What is ABA Therapy?

Applied Behavioral Analysis

So, what exactly is ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis?

Close-up view of pencils and African girl writing

ABA is an intervention therapy that specifically addresses behavior. ABA is one of the proven best practice therapies for children on the autism spectrum, including Aspergers. Thousands of research articles have documented the effectiveness of ABA in individuals with autism across behaviors, settings, and specialists. The behaviors that ABA seeks to address could relate to academics, communication, challenging behaviors, and other daily living skills.

ABA, as a field, seeks to understand and improve human behavior—the goal of many disciplines. What sets ABA apart from other fields is the approach and process. Professionals trained in ABAor behavior analysts—break down each component of interactions to understand this behavior.

In ABA, behaviors are analyzed by looking at antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. These are known as the ABCs of ABA.

  • A = Antecedents (what happened before the behavior)
  • B = Behavior (the behavior targeted for intervention)
  • C = Consequence (what happened after the behavior)

For example, a child sees a box full of cookies on the table that his mother just took out of the pantry (antecedent). He asks her, “Mom, can I have a cookie please” (behavior). His mother tells him that he must eat his omelet before he can have a cookie (consequence).

Behavior analysts believe that adaptive and maladaptive behaviors are learned, and can be changed.

Basic principles of ABA state that when behavior is followed by something pleasant, it will occur more often in the future. In the same way, when a behavior is followed by something unpleasant, it will occur less often in the future. Behavior analysts utilize these principals of behavior to understand and improve human behavior.

Here is a general process for developing interventions utilizing ABA:

  1. Select the target behavior that is socially significant, observable, and measurable
  2. Clearly and specifically define this behavior
  3. Utilize principles of ABA to develop interventions
  4. Collect data in a way that demonstrates the changes in the target behavior are due to the intervention implemented and determine the impact of the intervention
  5. Make educational/therapeutic decisions based on the data.

It is key that an ABA intervention be effective. Meaning, the changes produced in the behavior are significant enough to make a difference in the person’s life outside of the context in which the intervention was implemented.

Now you know a little bit about the basics of ABA as a field. Do you think this process would apply to your child?

By Berenice de la Cruz, Director of Training and Research at Autism Community Network


Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T R.(1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91-98.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied Behavior Analysis. Prentice-Hall: New Jersey.

The Two Types of Reinforcement for Individuals with Aspergers or HFA

Reinforcement in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) focuses on the outcome of the behavior and increasing the likelihood of certain behaviors occurring in the future. There are two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when a response is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus and, as a result, similar responses occur more frequently in the future.

In other words, positive reinforcement means when a behavior has an increased likelihood of occurring again if something is given after it occurs.


An example of positive reinforcement:

You tell a child if he or she cleans up their room, they can play for 30 minutes on the Wii, an activity they enjoy. The likelihood of the individual cleaning up the room is more likely to occur in the future because they received 30 minutes of playing with something they enjoy. In order for reinforcement to work, you need to make sure that what you are giving them is something that they value.

However, let’s change the reinforcement premise–

You instead tell the child if they clean the room you will go the movies. Your child is sensitive to sounds and does not like being around large crowds, so he will be less likely to clean his room even though you think it would be fun. The purpose is to focus on the child’s likes and dislikes to achieve the desired result.

Negative reinforcement is when a response is followed immediately by the removal of a stimulus and, as a result, similar responses occur more frequently in the future. In other words, negative reinforcement means when a behavior has an increased likelihood of occurring again if something is taken away after it occurs.

An example of negative reinforcement:

You are working on having the child be more independent when doing their chores. You provide a checklist of the chores that needs to be done for the day. He or she independently completes two of the chores on the list. You tell them because they independently completed two chores without any reminders, they do not have to do the rest of the chores. In the future, the individual is more likely to independently complete the chores because the rest of the chores were taken away—assuming he does not like any of the chores that were on the list.

If, however, they really like doing laundry and that was a chore on the checklist that you removed, the negative reinforcement will not have the desired effect on behavior.

You need to always keep in mind what the child likes and does not like. You give him or her things or activities that they enjoy and take away things that they do not like to increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future. If what you are presenting and taking away is not increasing the likelihood of the behavior in the future, then you are not using reinforcement.

by Adriana Sanchez, MA, BCBA

How do you use reinforcement with your child? What types of reinforcements are most effective, in your experience?

ABA and Aspergers: The Three Step Plan You Can Use

The main use of ABA for individuals on the autism spectrum is to decrease challenging behaviors and increase appropriate skills.

Little girl hiding behind her hands - copyspace

Here are the three steps for utilizing ABA to decrease challenging behaviors and increase appropriate skills:

Step 1: Assessment

The first step in decreasing problem behavior is to conduct a functional behavior assessment, which determines the function of challenging behavior.

Appropriate skills including academic, language, and daily living skills are assessed in a similar way. The founding father of ABA, B.F. Skinner, wrote the book Verbal Behavior in 1957. In the book, language is analyzed based on the function. Assessments like the Verbal Behavior-Milestones and Assessment Program (VB-MAPP; Sundberg, 2008) are utilized to assess the persons’ language skills, as well as other appropriate skills like academic and daily living skills.

Other assessments utilized in ABA are the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills-Revised (ABBLS-R; Partington, 2006) and the Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS; Partington & Mueller, 2013).

Step 2: Developing a Plan and Treatment Goals

To Change Unwanted Behavior in ASD Children You Have to Find its Purpose

When a child with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism demonstrates challenging behaviors, we tend to blame the child’s autism. However, these challenging behaviors are not a byproduct of autism, rather learned due to ineffective means to get needs met—especially when there are barriers to communication.

functions of behavior

Bottom line: if an individual does not have a way to communicate appropriately, he or she will find a way to communicate in another way (e.g. screaming or hitting).

Keeping in mind the ABCs of behavior from our previous post, let’s discuss the key to changing behavior.

Behavior is changed when we know the function—or purpose—of the behavior.

Challenging Behaviors and Appropriate Skills in ABA Explained

As I mentioned in my previous blog, there are thousands of published research studies to support the effectiveness of ABA in treating autism and Aspergers. Specifically, ABA seeks to decrease challenging behaviors and increase appropriate skills that are seen in many individuals with autism or Aspergers.

Challenging Behaviors and Appropriate Skills in ABA

To help understand what your ABA therapist seeks to accomplish, let’s cover what these terms mean:

Challenging Behaviors

Challenging behaviors refer to those behaviors that put the individual in danger, put others around them in danger, or prohibit/limit a person’s use and access to community facilities (Emerson et al., 1987).

Let’s say a 12-year old with high functioning autism, “Jake,” told his overweight teacher that she is fat. The teacher, who was very insulted by the comment and the conversation that followed, sent him to the principal’s office for bad behavior.

From Jake’s perspective, he didn’t understand why he was in trouble for telling the truth. If Jake engages in these types of behaviors regularly, he may soon be unable to access his general education classroom.

As such, this behavior is considered a challenging one that an ABA therapist can help address.

Appropriate Skills

On the other hand, appropriate skills refer to skills that a person needs to be successful. Those skills take into account the person’s chronological age and their cognitive level of functioning.

Appropriate skills include the following:

Punishment in ABA for Individuals with ASD

While the word “punish” often conjures up bad thoughts for parents and professionals, punishment and reinforcement are key when looking at behavior change through ABA. Punishment in ABA decreases the chances that a particular behavior will occur again, as opposed to reinforcement which increases the likelihood of behavior.


Let’s look at the behavior analytic definitions of punishment specifically:

Positive Punisher

  • Positive punishers may occur naturally in one’s environment. A child pets a strange dog and gets bit on the finger causing pain. After this occurs, the child does not pet strange dogs. That is considered a positive punisher because the bite/pain (presented stimulus) decreased petting strange dogs (outcome).
  • A parent can use positive punishment as well: siblings are fighting; mom yells “stop it right now!” and the kid’s reaction is to end the fighting. Mom provides the stimulus of yelling, which decreases future occurrence of fighting.

Negative Punisher

  • A negative punisher would be when the removal of a toy ends the fighting between two children. This removal decreases chance of it happening in future.
  • “Time out” is also considered a negative punishment. When used correctly, it removes all reinforcement from the immediate environment resulting in a decrease in future occurrence of the punished behavior.

7 Guideliness of Defining Characteristics of ABA

As parents, you have expectations of improving your children’s behavior. Behavior analysts, on the other hand, need to make sure improvements in behavior occur within the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) guidelines.

These seven guidelines are called the defining characteristics of ABA: