Understanding the ABCs of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Autism is a developmental disorder that impairs social communication and interaction of an individual. Symptoms of Autism include difficulties in language, emotions, and social issues. Individuals with Autism exhibit repetitive and stereotypical interests and behaviors. Signs of Autism generally appear in early childhood. Early treatment can impact overall learning and well-being of individuals with Autism.


One popular and effective treatment used in Autism is Applied Behavior Analysis(ABA). ABA is the application of behavioral principles, to everyday situations, that will, over time, increase or decrease targeted behaviors. ABA focuses on teaching behaviors that are socially significant or relevant. Meaning, ABA teaches “good” or “adaptive” behaviors, such as language skills, self-help skills, and play skills. At the same time, ABA also aims to reduce ‘bad” or “maladaptive” behaviors, such as aggression, self-stimulatory behaviors, and self-injury.



ABA is based on the science of learning and motivation. This science includes general laws regarding how behavior works and how learning takes place. In short, ABA aims to change behavior by using the principles of learning. The “applied” component of ABA refers to the practical use of this therapy. This therapy applied in schools, homes, playgrounds, etc. “Behavior” is everything we do, say, think, and feel. Thus, ABA can be used to change or teach any behavior. While the “analysis” component of ABA refers to the fact that this therapy is based on evidence and experimental data findings.


ABA is considered to be an “evidence-based best practice” treatment by the US Surgeon General and by the American Psychological Association. “Evidence-based” means that ABA has passed scientific tests of its usefulness, quality, and effectiveness. It is recommended that ABA should be started before age 3 and given for 25 to 40 hours per week for best results.


There are different teaching methods within ABA. A few popular ones are Discrete Trial Training (DTT), Pivotal Response Therapy (PRT), Natural Environment Teaching (NET), and Verbal Behavior (VB). Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a type of teaching procedure in which each skill is taught separately in a structured manner. Pivotal Response Therapy (PRT) is used to teach skills that form the bases of all learning and promotes overall learning. For example,  motivation, learning from multiple cues, self-monitoring, etc. In Natural Environment Teaching (NET), skills are taught in the child’s natural environment using materials and activities present in that setting. Verbal Behavior teaches communication using ABA classification of language.


Two other areas of functioning that ABA deals with are Functional Behavior Assessment and Social Skills Training. Functional Behavior Assessment deals with evaluating the function of behavior i.e. the reason behind the occurrence of a behavior and reducing it. An in-depth assessment is conducted to find out the reason for the harmful behavior and treatment is planned accordingly. ABA principles are used to teach social skills which facilitate successful school and play behavior. ABA teaches basic independent play skills, appropriate social and functional play, social interactions, etc.


Parents and teachers are the immediate and most important environment of a child’s life. Children learn by watching their parents and teachers. Their behavior is shaped by parent’s and teacher’s reactions to what they do (e.g., getting a star in class for writing). Understandably, parents and teachers are an indispensable part of ABA.  They know the child the best and can provide insightful information that guides ABA therapy. Also, they are able to continue to prompt the child to learn good behavior and reinforce the child through-out his and her various daily activities.


The main principle of ABA is a behavior chain. Behavior chain includes the antecedent event, behavior, and the consequence. The antecedent events occur immediately before a behavior or an Antecedent is what was happening right before the behavior has occurred. Eg: An instruction given by the therapist for the child to perform an action. Behavior is everything a person does, say, feel or think is a behavior. Eg: A behavior or response from the child which could be successful performance, non-compliance or no response. Consequence is anything that happens after the behavior has occurred. Eg: reaction from the therapist, which can range from strong positive reinforcement (ie. a special treat, verbal praise) to a strong negative response, “No!”


Applied Behavior Analysis


Behavior change occurs when we manipulate the antecedent and consequences of a behavior. Some antecedent manipulations are Task Clarification (break down a task into smaller easier steps), Environment modification (reduce distractions in the environment. Arrange the environment such that the most interesting thing within sight is the activity you want the child to engage in).


Consequences are mainly divided into two categories – reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcements are the incentives/rewards given to increase the frequency of behavior. It is used to help increase the probability that a specific behavior will occur in the future but giving a reward/stimulus immediately after the behavior is exhibited. Punishment is the incentive/reward taken away to decrease the frequency of behavior. Punishment is a process by which a consequence immediately follows a behavior which decreases the frequency of that behavior to occur in future.


Thus, ABA is a method of life that follow basic learning principles and provides a systematic, scientific and easy way of dealing with all kinds of behavior.


– Riddhima Sharma



  1. I didn’t realize that Applied Behavior Analysis is a popular treatment for Autism. My wife and I just found out that our son has Autism. We will look into our options regarding Applied Behavior Analysis and how it can help our son.

  2. I found it interesting to know that ABA is heard toward changing behavior through the principles of learning and is a highly practical and evidence-based practice. My friend recently told me that her son has autism. I should look into ASD applied behavior analysis treatment in our area and recommend what I find to her.

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