Two academics analyze the nuts and bolts of ABA therapy in the autism community.
Behavior analysis incorporates a field, philosophy, and science (Morris, Altus, & Smith, 2013). Experimental analysis of behavior is the science of behaviorism. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the application of that science to human behavior. The early practitioners of ABA described it as:
“The science in which procedures derived from the principles of behavior are systematically applied to improve socially significant behavior to a meaningful degree…” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 1987)
If that feels too academic, clinical, or just plain confusing, let’s use an example. Your alarm clock goes off, you turn it off, and stand up. You walk into the kitchen, see your kettle, and turn on the water to start preparing your morning coffee.
Waking up, crawling out of bed, turning on the faucet—each of these actions encompasses a behavior (or series of behaviors). We exist by engaging in a progression of actions and responses. Why you behave the way you do isn’t random; you learned to behave in a specific way to get your wants and needs met and avoid things you dislike.
ABA approaches behaviors as skills we learn to achieve specific results (whether or not you are aware of learning them). As practitioners of ABA, we believe behavior change is possible no matter who you are, what you do or the levels of support you require.
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The nuts and bolts of ABA
ABA does not diagnose nor is the goal of any ABA application to change the individuality of a learner. As a descriptive and quantitative science, ABA observes, describes, and uses data to quantify effects.
That data, combined with the individual characteristics, cultural values, and goals of the learner, allows for the development of comprehensive, individualized learning goals and strategies. As a scientific approach to behavior, ABA implements established practices to facilitate the teaching and learning of new skills.
Practitioners of ABA, called behavior analysts, aim to teach behaviors of importance and value to the learner. The job of a behavior analyst centers around understanding the interrelated factors that influence how one behaves and using that information to build skills.
Behavior analysts may focus on increasing self-help, academic, social, emotional, or other skills of independent living (Wong et al, 2014; 2015). They may also work with the learner to decrease behaviors that interfere with his/her day-to-day functioning or access (National Autism Center [NAC], 2015).
Many misconceptions about ABA exist (see Table 1). The most common of these misconceptions asserts that ABA wants to change people with autism to make them “normal” or remove their individuality.
The origins of ABA did focus on reducing any behaviors deemed as atypical. Thankfully, ABA has evolved considerably over the past 50 years.
One of the core components of the behavior analyst ethical code is to uphold the dignity, individuality, and values of the individuals with which they work. This means embracing neurodiversity, promoting the rights and acceptance of all neurodivergent individuals, and increasing cultural competency and understanding in all areas of practice.
The ABA approach to interfering behaviors
A behavior analyst often gets called upon to focus on behaviors viewed as challenging for the context or dangerous for the learner or others. Interfering behaviors can impact the ability of a learner to learn new skills or participate in the community, and can even be dangerous to the learner’s health. On an emotional level, these behaviors can trigger frustration, helplessness, fear, and in some cases, cause harm.
Cases like these call for a professional who studies human behavior. Through academic training, supervision, continuing education, and experience, behavior analysts have a specific set of tools and skills tailored toward understanding why someone behaves in a particular way.
All too often, those without a firm grasp of behavior put the blame for interfering behaviors solely on the learner. The learner is difficult; the learner is noncompliant. These words and their implication of them on a person’s educational programming often result in wasted time, ineffective interventions, and strained relationships.
By the time a behavior analyst walks in on the scene, the learner may have low self-esteem and fractured relationships, not to mention a reputation as “bad” or “difficult.” Herein lies an important distinction between ABA and the work of behavior analysts. ABA dictates that learners behave in a way because they have learned to, not because they are bad or difficult.
They are people behaving in the way they know how to get what they need. The job of a behavior analyst is not to stop a learner from behaving but rather to teach a learner to behave in new, varied ways.
The behavior analyst approach to behaviors
First, the behavior analyst assesses the variables influencing the interfering behaviors, focusing on those factors that work together to produce such behaviors in that specific context. Figure 1 outlines the process of information-gathering, including multiple avenues to collect evidence.
Each of the measures in Figure 1 provides information on why the learner engages in the behaviors, from contributing skills and strengths to environmental and medical factors. Furthermore, it shows quantitative data on the frequency, duration, or intensity of the behaviors. The end result yields data-informed theories on why a learner engages in these behaviors and recommendations for ways to teach new skills.
We know behavior change is scary. As parents, it is incredibly difficult to decipher the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unsafe when it comes to all of the interventions and even individual practitioners out there. We can’t tell you what you should do, we can only provide you with our view and experiences of ABA.
Within the world of behavior change, ABA provides some of the only research-based, scientific interventions geared towards assessing and teaching behaviors. Yes, ABA is a science filled with numbers and data analysis, but it is very much a science of possibility and hope. As behavior analysts, we believe promoting an individual’s ability to communicate, work, live, love, and choose their community leads to a happier, more fulfilling life.
You may still be an ABA skeptic. That is ok! If you want to learn more about ABA, consider speaking with a behavior analyst whose experiences align with your values, culture, needs, and priorities.
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (1987). Applied Behavior Analysis. Columbus OH: Merrill.
Morris, E. K., Altus, D. E., & Smith, N. G. (2013). A study in the founding of applied behavior analysis through its publications. The Behavior Analyst, 36(1), 73-107.
National Autism Center. (2015). Findings and conclusions: National standards project, phase 2. Randolph, MA.
Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., … Schultz, T. R. (2014). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Evidence-Based Practice Review Group.
Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, C. W., Fettig, A., Kurcharczyk, S., et al. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z
This article was featured in Issue 125 – Unwrapping ABA Therapy