By: Jessica Basir and Nahoma Presberg

What is ABA?

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA is currently the leading treatment which has been scientifically proven to treat the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Let’s discuss what ABA is, and why it actually works.

The technical definition of ABA is: “The science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied to improve socially significant behavior and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for the improvement in behavior” (*Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007, p. 20).

Let’s break down the key components Cooper is trying to say. Firstly, we address socially significant behaviors. Hold onto that, we’ll come back to it later.

Second, we’re talking about using a scientific process to analyze the contingencies that motivate and act on behavior. By understanding the reasons why behaviors are occurring, we can increase all that good stuff we want to see more of, and decrease the things causing challenges for your child and your family.

What is Social Validity?

Coming back to social validity: Social validity is a huge component of ABA therapy and is what the Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) working on your child’s case will take into account for every program they design. So what is social validity?

Social validity refers to the satisfaction and acceptability of the interventions and procedures effecting behavior change, based on the opinions of the individuals who receive services and implement them. Simply put, this means that YOUR opinion matters and so does YOUR CHILD’s.

Yes, you are under the care of highly trained professionals who have done the research and received the training necessary to implement effective strategies and identify behaviors that need to be increased or decreased, but the science is also founded on the opinions of the individuals on the receiving end.

Social validity also changes based on factors specific to the individuals receiving services. Cultural, religious, and environmental variables may alter what is socially valid in certain families and certain parts of the world.

The main take away from this is that your child’s program is tailored for who he or she is, what he or she needs, and what will make a difference in his or her life. Your child is unique and so are his or her circumstances.

The science of ABA understands this and tailors programming to match these needs, ensuring programs and interventions are effective for each and every individual.



Now that we’ve learned a little bit about what ABA therapy is, and how it relates to you and your child, let’s talk about some of the specific ways that behavioral interventions are effective. We are going to discuss: functional communication training, antecedent manipulations, generalization, parent training, task analyses, and reinforcement.

Functional Communication Training

Functional communication training (FCT) will most likely be a large part of your child’s ABA program. As we know, one symptom of Autism is difficulty with communication and/or language delays. Functional communication training focuses on increasing functional language. Functional in this sense means communication that has a purpose and is practical.

For example, if your child hits his or her sibling every time he or she wants to play, or cries each time he or she wants you to pick him or her up, he or she is trying to ask for attention, but in a non-functional way. Crying and hitting are behaviors that ABA would want to target for decrease, while teaching your child a functional response as a replacement.

For hitting and crying, we may teach the child to sign the word “play,” to tap their sibling on the shoulder, or verbally say, “Can you play with me.” FCT teaches words, signs or gestures that your child may not currently have, allowing him or her to communicate effectively with you and their environment.

Antecedent Manipulations

Antecedent manipulations refer to changing aspects of an environment in order to either reduce or increase the frequency of a behavior. Many management strategies for problem behavior are focused on how we are reacting to behavior. We refer to this as consequence interventions.

However, antecedent interventions are a proactive approach. When it comes to problem behavior, it is often helpful to utilize antecedent strategies to reduce the behavior in order to allow for an opportunity to increase alternative skills.

We can use antecedent manipulations to increase functional behaviors. For example, if you give a child a bowl of ice cream but no spoon, they might ask you for a spoon so they can eat the ice cream. However, if you gave them the spoon along with the bowl of ice cream, you would have lost the opportunity to practice functional communication.

Creating a lot of situations like this can support a child in the acquisition of functional language because you start with things that they are highly motivated for, and then you can expand to a broader range of language.

Antecedent strategies are also common in behavior intervention plans to reduce problem behavior you want to decrease. For example, if a child tends to engage in problem behavior in order to seek attention from a caregiver, you could provide a lot of attention to the child that is not contingent on engaging in problem behavior.

By increasing the amount of attention they are receiving, you are reducing their motivation to engage in the problem behavior and it is likely to decrease. With a reduction in the rate of problem behavior, there are more opportunities to teach skills to support that child’s ability to get what they want using appropriate methods.

You can teach them to request your attention using a gentle tap on the shoulder and then start ignoring the attention-seeking problem behavior. This combination of interventions results in a “treatment package” that in combination will have lasting results on behavior.


Have you ever noticed that your child is able to do something in one environment, but not in another environment? Or maybe they know how to do something with a therapist or babysitter, but have trouble engaging in the same behavior with their teacher or parent?

There are a lot of reasons why a child’s behavior may differ across people or environments. One of the ways that this problem can be addressed is through teaching generalization. Generalization means that a behavior is taught in multiple settings or with multiple people in order to help the child utilize the skills in more functional ways.

Generalization doesn’t just refer to behaviors in different environments or with different people. It also means that you don’t have to teach every single thing a person encounters in their environment. If you teach a child the word for horse using a picture of a horse, and then they see a horse in real life, they should be able to generalize that instruction to know that the real horse is also called a horse.

Many children with autism have trouble generalizing things that they learn to new contexts/people/situations. This can mean that it takes a lot longer to learn because a lot more direct instruction is required. Behavior therapy addresses this by including explicit programming for generalization. A therapist will work with a child on a new skill in multiple environments, with multiple people, and with multiple different examples so generalization can emerge.

Parent Training

Maybe you’ve noticed that your child comes home from school every day with a glowing report from the teacher, but the minute he or she arrives home, all of the problem behavior that you know so well comes right back.

It can be difficult to understand why your child’s behavior can be so different at home than in other environments. Parent training is a critical component of behavior therapy. It ensures that the child is learning consistently across all environments and can support parents in understanding how to respond to difficult situations.

Additionally, working with a professional can be helpful in understanding contingencies in the environment that you might not be able to see if you live it every day. Parent training can also support the acquisition of skills that happen outside of therapy time.

It is not uncommon for parents to experience challenges with daily routines like getting ready for school, getting ready for bed, mealtimes, and hygiene routines. Parent training allows for a parent or caregiver to work closely with a BCBA® to identify specific challenges in those routines and collaborate on solutions for making everyday situations more manageable.

Task Analyses

Task analyses are terrific teaching tools and highly effective teaching procedures that break down a task into smaller components. Think recipes.

A good chef would not throw you into a kitchen and say, “bake chocolate chip scones” without providing you with a recipe or the steps to do so. Task analyses focus on the same method; breaking down one large task into smaller steps that you can learn independently in order to learn the entire task over time.

Some examples of skills where a task analysis may be used could include:

  • Tooth brushing
  • Shoe tying
  • Making a sandwich
  • Doing laundry
  • Hand washing
  • Cleaning a room

The possibilities are endless. How do we know these are effective? It allows specific teaching to occur for one or multiple steps that a learner may be struggling with, and ensure all the smaller skills needed to complete a task have been learned and are efficient.

Back to our baking example: if you didn’t know how to measure flour or roll out dough, how could you make a scone? These steps would need to be taught before you were expected to follow the scone recipe, and this is where a task analysis (or recipe) would come into play.

Task analyses can also help to break down a task that may seem very overwhelming to start. It can be difficult to approach a whole new skill, but if you break it down, then you might find that it isn’t as complicated as you first thought.


Reinforcement is the most basic principle of ABA therapy and of behavior in general. Reinforcement is the reward for doing a behavior and will increase how much you do that behavior in the future.

Let’s use the example of going to work. You wake up, go to work, come home, and repeat this every day and 5 days per week. Why? Odds are it’s because you are getting paid. Each time your paycheck hits your account, you are reinforced for the behavior of showing up to work, so you continue to do it.

We encounter reinforcement every day and so do your children. ABA understands the principles of reinforcement and uses them to target specific behaviors that should occur more often. Reinforcement can be used to increase all types of behavior. Some examples include:

  • Verbal speech
  • Functional communication
  • Appropriate meal time behavior
  • Appropriate voice volume
  • Independent dressing
  • Safety skills
  • Attending skills
  • Play skills
  • Social skills

The list goes on and on. Reinforcement has been proven to shape appropriate, functional behaviors and is an essential part of every ABA program.

ABA therapy is unique in that it uses scientific principles to analyze specific behaviors and the specific contingencies that surround those behaviors. Other therapies seek to address significant challenges in an individual’s life, but may lack the analytic power to understand those challenges in the same ways. These techniques are the core of many behavioral interventions.

However, every child receives an individualized plan based on their unique needs. This means, that you can be sure that your child is being supported in the exact way he or she needs. It also means that there’s lots of room for parent and family involvement.


Behavioral therapy can help, and we can help show you how! Contact Attentive Behavior care today for more information.


* Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E. Heward, William L.. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall.