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What is ABA?


ABA stands for applied behavior analysis and is a scientific discipline that seeks to discover environmental variables that reliably influence socially significant behavior.  Applied behavior analysts rely on direct observation and measurement of behavior in order to effect change.  Data is collected on an on-going basis to evaluate behavior and guide interventions.  Although ABA-based practices are utilized across a wide variety of populations (e.g., health, fitness and sports, business organizations, gerontology), ABA is most commonly associated with autism treatment.  Applied behavior analysis has had a major impact on the development of highly effective behavior interventions and teaching strategies for individuals with autism.  


It is a common misconception that ABA is a type of therapy.  ABA is not a type of therapy nor is it something you “do”.  Rather, it is a scientific approach that guides and informs the selection and development of interventions for individuals with autism.  Discrete trial teaching, pivotal response training, activity schedules and verbal behavior are just a few examples of teaching strategies based on the fundamental dimensions of ABA.


ABA-based programs incorporate a variety of teaching strategies and interventions tailored to the individual.  While ABA-based programs are beneficial for many different age groups, they are most effective when delivered at an early age and at an intensive level (20 to 40 hours per week). These programs can be located in a variety of settings such as the individual’s home, public and private schools, and clinics.  50 years of empirical, peer-reviewed research has demonstrated ABA’s effectiveness for individuals (both young and old) with autism and other developmental disabilities.  Currently, ABA-based behavioral and educational interventions are the only interventions with enough empirical evidence to support their use.  Many "alternative" autism interventions and therapies exist (e.g. chelation, sensory integration, facilitated communication, special diets etc.) and consumers are warned to carefully evaluate any claims of efficacy.  Reliable and objective information on therapies, teaching strategies and interventions may be obtained from the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.  


When seeking ABA-based services for individuals with autism, it is important for consumers to ensure that practitioners are indeed qualified to provide behavior analytic services.  A good way to sift through the vast array of practitioners out there is to focus your search to those individuals certified through the Behavior Analysis Certification Board®.  Although it does not guarantee that a practitioner has expertise in the treatment of autism, individuals that carry the BCBA® or BCBA-D® (PhD level) credential have met minimal competency standards as they pertain to the practice of behavior analysis.  Detailed consumer guidelines for selecting practitioners have been developed by the Autism Special Interest Group of the Association for Behavior Analysis.  


Cooper J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L., (2007).  Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Buchanan, S. M. & Weiss, M. (2006).  Applied behavior analysis and autism:  An introduction. Ewing, NJ: COSAC.

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