Applied Behavior Analysis, often referred to as “ABA” is the process of systematically applying interventions that are based upon behavior learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968). Central to this classic definition are the assumptions that: (a) ABA is used to address only those behaviors that will produce positive changes in a person’s quality of life, such as the acquisition of new skills or the reduction of challenging behavior; and (b) identified target behaviors are systematically measured and reviewed in order to determine whether the desired change has occurred.
Hundreds of published, carefully controlled studies have shown that ABA is a highly effective method for teaching individuals with autism and related developmental disabilities. ABA has been endorsed by the National Institutes of Health and the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, and has been identified by the Surgeon General of the United States as the most effective way of addressing the learning and behavioral needs of persons with autism.
A common misconception about ABA is that it is synonymous with Discrete Trial Training (sometimes called “the Lovaas Method”), a methodology for teaching new skills. In fact, this is only one of many behavior change techniques within the field of applied behavior analysis. Other examples of strategies for teaching new skills that also fall under the heading of ABA include: Positive reinforcement, task analysis and chaining, shaping, fading, prompting, discrimination training, modeling, incidental teaching, and pivotal response training. ABA strategies designed to address problem behavior include: Functional behavior assessment, changing the antecedents (or “triggers”) and consequences associated with the problem behavior, and teaching functionally-equivalent replacement behaviors (e.g., new ways to efficiently and effectively communicate and the use of coping skills).
The common thread throughout each of these strategies is adherence to the defining assumption of behavioral learning theory: That behavior increases or decreases as a function of its environment. Other characteristics that make these strategies “ABA” include the use of individualized, observation-based assessment, the linking of assessment to the selected intervention (therefore creating customized procedures), the use of data collection and inspection to evaluate progress, and a focus on addressing important, socially significant behaviors.
A second misconception about ABA is that it may use punishment in order to coerce people into behaving as others wish. It’s true that there were documented misuses of behavioral technology in the 1960s and 1970s. However, those events led to the development of an extensive set of ethical guidelines for practitioners as well as state and federal regulations meant to protect vulnerable populations from mistreatment and abuse. As an example, practices designed to influence behavior such as withholding food, drink, clothing, sleep, contact with others; using noxious or disliked things as consequences; or using a person’s fear in order to modify behavior are strictly prohibted in NY State.
At DDI, applied behavior analysis is used across all its educational and habilitative programs. DDI recognizes its responsibility to provide effective treatment while maintaining the rights, safety and dignity of each individual. To that end, all programs are developed within a team model that includes input and consent from the families/guardians of the individuals we support. Extensive assessment is used to inform intervention, and the use of skill development, and other positive strategies meant to promote a good quality of life is our front line approach. In the less frequent case that this approach has been unsuccessful, and the individual is at significant risk of harming themselves or others, more restrictive methods may be recommended. In these instances, the behavior plan is monitored by DDI’s Behavior Review Committee, comprised of professionals from multiple divisions within DDI, as well as an outside member from the Community. All use of applied behavior analysis is supervised by extensively trained clinicians, and in many cases professionals who are also certified by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (www.bacb.org).
To learn more about applied behavior analysis, see:
The Association for Behavior Analysis (www.abainternational.org)
The Association for Positive Behavior Support (www.apbs.org)
The Association for Science in Autism Treatment (www.asatonline.org)
The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (www.behavior.org)
Baer, D.M., Wolf, M.M., & Risley, T.R. (1968). Some dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91-97.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999). Mental health: A report of the surgeon general. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health.