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A Parent’s Guide to Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)

Young girl with autism focuses on paper

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is based on the science of learning and behavior and is the basis of behavioral therapies and treatments. The aim of these treatments is to increase useful or desired behaviors and reduce behaviors that interfere with learning and everyday functionality and success. There are a multitude of therapy styles that find roots in ABA principles, but at their core all therapies focus on the antecedents, or what happens before a behavior occurs, and the consequences, or what happens after the behavior takes place. ABA focuses on positive reinforcement strategies to help children who are having difficulty learning or acquiring new skills or are displaying problem behaviors that interfere with functioning.

Because each child is different, it is important to know how different ABA treatments function. Let’s take a look at five popular ABA styles.

  1. Discrete Trial Learning is based on the idea that practice drives skill mastery. Using one-on-one intensive learning in a structured therapy session, children drill, or repeat, tasks targeting specific behaviors. Children receive positive reinforcement for producing these targeted behaviors.

  2. Verbal Behavior, similar to discrete trial training, is a structured and intensive one-on-one therapy designed to motivate communication by developing a connection between the word and the meaning or functionality.

  3. Incidental Teaching, also known as Natural Environment Teaching, focuses on giving real-life meaning to skills the child is learning. During sessions, naturally occurring opportunities are utilized to help the child learn to communicate.

  4. Pivotal Response Training is a naturalistic and loosely structured intervention that focuses on increasing motivation by adding onto pre-learned tasks. Four pivotal areas, motivation, child self-initiation, self-management, and responsiveness to multiple cues, are believed to produce improvements in non-targeted behaviors when prompted.

  5. Natural Language Paradigm (NLP) is based on the belief that learning can be initiated by deliberately arranging the environment to increase opportunities to use language and prompts the child’s initiative. This intervention uses natural reinforcers that relate directly to behavior, which encourages skill generalization.

While there are many different types of ABA therapies, and the amount and level of therapy needed differ depending on each child, there are 7 pillars that all strong ABA Programs include:

  1. Look for programs monitored by a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and by supervisors with extensive experience.

  2. Strong programs provide extensive training to all participants and the supervisors should be providing ongoing training, support, and monitoring over the course of the program.

  3. Programs should be built following detailed assessments including family and learner preferences as well as an audit of the child’s specific deficits and skills. Additionally, the program should include generalization tasks to target performance of skills in a multitude of environments.

  4. The programming should also be functional, meaning that goals are selected to be beneficial and functional to the individual’s quality of life. There should also be a mix of behavior analytic therapies used so the child has an opportunity to learn in different ways.

  5. Skill acquisition and behavior reduction should have data recorded, analyzed, reviewed, and discussed regularly to measure progress and inform program planning.

  6. Programs should help train family members to teach and reinforce skills, and families should be involved in the planning and review process.

  7. Therapists, supervisors, and family members should have team meetings in order to maintain consistency, discuss progress, and identify relevant concerns.

ABA services support children with autism in a multitude of ways and can be a wonderful resource if your child is having difficulty reading, acquiring new skills, communicating, or if your child is experiencing problem behaviors such as temper tantrums, aggression, or self-injury. ABA can support your child by teaching them to replace problem behaviors, increase positive behaviors and reduce interfering behaviors, maintain behaviors, increase academic, social, and self-help skills, and improve focus, compliance, and motivation. Additionally, ABA focuses on improving cognitive skills and the ability to transfer behavior from one situation to another. ABA has also been shown to help parents change their response to behavior and help train you to reward only positive behavior.

Georgia Autism Center provides assessment, diagnosis, coordination of care, educational planning or assistance with the development of IEPs, and support for families of children with special needs. For more information visit

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