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ABA and Autism

What is Applied Behavioral Analysis? 

Applied Behavioral Analysis is an objective and reliable method to help children with autism-spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities learn desirable behaviors, such as social and life skills.  Applied Behavioral Analysis teaches children and young adults how to communicate effectively with others, to independently care for themselves and to self-soothe in the event of anxiety or problems.  ABA teaches new skills through instruction and reinforcement or rewards.  The skills or behaviors are repeated until they become routine and can be maintained without instruction.  Instructors will then assist those with developmental disabilities to transfer the skills and behaviors from the learning setting, usually the home or a classroom, to everyday life situations.

Intensive ABA therapy has made a great deal of difference in the behaviors and abilities of many autistic individuals. According to Autism Speaks, research finds that this therapy is an effective way of building skills for adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders. It is also a useful technique for family members to use to help manage some of the difficult behaviors that accompany diagnosis.


ABA Benefits

  • It encourages the development of desirable behavior through structured measures.
  • In many cases, IQ scores have risen, and the severity of autism significantly reduced.
  • Some children treated with ABA therapy have been able to leave the special education classroom behind while entering mainstream classes.

ABA shows its best results when begun before children reach the age of five and when put into practice 20 to 40 hours per week with one-on-one support. However, the approach has been successful with older children in many cases as well.

How ABA Works

ABA is a strong, evidence based approach to helping children with autism learn. ABA theory uses a basic model of rewards to reinforce positive behaviors and consequences for undesirable ones, expanding this model to encompass a wide range of circumstances. Larger goals are broken down into small, manageable steps, each one rewarded as its own accomplishment.

Specific Types of Applied Behavior Analysis


Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training is a form of ABA that breaks down the desired skills to be learned into smaller, manageable steps.  Discrete trial training is a way to teach more complex behaviors or to assist children and young adults with severe disabilities learn skills and behaviors more effectively.  For example, DTT can help a young child learn to write his name by first teaching him to hold a pencil or crayon, then teaching him to write each individual letter, and finally combining those letters to write his name. Other tasks that can be taught using DTT are brushing teeth, washing hands or making a simple microwave meal.



Forward chaining - the student masters the first step before the second step, the second before the third, and so on.

Forward chaining ABA for hand washing:

  1. Student turns on faucet
  2. Instructor wets hands
  3. Instructor uses soap dispenser or bar of soap
  4. Instructor lathers student's hands
  5. Instructor rinses student's hands
  6. Instructor turns faucet off
  7. Instructor dries student's hands with a towel


Backward chaining - the student learns the steps in reverse order.

Backward chaining for hand washing:


  1. Instructor turns faucet off
  2. Instructor wets the student's hands
  3. Instructor uses soap dispenser or bar of soap
  4. Instructor lathers student's hands
  5. Instructor rinses student's hands
  6. Instructor turns faucet off
  7. Student uses towel to dry hands

Once the student masters drying her hands, she moves on to turning the faucet off, and so on.


Length of Therapy

Most ABA programs last for a period of two years. You will sit down with the therapists and teachers prior to your child’s therapy and work out a treatment plan, discussing the skills your child needs to learn and any obstacles he needs to overcome.

During the two-year period, your child will meet with teachers or therapists for 10 to 40 hours a week, depending on how severe his disability is and how much intervention he needs.  This time will be spent one on one to learn the skills and behaviors identified in the treatment plan.  Your child will probably also attend a specialized school or classroom several hours a week; this is to help develop social skills and integrate the learned skills into everyday life.  Younger children may have play dates with one or two children instead of a classroom placement.  You will usually meet weekly with your child’s ABA therapist to discuss progress and problems.  You will periodically need to update your child’s treatment plan to reflect changing objectives and implementation of skills.


Special Considerations

ABA therapy is not time limited and could be shorter or longer than the anticipated two-year period.  Children with multiple delays or disorders, such as a learning disability mixed with autism, can require more intense intervention to reach a functional level.  Children who demonstrate acting out behaviors and tantrums will likely need longer intervention time, as the negative behaviors will need to be controlled before any learning can take place.  Children who receive less one on one program hours due to funding issues or lack of qualified personnel could also require a longer period of ABA therapy.


How You Can Help

Another way to help your child and possibly shorten the length of time required for learning to take place is to become trained in ABA therapy yourself.  This can be beneficial for you and your child, since knowing how to handle and help your child learn away from therapists can create a less stressful home environment.  You can also purchase applications for your computer or cell phone to help track behaviors and teach your child at home.

Posted in : Article, Autism, Community
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