What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is an approach to understanding and changing behaviour. It’s not a specific therapy itself, but a range of different strategies and techniques that can be used to help autistic people learn new skills and behaviour.
When ABA techniques are used with young autistic children, it’s often called Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (EIBI).
Who is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) for?
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) teaching techniques can be used for autistic children and children with other developmental disabilities.
What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) used for?
The Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approach and its techniques can help autistic children improve their social skills, self-care skills, communication skills, play skills and ability to manage their own behaviour. It can also help to reduce behaviour like inattention, aggression and screaming.
ABA can help autistic children develop independence, but it shouldn’t be used to make children ‘mask’ their autism or ‘fit in’ with social norms.
Where does Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) come from?
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is based on learning theory, which comes from the field of behavioural psychology. The first study that looked at the use of ABA techniques with young autistic children was published by Dr Ivar Lovaas at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1987. There was a long-term follow-up study by Dr John McEachin at UCLA, which was published in 1993.
What is the idea behind Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) for autistic children?
These are the key ideas behind Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA):
- Human behaviour is influenced by events or stimuli in the environment.
- Behaviour that’s followed by positive consequences is more likely to happen again.
ABA uses these ideas to help autistic children learn new behaviour. It does this by giving children positive consequences for new behaviour. For example, if a child points to a teddy they want, the child’s parents might follow this up with a positive consequence like giving the child the teddy. This makes it more likely that the child will repeat the behaviour in the future.
What does Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) for autistic children involve?
Programs based on Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) generally involve:
- assessing a child’s current skills and difficulties
- setting goals and objectives – for example, learning how to say ‘hello’
- designing and implementing a program that teaches the ‘target’ skill
- measuring the ‘target’ skill to see whether the program is working
- evaluating the program itself and making changes as needed.
ABA can focus on a specific behaviour, like repeatedly taking off seatbelts in the car, or it can work more broadly on a range of developmental areas at the same time, like communication, self-care and play skills.
ABA programs use a range of teaching techniques to help autistic children learn new skills. These techniques might include Discrete Trial Training and incidental teaching. Programs might also use everyday interactions as opportunities for children to learn.
Children are given plenty of opportunities to practise new skills. As they learn skills, more skills are added to their programs. Over time, skills are combined into complex behaviour, like having conversations, playing cooperatively with others, or learning by watching others.
Depending on their needs, children can do ABA programs in a one-to-one or small group format at a centre, at home or in the community.
There are many different styles of ABA, ranging from very structured and rigid to more flexible. There are branded programs that use ABA principles, including the Lovaas Program. And there are other programs based on the principles of ABA, including Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (EIBI).
ABA programs for young autistic children usually involve more than 20 hours of therapy per week. Research has shown that this intensity is how ABA programs achieve outcomes.
ABA programs should recognise autistic children’s right to stim or move in ways that are physically comfortable. They should involve free time, relaxing activities and opportunities for children to have their emotional needs met. ABA programs shouldn’t involve punishment.
Does Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) help autistic children?
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is an effective approach for teaching a range of skills to autistic children. Quality research shows that it can have positive effects on autistic children’s communication, cognitive and behaviour skills.
Given the variation in how ABA is applied, however, you might need to check the outcomes of specific programs to judge whether they’re right for your child.
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA): concerns and controversy
Quality research shows that Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) can help autistic children learn new skills and behaviour. But there are some concerns and controversy about ABA:
- Some autistic people say that ABA is based on the idea that autistic children should behave the same as typically developing children. They say that this idea doesn’t respect neurodiversity. That is, it doesn’t accept and respect natural differences in how people’s brains work and how they understand and interact with the world.
- Some autistic people feel that ABA programs sometimes aim to stop behaviour like flapping or stimming, which can be calming or enjoyable for autistic people.
- ABA programs can involve many hours of repetitive, one-to-one therapy each day and week. This intensity is an essential aspect of ABA, but it might be a concern for children.
- Some autistic people say ABA is harmful because it doesn’t put autistic children’s wellbeing first.
- In the past, ABA programs used punishment to stop challenging behaviour, although this seems to be less common with modern ABA.
Who practises Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?
Various professionals offer Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). Programs should include an experienced ABA practitioner who oversees the program, as well as staff who work directly with your child. These staff are sometimes called behavioural therapists or behaviour interventionists.
Practitioners don’t need formal qualifications to practise ABA therapy in Australia. But there’s an international certification board – the Behavior Analyst Certification Board – which accredits practitioners as Board Certified Behaviour Analysts. This accreditation is widely used in the United States, but it’s not yet the national standard of accreditation in Australia.
It’s a good idea to consider the qualifications and experience of any providers you’re interested in.
Teachers, parents, psychologists and other allied health professionals can all use ABA techniques and strategies once they’ve been trained by someone with the appropriate expertise.
Where can you find an ABA practitioner?
Your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child can help you find a provider. You could also ask your NDIA planner, early childhood partner or local area coordinator, if you have one.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is in an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) program, you’ll play an active role in your child’s program. You’ll work with the ABA practitioner to develop and prioritise your child’s learning goals. Often, ABA practitioners provide parent training and support for parents, siblings and extended family.
The costs of ABA-based therapies and supports vary depending on how many hours per week programs involve, whether programs are one to one or group based, and how much supervision is involved.
Therapies and supports for autistic children range from behaviour therapies and developmental approaches to medicines and alternative therapies. When you understand the main types of therapies and supports for autistic children, it’ll be easier to work out the approach that will best suit your child.