It seems that everyone is using applied behavioral analysis (ABA) in working with children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), when in fact, we are using it all the time with each other! When we say hi to our colleagues at work and they respond in a positive way, we are all more likely to greet them again the next day. The principle of positive reinforcement is at work in this example.

When ABA is used while working with children with ASD, it is sometimes confused with a specific type of program, such as discrete trial training (DTT). It is important to understand that ABA is a framework for the practice of a science and not a specific program. That is, ABA is a set of principles that guide how we all change our behaviors based on events that happen in our environment. These principles often impact learning.

That said, there are several different specific programs that children with autism receive that use the principles of ABA to impact learning. These programs have commonly come to be referred to as ABA therapy. They can range from child directed, play-based interventions all the way to structured adult driven table tasks. They can be used in isolation or combined to create an individualized learning program for a child. What they do all have in common is the following seven core elements of ABA (Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1967).

  • The program must be applied. The behaviors that one chooses to focus upon should have social significance.
  • The program must be behavioral. The environment and physical events should be recorded with precision.
  • The program must be analytic. There should be clear and convincing evidence, through carefully collected data, that the intervention is responsible for a change in a behavior.
  • The program must be technological. The techniques that one uses should be described completely enough to allow for duplication by another individual.
  • The program must be conceptually systematic. There should be relevance to established and accepted principles of ABA (for example, positive reinforcement). .
  • The program must be effective. The program should seek to change the targeted behavior to a meaningful degree.
  • The program should display some generality. A change in behavior should be seen in a wide variety of environments, or should spread to a wide variety of related or similar behaviors.

Because children with autism may face many deficits and difficulties in learning, ABA programs are often used to address these deficits: attention and focus, motivation to learn, communication, socialization, play, cognitive skills, and generalization of new skills.

4 Stages of Learning

When an ABA program is selected, components of that program address specific skills for the child as well as consider that stage of learning that child is in for that skill. Clear as mud? Let’s break it down to make more sense, shall we? There are generally four stages of learning that everyone goes through when learning a new skill. Acquisition, fluency, maintenance, and generalization.

Think about when you were first learning to drive a car. Scary, right? That’s because you were in the first stage of learning, the acquisition stage. Everything is new. Everything is hard. It is also very tiring to be in the acquisition stage of learning. To compensate for this, we do things like develop a very structured time for learning. For example, my parents bought me driving lessons (although that may have been out of fear of getting in the car with me, rather than their desire to create structured time for my learning!). We also take many breaks so our brains can process the new information and integrate it into previously learned skills. Once you had learned to fully drive the family car, you got much more adept at it with practice. You then remember the steps to start the car, put on the seatbelts and put the car in gear. That is when you were becoming fluent in your new skill! Then, after more practice you enter the maintenance phase. During this time, skills become stronger, but are still not automatic. For example, if you got grounded for a long period of time, you might wonder, “Can I still drive the same car?” Do we remember all the steps even if we have not been practicing for a while? Sometime we do, but sometimes this needs to be directly taught again. The last stage, the generalization stage, is most likely where you are now. You are able to drive almost any car, to anywhere, with any number of people with you.

These four stages also occur for our children with ASD. ABA breaks skills down so they can explicitly be taught in these stages using systematic teaching procedures. It also strives to intersperse skill stages so that not all goals are in the same phase. It would be too exhausting for all of our tasks to be in the acquisition stage and too boring if all of our tasks were in the maintenance stage. These strategies are especially helpful for children with autism because they often do not learn skills automatically from being in their natural environment. Specific teaching strategies are required to target skills that typically developing children learn through experience.

Next, let’s talk briefly about the different types of ABA programs that are out there. There are many different programs that are based on ABA methodology, so our goal here is to give you a brief description of some, but not all, available programs. Remember, these programs all use ABA teaching principles and follow the core elements outlined above.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT): DTT programs are often what people mean when they say “my child has an ABA program”. These programs are highly structured, adult-driven programs, where a therapist and child typically sit at a table and engage in repeated learning trials designed to teach specific skills. These programs are also known under other names, such as the Lovaas Method. Some proponents of DTT programs recommend that this type of teaching be used with a high level of intensity, such as 20-40 hours per week. The research does not clearly show how many hours are optimal, however, and we suggest that this recommendation be made based on individual child characteristics.

Naturalistic Teaching Strategies: These programs are less structured than DTT and strive to embed ABA-based learning opportunities into the child’s natural environment and naturally occurring interactions with others. For example, these programs often train parents, teachers and even peers in ABA strategies they can embed in their interactions with the child to enhance learning. The number of hours is often less of a focus with these programs since a high level of service intensity can be reached by embedding intervention into natural settings. Examples of naturalistic behavioral programs include Pivotal Response Training, Incidental Teaching, Early Start Denver Model, and many preschool programs.

While there is much research to support the use of ABA teaching methodology to teach skills and reduce problem behaviors in children with autism, there is also much debate about which programs are most effective, how many hours are required, etc. In the end, it is most likely that programs and service intensity have to be recommended based on individual child characteristics.

Is your child receiving some type of ABA therapy? How do you feel about the match between your child’s needs and the program? What are the pros and cons from your perspective. Let us know!