By: Ellen Barnett, MA, BCBA, LBA

Assessment of skill repertoires for individuals with autism is the foundation from which we develop appropriate and effective intervention. Currently, there are several assessments available in the field of ABA therapy. Given the many options, how do we confidently choose an appropriate assessment based on the needs of our clients? One study reports that the more familiar a BCBA® is with an assessment, the more likely he/she will choose it (Mathewson, 2018). Choosing an assessment based only on familiarity does not ensure the most effective treatment program or optimal outcome for our clients. It is necessary that we understand the similarities and differences, as well as the limitations of various assessments. I am guilty of relying on the same old assessment due to comfort level and familiarity. Recently, however, I have started working on developing competence with a larger variety of assessments and this has helped me become a better clinician. The following descriptions offer a starting point toward an increased understanding of some commonly used skill assessments that are currently available in our field. They include: the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills- Revised (ABLLS-R), the Verbal Behavior- Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP), Promoting Emergence of Advanced Knowledge (PEAK), Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS), Essential For Living (EFL), and the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM).

Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills – Revised (ABLLS-R)

Developed by Dr. James Partington, the ABLLS-R is a commonly used criterion-referenced assessment and curriculum that addresses the skills most typically developing children acquire by kindergarten. Based on Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior, the ABLLS-R is designed to identify and address skill deficits. It is comprised of 544 skills from 25 skill sets including language, social interaction, self-help, academic, and motor skills. The ABLLS-R is made up of two components, the ABLLS-R Protocol and the ABLLS-R Guide. The Protocol provides a detailed task analysis of language skills. The Guide provides instructions for scoring and strategies for developing appropriate goals. It is important to keep in mind that the hierarchy of skills in the ABLLS-R does not match typical development; nor does it address problem behavior. In spite of a lack of published studies evaluating its reliability, the ABLLS-R remains a popular assessment tool. The ABLLS-R may be appropriate for young children (ages two through six) and older children (ages seven and eight) who exhibit delays primarily in language and social skills.

Verbal Behavior –Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP)

Developed by Dr. Mark Sundberg, the VB-MAPP is a criterion-referenced assessment and curriculum that focuses on skills for typically developing young children. It focuses primarily on language and social skills but also includes some academic-related skills. Like the ABLLS-R, the VB-MAPP is based on Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior and it provides a detailed task analysis of language skills based on the verbal operants. Unlike the ABLLS-R, the VB-MAPP is written to match the progression of typical development and allows for the assessment of problem behavior.

The VB-MAPP contains five components. The Milestones Assessment is comprised of 170 measureable developmental milestones. The Barriers Assessment focuses on assessing common barriers that impede skill acquisition, including prompt dependence, failure to generalize, and impaired skill sets. The Transition Assessment serves as an assessment for potential transitions to less restrictive settings. It addresses rate of acquisition, adaptability to change, ability to learn in the natural environment, and ability to independently care for oneself. The Task Analysis and Supporting Skills component provides a list of skills that support the developmental milestones and that may be taught prior to each milestone. The VB-MAPP Guide provides information necessary for developing IEP goals and identifying interventions based on the results of other components of the assessments.

The VB-MAPP has little to no research supporting its reliability but, nonetheless, remains a popular tool for establishing the baseline level of a child’s verbal behavior repertoire and determining the interventions to follow. The VB-MAPP may be an appropriate choice for young children (ages two through six) who exhibit delays primarily in language and social skills.

Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS)

Developed by Dr. James Partington and Dr. Michael Mueller, the AFLS is comprised of the AFLS guide and six assessment protocols that assess functional, practical, and age-appropriate daily life skills. The authors define functional skills as “commonly age appropriate skills that are used everyday for typical activities and routines and are essential for independence.” Created and formatted as an extension of the ABLLS-R, each AFLS assessment protocol breaks down functional skills into two to four levels. Each assessment protocol can be used alone, but together form a comprehensive assessment that covers a life-long continuum of skills. It is important to know that the AFLS guide provides an exhaustive list of functional skills, but does not provide specific methods for teaching these skills. The six assessment protocols are Basic Living Skills, Home Skills, Community Participation Skills, School Skills, Independent Living Skills, and Vocational Skills. Examples of skills included in the protocols are dressing, grooming, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, money management, job interviews, and computer skills. The AFLS is well suited to older learners, particularly ages 16 and up, who need to develop independent, daily living skills. This includes learners with dual diagnoses, learners who have exhibited little to no progress in skill acquisition programs, and learners with limited functional communication skills. When considering this assessment, one can keep in mind the authors’ words, “There is a certain point in a learner’s life when conceptual learning, like sorting shapes and colors needs to be replaced with specific practical skills required to improve a learner’s independence (Partington and Mueller, 2012).

Essential For Living (EFL)

Developed by Dr. Pat McGreevy, The Essential For Living is an evidence-based, communication, behavior, and functional skills assessment, curriculum, and skill-tracking instrument for children and adults with moderate-to-severe disabilities. The EFL is based on the principles and procedures of ABA and Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. Like the AFLS, the EFL focuses on functional life skills but offers a much wider scope that allows for the identification and remediation of problem behavior. While the AFLS is far easier to administer, the EFL guides the development of meaningful goals and objectives for individual education plans, behavior plans, and instructional programs.

The EFL is not a developmental instrument and does not categorize skills by age. It is divided into five categories of skills, seven skill domains, and one domain of problem behavior. The EFL offers the option of a Quick Assessment for those who are new to the EFL or those with a learner who exhibits severe forms of self-injurious, aggressive, or destructive behavior. The EFL also offers an evaluation that assists the practitioner in selecting an appropriate alternative, primary method of speaking for individuals who cannot communicate effectively with spoken language. Central to the EFL is The Essential Eight that are referred to as “must-have skills” and are necessary for a “happy, fulfilling, and productive life as a child or an adult.” These skills are necessary for the reduction of problem behavior.

The EFL may be an appropriate choice for young children, ages two and older, who exhibit significant global delays, specific syndromes, have limited language, hearing and vision impairments, or other medical conditions. It may also be an appropriate choice for older children, ages nine and up, as well as teens and adults who have difficulty answering questions or participating in conversations, and/or have not acquired academic skills at a first or second grade level.

Promoting Emergence of Advanced Knowledge (PEAK)

Launched in 2011 by Mark Dixon, the PEAK is an evidence-based assessment and curriculum that combines the traditional verbal behavior (VB) approach with the science of derived relational responding, or learning through relations between stimuli without needing to be taught directly. This sets the PEAK apart from the ABLLS-R and the VB-MAPP that focus on direct instruction and stimulus generalization. The PEAK is currently the only assessment/curriculum that provides a technology for Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which is characterized as responding to one stimulus in terms of another. The author has noted that some perceive the PEAK as controversial, as it surpasses the long accepted account of verbal behavior as defined by Skinner. However, it is a novel approach to verbal behavior and teaches skills beyond those found in the ABLLS-R and the VB-MAPP. By emphasizing an approach to language consistent with Relational Frame Theory, the PEAK provides practitioners with the tools to build more complex repertoires that individuals need to effectively respond to novel stimuli in their environment.

The PEAK contains four modules. The Direct Training module has many of the same skills included in the ABLLS-R and the VB-MAPP (i.e. requests, labels, imitation, etc.). The Generalization module is common-core driven and focuses on taking the basic concepts across contexts, people, and stimuli. The Equivalence module focuses on deriving skills from other previously taught skills and addresses concept formation. The Transformation module is designed to promote an understanding of abstract concepts and perspective taking. This module starts with basic items such as shape-to-shape matching and progresses to abstract logical reasoning.

The PEAK may be appropriate for children birth to 16 years and can also be used with adults. Because the PEAK expands beyond the scope of skills taught in the ABLLS-R or VB-MAPP, it may be a good choice for children who have already moved quickly through skill acquisition in those assessments.

Early Start Denver Model (ESDM)

Developed by Sally J. Rogers and Geraldine Dawson, the ESDM is an evidence-based assessment and curriculum designed for young children who are diagnosed with or at risk for autism. The ESDM is a play-based, developmental, early intervention approach that is based on the naturalistic procedures of ABA. Its goals are to reduce the severity of ASD in young children and to increase functioning across developmental domains including imitation, communication, cognitive, social emotional, social play, adaptive, and motor skills. The ESDM is an intervention that is comprised of an assessment (The Early Start Denver Model Curriculum Checklist for Young Children with Autism) and a curriculum that includes heavy parent involvement. Many studies support the efficacy and effectiveness of the ESDM in a variety of settings and formats including intensive delivery, parent coaching, and daycare/preschool delivery. The ESDM may be a good choice for young children ages 12 months to 60 months who exhibit the classic traits of autism.


Choosing an appropriate assessment for our clients can be challenging. As BCBA’s® we need to move past our comfort zone and continually develop fluency with a variety of the assessment tools available in our field. In this way, we will be able to choose the best fit for our clients and ultimately provide gold-standard care.

For more information about ABA therapy or how we can help your child, contact Attentive Behavior Care today.