Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for Children With Autism

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA):

  • Teaches a child how to do something (e.g., prepare for school, behave better, play with others, or do things for himself or herself)
  • Is often used for children with autism spectrum disorders
  • Breaks a new skill down into very small steps
  • Rewards a child for each step he does, even if he needs help
  • Is child friendly, and rewards a child with things or activities he or she likes
  • Can be adjusted to any level of ability
  • Measures the child’s skills regularly in order to adjust the teaching level

Research shows that applied behavior analysis helps children with autism learn. ABA works with people of all ages, but it is best to start as early as possible.

Most children are between 2 and 6 years old when they begin ABA treatment. If a child starts at age 2, ABA can help him develop better communication skills and help him learn to follow directions and simple commands, to prepare him for pre-school. For older children, ABA is often used as part of the child’s education, to teach social skills, daily living skills or to help change problem behaviors.

Applied behavior analysis programs

ABA programs:

  • Can be very structured for “work time,” but also include play time and group activities
  • Work best when they are used every day for enough time to show progress
  • Are very tailored to individual needs
  • Include family members to help choose goals and to continue teaching at home

Some ABA teaching programs include:

  • Discrete Trial Training (Lovaas)
  • Pivotal Response Training
  • Verbal Behavior Approach
  • Competent Learner Model Functional Communication Learning
  • Precision Teaching
  • STAR Curriculum
  • Incidental Teaching

What does applied behavior analysis look like?

ABA can look different depending on what you are trying to teach and the individual child. Discrete Trial Training (DTT), often used to teach school skills, is one way of doing ABA that looks like this:

  1. Plan: A qualified professional, such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst or “BCBA,” meets with the family and teacher and designs a program to meet the needs of a child.
  2. Goals: A large goal (e.g., Johnny will learn shapes) is broken down into smaller steps (e.g., Johnny will match circles).
  3. Prompts: The teacher tells the child, something like, “It’s time to work,” then gives a simple direction, such as “match” or “match shape.”
  4. Help when needed: If necessary, the teacher gently moves the child’s hand to teach him what to do. As the child learns, the teacher “fades out,” moving the child’s hand less and less. Teachers keep track of what the child does so they know if he is learning or not.
  5. Reinforcement: The teacher rewards the child for doing the task. The teacher might give a small piece of favorite food, high fives, fist bumps, hugs, or access to favorite toy and say “You matched it!” or “Good matching!”
  6. Repetition and mastery: Directions are repeated for practice, with frequent rewards. When a child can do a task all by himself almost every time, he is ready to work on something a little more difficult.
  7. Generalization: The child is rewarded for showing the skill under different conditions.

ABA can also work in natural situations, like at home:

  1. Simple directions: “Johnny, go get your shoes from the stairs (pointing).”
  2. Reinforcement: “Johnny, you got your shoes the first time! High five, buddy!”
  3. Progression of skill: Mom pauses to see if Johnny will do the next step on his own. “Yay! You opened the straps!” Mom pauses again, and if Johnny doesn’t do the next step, she asks: “What’s next?” “Good job, Johnny, you put your foot in the shoe.” Mom lets him take the time to do it himself, as long as he keeps at it. “Good job, Johnny! One more step.” If Johnny doesn’t know, then Mom says: “We close the straps. Like this. You did it! (big hug) You put your shoes on, now we can go play!”

For more information, please visit Autism Speaks to download an ABA toolkit.