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?

Motivation for Those with Aspergers: Using Reinforcement Effectively

Motivation is key when using reinforcement to change the behavior of individuals with Aspergers or HFA.

When you think about it, it makes sense that motivation is at the center of it all. If a child or individual is motivated, they are more willing to make certain changes in their behavior and do what you want.

Highway road going up

Using motivation as a behavioral tool for change occurs for neurotypicals as well. For example, if there is a position available at work that someone wants, the individual will modify their behavior to increase the chances of obtaining that position.  The specific change in behavior is a direct result of motivation (as in wanting the position).  If the position was not available, the person would less likely be engaging in the changed behaviors.

That said, there are two ways to manipulate motivation:


Deprivation means reducing the amount of access your child has to the reinforcer, also known as the item or activity that will be used to motivate the child to increase or decrease behavior. Deprivation increases the value of the reinforcer.

Example:  If a child absolutely loves Cheetos but has free access to them, a behavior analyst would use deprivation to increase the value of the Cheetos. Now the child can only access them if he or she performs as expected. Since the child has less access to the Cheetos but still loves them, the child is more willing to do what is asked to obtain the Cheetos—motivation.


Satiation, on the other hand, means increasing the amount of access your child has to the reinforcer. Satiation is meant to decrease the value of the reinforcer, which is something to keep in mind when choosing a motivational tool.

Example: If a teenager receives an iPad, an object he is fascinated with, as a reinforcer and is the only reinforcer being used, it is likely that after a period of time the child will lose their interest in the iPad resulting in satiation (the iPad no longer has a strong value).

Behavior Analysts use deprivation to increase the value of the reinforcers to motivate the individual with Asperger’s or HFA, and are cautious of satiation to make sure the reinforcer does not lose its value. This encouragement can be used to help them to adapt in a situation or adjust behavior appropriately.

by Adriana Sanchez, MA, BCBA

Understanding Crisis Behavior in People with Aspergers

Some individuals with Aspergers or HFA may engage in crisis behavior that interferes with their learning, puts themselves or others at risk, prevents them from participating in various activities, or impedes the development of relationships. Crisis behavior can range in severity from low productivity to meltdowns that involve aggression, self-injury, or property destruction. Many individuals unfamiliar with Aspergers may believe these types of behaviors are intentional and malicious. However, it has become well known that problem behaviors often serve a function for the individual engaging in the behaviors. Additionally, deficits in the areas characterized by Aspergers may impact behavior.

Stressed teen girl screaming, shouting

Characteristics associated with Aspergers and how it may lead to crisis behavior:


Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurological disorder that impacts the way that individuals think, feel, and react. Individuals with Aspergers are believed to react “emotionally” rather than “logically” during stressful situations and are unable to maintain self-control.


Some individuals with Aspergers or HFA may have difficulty applying information and skills across settings, individuals, materials, and situations. Even though socially appropriate alternative strategies have been learned, the individual may be unable to “recall” the strategies while stressed.

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.