a unique way. This can leave the student confused. Task analysis ensures that a single approach is presented and reinforced in all learning situations.
- Individualization: Each student has unique strengths and weaknesses, so task analysis methods can be customized to meet the student’s specific circumstances. For example, when teaching a student to remain in a group for 20 minutes via shaping, the task increments can be varied to the abilities of the student, with some responding best to two-minute chunks and others to five-minute blocks.
- Systematic instruction: One challenge students with ASD face is dealing with the many variables that complicate learning. Task analysis relies on “discrete trial programs” that divide activities into small steps that culminate in the end goal. For example, students who have learned four of the eight steps entailed in tying their shoes have successfully mastered those four steps, although they have not yet achieved the end goal.
The task analysis technique of chaining has two primary components, as ThoughtCo. explains:
- Forward chaining relies on the student learning from the start of the task sequence through each step of the task in sequence, so step two begins only after step one is completed. Each step is first modeled by the instructor and then imitated by the student, although some students will require hand-over-hand prompting followed by “fading” of the prompt as the student exhibits increasing mastery of the step.
- Backward chaining begins by teaching the student the last step of the task, first by having the student observe the teacher and then by having the student assist the teacher. After the last step has been grasped (though not yet perfected), the instructor turns to the second-to-last step of the process and continues backward to the initial steps. An example is learning to do laundry: the student is first taught how to remove the clothes from the dryer and fold them, then how to transfer the clothes from the washer to the dryer, and all preceding steps in the process one-by-one in reverse order.
Other effective task analysis techniques include these two approaches:
- Discrete trial instruction: The teacher gives the student a short, clear instruction and provides a prompt to help the student complete the instruction, whether by modeling the target response or guiding the student’s own response. As the student progresses, the prompt is removed gradually. When the student responds accurately, the teacher offers immediate positive feedback; when the student’s response is incorrect, the teacher demonstrates or guides the student to perform the correct response.
- Modeling: The student is shown the target behavior and is then instructed to imitate that behavior. Modeling has proven effective in teaching social, play, and self-help skills.
What Is the Purpose of Task Analysis?
The goal of applied behavior analysis is to help people with ASD learn the fundamental skills that will allow them to lead independent lives. Task analysis is one of several methods used by applied behavior analysts to understand and modify a person’s behavior.
The Autism Classroom describes task analysis as both “unexciting” and “critical to systematic instruction.” The advantages of task analysis over other ABA approaches are explained by Autism Speaks:
- Task analysis is easy to adapt to the needs of each individual learner.
- The techniques can be applied in multiple settings, including classrooms, homes, and the community.
- The skills taught via task analysis are practical in the student’s everyday life.
- Task analysis can be used in one-on-one instruction and in group settings.
When preparing an ABA program for a student, applied behavior analysts begin by assessing the student’s skills, as well as the goals and preferences of the student and the student’s family. Age appropriate skills evaluated in the initial assessment serve as the foundation for the student’s specific treatment goals. These skills include the following:
- Communication and language skills
- Social interaction
- Self-help (hygiene, healthy living, etc.)
- Play and relaxation activities
- Motor skills
- Academic skills
The primary use of task analysis in ABA settings is to teach activities for daily living (ADLs), as Total Spectrum explains. ADLs are actions that most people complete on a daily basis, such as setting a table for dinner or purchasing an item and asking for change. For people with autism spectrum disorder, however, these skills are especially important as these types of activities serve as the foundation for their independence.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder gain a better understanding of basic living skills by focusing on the mastery of individual steps in a complex process. Task analysis can be applied to any process that can be broken into multiple steps. Once the steps have been identified and the directions created, instructors devise a learning plan that is customized to the needs and goals of the student. The instruction often relies heavily on visual support tools, such as cards, small replicas of objects, or the objects themselves.
In addition to helping the student with autism spectrum disorder, task analysis can improve the quality of life for all family members. Strong skills in communication, interpersonal relations, and social interactions help enable people with ASD to lead successful, independent lives. Autism Speaks outlines the purpose of task analysis and the many ways task analysis and other ABA approaches benefit individuals with ASD, their families, and their communities:
- Task analysis replaces problem behaviors with new skills, so students learn “what to do” rather than simply “what to stop doing.”
- Reinforcement increases on-task positive behaviors and minimizes negative behaviors.
- Tasks that teach self-monitoring and self-control engender skills that are easily transferred to social and job-related capabilities.
- Responding positively to a student’s behavior prevents unintentionally rewarding problem behavior.
- Students are better able to focus on and comply with specific tasks, which motivates them to perform.
- By improving cognitive skills, the tasks make it easier for students to learn other academic subjects.
- Learning appropriate behaviors in specific situations helps students generalize skills and apply them outside the classroom.
Demonstrating the Task Analysis for Brushing Teeth
Teeth brushing is a daily routine for dental hygiene that most adults perform with little conscious thought, but it is an example of an activity that can be challenging for children with autism spectrum disorder. Behavioral Health Works describes the task analysis for brushing teeth. The teaching begins by reinforcing the reason for the activity: to have clean, healthy teeth.
The next steps may seem intuitive to adults, but the process can be formidable for children who have never brushed their teeth themselves and may fear the sensory components of teeth brushing or making a mistake. By dividing the task into a sequence of discrete actions, children are more confident that they can perform each subtask correctly. Task analysis has been shown to teach these types of skills much more quickly than alternative instruction methods.
Few adults would guess that the relatively simple act of brushing one’s teeth is comprised of at least 18 separate operations:
- Pick up the toothbrush.
- Turn on the water tap.
- Wash and rinse the toothbrush.
- Turn off the water.
- Pick up the toothpaste tube.
- Remove the cap from the tube.
- Place a dab of toothpaste on the bristles of the toothbrush.
- Put the cap back on the tube of toothpaste.
- Use the bristle end of the brush to scrub all of the teeth gently. (This step may need to be broken into several subtasks, such as, “Start brushing the teeth in the top left corner of your mouth, then brush the top center, then the top right, then the bottom right,” etc.)
- After brushing all the teeth, spit the toothpaste into the sink.
- Turn on the water.
- Rinse off the toothbrush.
- Place the toothbrush back into its holder.
- Pick up a rinsing cup.
- Fill it partially with water.
- Turn off the water.
- Rinse the mouth with water from the cup.
- Spit the water into the sink.
By breaking down the task into smaller activities, students are less likely to feel overwhelmed by the overall objective. However, students with ASD will likely need to master one or two of the steps at a time and then link the separate activities using either forward chaining or backward chaining, as ThoughtCo. describes:
- For students who are able to learn multiple steps at one time, forward chaining can be used to link the steps in the proper sequence via modeling and verbal prompts. Once the student demonstrates mastery of the first few linked steps without guidance, the next linked steps of the task can be taught.
- For students who lack strong language skills, backward chaining allows the teacher to perform the initial steps hand over hand while naming each step. This gives the student an opportunity to practice each step while simultaneously learning the corresponding vocabulary. Prompting is removed as the last steps of the process are taught, but reinforcement continues until the student has mastered the entire task.
The task analysis for brushing teeth can be facilitated by creating a visual schedule that indicates when the student has completed each step. The student can review the visual schedule before beginning the task, or the schedule can be placed on the counter so the student can refer to it as each step is performed.
Demonstrating the Task Analysis for Washing Hands
One of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent illness — in oneself and in others — is by washing one’s hands. The CDC recommends that people wash their hands frequently each day:
- Before and after preparing food
- Before eating
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the bathroom
- After blowing the nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
- After handling pet food or pet treats
- After touching garbage
The CDC divides hand washing into five separate operations:
- Wet the hands with clean running water, turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Rub the hands together with the soap to create a lather that covers the front and back of the hands and goes between the fingers and under the fingernails.
- Scrub the hands for a minimum of 20 seconds.
- Thoroughly rinse the hands under clean running water and then turn off the tap.
- Dry the hands using a clean towel or air dryer.
However, the task analysis for washing hands breaks down the process into several more discrete steps, as the New Behavioral Network describes:
- Stand in front of the sink.
- Turn on the water tap.
- Run the water over the hands thoroughly.
- Apply soap to the hands.
- Turn off the water.
- Scrub the hands for 20 seconds.
- Turn the water back on.
- Rinse the soap off the hands thoroughly.
- Turn off the water.
- Dry the hands.
As with the task analysis for teeth brushing, breaking down the complexities of such basic hygiene tasks into smaller pieces helps individuals with autism spectrum disorder to build a chain of learning that completes the overall task when the separate steps are linked together. The forward and backward chaining taught as part of these exercises can be transferred to other social and employment situations.
A Look at Other Task Analysis Examples
The range of applications for task analysis in ABA therapy is limited only by the imagination of teachers and the needs of students.
- Accessible ABA highlights the many ways chaining can be combined with task analysis to teach students with autism spectrum disorder using the methods that are most effective for the way these students learn. A task analysis example demonstrating the versatility of this approach is learning how to put on a pair of pants, which may include steps for sliding each foot into each pant leg one at a time, pulling the pants up, and buttoning and zipping them.
- Think Psych offers the task analysis example of teaching students with autism spectrum disorder how to eat yogurt, steps for which include opening the refrigerator, taking the yogurt container out, removing the lid of the container, retrieving a spoon from the utensil drawer, using the spoon to eat the yogurt, throwing the empty yogurt container in the trash, and placing the dirty spoon in the dishwasher.
- The Autism Community in Action explains how to use task analysis to teach a student with autism spectrum disorder how to fold a towel, which starts by laying the towel flat on a table, taking the top corners of the towel in each hand, bringing the top edge down to the bottom edge, bringing the left edge of the towel to the right edge, smoothing the towel flat, and placing the folded towel in a basket or closet.
- ThoughtCo. provides an example of task analysis with backward chaining to help a student learn how to do laundry. The instruction begins when the load of laundry is completed: The student begins by removing the laundry from the dryer and folding it, and after this step is mastered, the student is shown how to set the dryer and push the start button. The instruction works backward step-by-step through the washing and drying process, culminating with lessons on how to sort the dirty laundry and load it into the washer.
Preparing for a Satisfying Career in ABA Therapy
Task analysis and other ABA techniques are part of a comprehensive evidence-based practice that teaches students with autism spectrum disorder the life skills they will need to live independently. Visual presentation approaches and breaking down complex tasks into a series of simple steps are keys to helping children with ASD process information quickly and simply.
Graduate programs such as Regis College’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis prepare students who are starting their careers or looking to advance in their field. Among the career options available to MS-ABA graduates are ABA training coordinator, clinical supervisor, and clinical director. Graduates often work at outpatient care centers or government agencies, or in private practice.
Learn More About ABA Therapy Strategies
Discover more about how Regis College’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis degree program helps address the growing need for health professionals trained in task analysis and other ABA methods that help students with autism learn the skills they will need to lead independent lives.