ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis

Responding in discrete trials

ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis is a time tested and data-based strategy for teaching children with disabilities. It is most often used with children with autistic spectrum disorders but is an effective tool for children with behavioral disorders, multiple disabilities, and severe intellectual handicaps. It is the only treatment for Autistic Spectrum disorders approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration.)

ABA is based on the work of B.F. Skinner, also known as the father of Behaviorism. Behaviorism is a scientific means of understanding behavior. Known as the three-term contingency, the behavior is a stimulus, response, and reinforcement. It is also understood as Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence, or ABC.

The ABC's of ABA

  • The antecedent is what happens before the behavior, and may or may not have a causal relationship. 
  • The behavior is what the subject does: we try to "operationalize" the behavior, or find a way to objectively describe the behavior. We would not say "Jimmy was disrespectful," we would say "Jimmy shouted at the teacher and called her an inappropriate racially charged term." 
  • Finally, the consequence, or what happens after the behavior. It is usually here that we look for the reinforcement: in other words, what Jimmy gets out of calling the teacher that bad name. Is it attention from his peers? Is it being sent to the office so he misses the spelling test? 

Another scientist who significantly credited with developing ABA was Ivar Lovaas, a psychologist at the University of California Los Angeles. His seminal work in applying behaviorism to children significantly disabled with autism led to what we now call ABA. 

For many people, behaviorism seems overly mechanistic. Human beings are valued and meaning assigning creatures, and we would like to believe that there is some powerful underlying mystic about behavior--hence Freudianism. Although it may seem simplistic, behaviorism may be the best way to strip away all our cultural prejudices and see behaviors as they are. This is especially helpful with children with autism, who have difficulty with communication, appropriate social interaction, and language. Moving to the three-term contingency helps us evaluate what we really see when we see a behavior.

ABA has proven to be an effective means to support appropriate social, functional and even academic behavior. A special form of ABA, known as VBA or Verbal Behavioral Analysis, applies the tenets of ABA to language; hence "Verbal Behavior."

The BACB, or Behavior Analyst Certification Board, is the international organization that certifies professionals who design and create the therapies that are used, especially what is called Discrete Trials. Discrete trials involve the stimulus, response, reinforcement three-term contingency mentioned above. The BACB also maintains a roster of local BCBA's who can provide services to children with autism.

Also Known As: VBA, Lovaas

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Webster, Jerry. "ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/aba-applied-behavior-analysis-3111284. Webster, Jerry. (2020, August 26). ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/aba-applied-behavior-analysis-3111284 Webster, Jerry. "ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/aba-applied-behavior-analysis-3111284 (accessed July 29, 2021).