There are seven dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis; conceptually systematic may be one that needs a little more explanation…
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a controversial and unfortunately divisive topic in the autism treatment sphere. From parents who believe the behavioral techniques have helped their kids on the spectrum thrive, to autistic adults who feel the treatment is paramount to abuse.
At Autism Parenting Magazine we believe parents need all the latest relevant information to make informed decisions for their child and family. While the information provided should not be viewed as an endorsement of ABA, it may be helpful for parents wondering about some of the more complicated terms—like conceptually systematic—and the role such concepts play according to the seven core dimensions of ABA.
What is applied behavior analysis?
Before getting to specific dimensions of behavior analysis, it may be useful to provide a short explanation of what the evidence-based therapy is all about. Ole Ivar Lovaas pioneered ABA interventions to decrease challenging behavior and build communicative language for children on the spectrum (Smith & Eikeseth, 2011).
A definition by Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) tells us it’s a scientific approach for discovering environmental variables that reliably influence socially significant behaviors. Another definition (Leaf et al., 2021) referring to the practice of ABA, mentions “the application of behavior analytic principles to improve socially important behaviors, which can include multiple types of interventions.”
Simply put, it is a scientific approach to better understanding behavior. ABA therapy utilizes such understanding to change behaviors. For some autistic adults who want to see the treatment abolished, the improvement is all about changing behavior to suit a neurotypical view of what is appropriate. They believe ABA is geared to make children seem “less autistic”, rather than truly enriching their lives. Conversely, proponents of the evidence-based treatment, which they say targets functionally appropriate behavior, believe it increases the quality of life of autistic children.
It is important to note that the modern use of the term ABA is almost umbrella-like; it covers a range of therapeutic approaches aimed at breaking down desirable behaviors or skills and encouraging such behavior with a reward. Therapists may also target behavior interfering with progress, using various interventions and principles to replace such behaviors with more positive ones.
As mentioned, this sentiment may be at the root of the backlash against ABA: desirable or positive behavior is often classified according to neurotypical standards. For example, a child who looks down when having a conversation may be encouraged to maintain eye contact—their lack of eye gaze may be seen as interfering with appropriate social interaction, and targeted in therapy sessions.
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For the autistic child, however, maintaining eye contact may be challenging, or even painful. A behavior analyst may view eye gaze avoidance as undesirable and use intervention and rewards to establish improved eye contact. Those questioning ABA therapy may ask whether the child actually enjoys or truly benefits from the “desired behavior”. Yes, eye contact is socially significant, but to whom?
Is it truly necessary for autistic individuals to maintain eye contact, or is the avoidance only undesirable to neurotypical individuals who expect the behavior? Intervention to change behavior gets much murkier when the motivation behind such change is no longer viewed from a neurotypical perspective. Worryingly, children still report finding eye contact uncomfortable or meaningless, after intervention—but they speak of forcing themselves to do it to please their therapist or to obtain a reward.
On the other hand, the behavior change (the child may eventually maintain eye gaze in other contexts outside of therapy, like school) may lead to the child being included and accepted by peers as they communicate in a way that is familiar. The autistic child accommodating the neurotypical child for social acceptance, is a topic that deserves more attention.
Controversy aside, parents may want to consider the different ABA dimensions to help inform their opinion about the behavioral techniques. When a child is diagnosed with autism, ABA may be one of the primary recommendations. Parents should therefore do their own research, ahead of time, to enable informed decision making.
The seven dimensions of ABA
Applied behavior analytic interventions or techniques fall under seven core dimensions as described by Baer, Wolf and Risley (1968). The dimensions are often arranged to form the easy-to-remember GET A CAB:
- Generality: the desired skill or behavioral goal has to be taught, practiced, and achieved in more contexts than just the training environment. Even when therapy ceases, the child should implement what was learnt across multiple environments. Generalizing new skills to contexts outside of therapy may be a challenge for autistic kids
- Effective: the intervention should effectively produce practical changes in behavior. In other words, it should actually change the behavior it set out to change. By collecting data the therapist can monitor whether behavior is changing in a practical manner
- Technological: the ABA procedures and interventions used should be described in a detailed and clear fashion. The written plan should be concise and explain procedures so that it informs team members in a way that allows standardized, high-quality treatment
- Applied: the changes sought should concern socially significant behaviors, relevant in the child’s life (and their family’s life) rather than just in therapy
- Conceptually Systematic: while the concept will be expanded on, essentially, this core dimension is concerned with ensuring the child’s intervention is research-based and representative of the principles of ABA; therefore, every intervention must be described in the language of ABA and the behavior analyst should be able to explain such interventions in terms of the basics of behavior analysis
- Analytic: to make informed treatment decisions, the child’s treatment plan should always include the use of data. Utilizing data, the therapist will be able to show how interventions are changing behavior; if a certain variable is applied behavior changes, whereas removing such variable causes the change to disappear. Data demonstrates when particular changes are warranted and also if applying such changes proves to be successful
- Behavioral: The behaviors a therapist wants to work on (as outlined in the treatment plan) should be measurable and observable. As data is collected, having measurable goals means the therapist can check for improvement or lack of improvement
Those who advocate for the use of ABA stipulate that all seven dimensions should be incorporated into the child’s treatment plan to ensure it is effective, socially significant, and actually instigating behavior change in a measurable manner to help the child thrive. Pulling all this together means the plan should be conceptually systematic—every technique, every intervention, even the language used, should therefore relate to the greater conceptual goal of ABA.
Because ABA has become a broad term, there is a danger of philosophies and methods of other disciplines being used rather than the evidence-based principles of ABA. In addition, therapists may be tempted to use shortcuts to achieve less significant behavioral changes. This core dimension, therefore, seems like a reminder to therapists to consistently rely on, and to always use the principles of behavior in every technique or intervention they utilize.
ABA advocates rely on the scientific backing that sets the treatment apart from other autism interventions. According to Dillenburger (2015) the evidence for ABA interventions involve all recognized research methodologies including: “Single-System Design (SSD), Randomised Controlled Trials (RCT), Meta-analysis and Sequential Meta-analysis, Systematic Reviews, Social Validity studies, Neuroscience studies, and Cost-benefit analysis.”
The fact that it is one of the only autism treatments supported by substantial empirical research is one of the reasons why it is often recommended by health care professionals. Of course this only applies if such intervention is conceptually systematic (in practice this means all procedures are derived from the principles of ABA rather than shortcuts or tricks to see what works).
When behavior analysts and the entire ABA treatment team use the same language and all interventions are consistent with principles demonstrated in literature and research, the core dimension of conceptually systematic is adhered to. This still does not mean the treatment is appropriate or beneficial for every child on the spectrum, it does however mean intervention represents the authentic concepts of ABA.
Cooper J.O, Heron T.E, Heward W.L. (2007) Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson; 2007
Dillenburger, Karola. “Evidence-Based Management and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorders”. Autism Spectrum Disorder – Recent Advances, edited by Michael Fitzgerald, IntechOpen, 2015. 10.5772/58983.
Leaf, J. B., Cihon, J. H., Leaf, R., McEachin, J., Liu, N., Russell, N., Unumb, L., Shapiro, S., & Khosrowshahi, D. (2021). Concerns About ABA-Based Intervention: An Evaluation and Recommendations. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 10.1007/s10803-021-05137-y. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05137-y.
Smith, T., & Eikeseth, S. (2011). O. Ivar lovaas: pioneer of applied behavior analysis and intervention for children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 41(3), 375–378. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-1162-0.