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Applied Behavior Analysis

Behavior analysis is the science of behavior. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree (Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968/1987; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). Specifically, ABA refers to a systematic approach to the assessment and evaluation of behavior and the application of interventions that alter behavior. Over the past 30 years, several thousand published research studies have documented the effectiveness of ABA across a wide range of:

  • Populations Individuals with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and learning disorders
  • Interventionists Behavior analysts and technicians, parents, teachers, and staff
  • Settings Schools, homes, institutions, group homes, hospitals, and business centers, and
  • Behaviors Language, social, academic, leisure, and functional life skills, self-injury, and stereotyped behaviors

Reliable Measurements — Objective Evaluation

ABA is an objective discipline focused on the reliable measurement and objective evaluation of observable behavior. Programs based upon ABA methodologies are grounded in the well-established principles of learning and operant conditioning, as influenced by the works of researchers, such as Edward L. Thorndike and B.F. Skinner. The use of single case experimental design to evaluate the effectiveness of individualized interventions is an essential component of ABA programs. This process includes the following components which outline a reliable and accountable approach to behavior change (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991):

  1. Selection of interfering behavior or behavioral skill deficit
  2. Identification of goals and objectives
  3. Establishment of a method of measuring target behaviors
  4. Evaluation of the current levels of performance (baseline)
  5. Design and implementation of the interventions that teach new skills and/or reduce interfering behaviors
  6. Continuous measurement of target behaviors to determine the effectiveness of the intervention
  7. Ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention, with modifications made as necessary to maintain and/or increase both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the intervention

ABA generally focuses on the process of behavior change with respect to the development of adaptive, prosocial behavior and the reduction of maladaptive behavior. Specific “socially significant behaviors” include academics, communication, social skills and adaptive living skills. For example, ABA methods can be used to:

  1. Teach new skills (e.g., the socially significant behaviors listed above)
  2. Generalize or transfer behavior from one situation to another (e.g., from communicating with caregivers in the home to interacting with classmates at school)
  3. Modify conditions under which interfering behaviors occur (e.g., changing the learning environment so as to foster attention to the instructor)
  4. Reduce inappropriate behaviors (e.g., self-injury or stereotypy)

Treatment approaches grounded in ABA are now considered to be at the forefront of therapeutic and educational interventions for children with autism. In general, this behavioral framework utilizes manipulation of antecedents and consequences of behavior to teach new skills and eliminate maladaptive and excessive behaviors. The Discrete Trial is a particular ABA teaching strategy which enables the learner to acquire complex skills and behaviors by first mastering the subcomponents of the targeted skill. For example, if one wishes to teach a child to request a desired interaction, as in “I want to play,” one might first teach subcomponents of this skill, such as the individual sounds comprising each word of the request, or labeling enjoyable leisure activities as “play.” By utilizing teaching techniques based on the principles of behavior analysis, the learner is gradually able to complete all subcomponent skills independently. Once the individual components are acquired, they are linked together to enable mastery of the targeted complex and functional skill. This methodology is highly effective in teaching basic communication, play, motor, and daily living skills.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

Initially, ABA programs for children with autism utilized only Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and the curriculum focused on teaching basic skills as noted above. However, ABA programs, such as the program implemented at CARD®, continue to evolve, placing greater emphasis on the generalization and spontaneity of skills learned. As patients progress and develop more complex social skills, the strict DTT approach gives way to treatments that include other components. Specifically, there are a number of weaknesses with DTT, including the fact the DTT is primarily teacher initiated, that typically the reinforcers used to increase appropriate behavior are typically unrelated to the target response, and rote responding can often occur. Moreover, deficits in areas, such as “emotional understanding,” “perspective taking,” and other executive functions, such as problem-solving skills, must also be addressed, and the DTT approach is not the most efficient means to do so. Although the DTT methodology is an integral part of ABA-based programs, other teaching strategies based on the principles of behavior analysis, such as Natural Environment Training (NET), may be used to address these more complex skills. NET specifically addresses the above-mentioned weaknesses of DTT in that all skills are taught in a more natural environment in a more “playful manner.” Moreover, the reinforcers used to increase appropriate responding are always directly related to the task (e.g., a child is taught to say the word for a preferred item such as a “car” and as a reinforcer is given access to the car contingent on making the correct response). NET is just one example of the different teaching strategies used in a comprehensive ABA-based program. Other approaches that are not typically included in strict DTT include errorless teaching procedures and Fluency-Based Instruction. At CARD®, all appropriate teaching approaches based on the well-grounded principles of applied behavior analysis are utilized.

Introducing Skills®, the invaluable web tool for treating autism!

Providers of ABA-based services must consider many factors in order to provide effective intervention programs. Skills® offers professionals everything they need to design and manage a customized treatment program for every child. Fully comprehensive assessment and curricula (including lessons targeting complex behavior, such as perspective taking or Theory of Mind) are combined with detailed data-tracking capabilities and other features to enable ABA professionals to maximize treatment effectiveness and provide services to more children while saving time and money.


Baer, D., Wolf, M., & Risley, R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91 – 97.
Baer, D., Wolf, M., & Risley, R. (1987). Some still-current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 313 – 327.
Sulzer-Azaroff, B. & Mayer, R. (1991). Behavior analysis for lasting change . Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, Inc.