ABA – What it is and what it isn’t

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) – the holy grail of autism treatment. It is recognized by school districts, insurance companies, and most parents as a viable treatment to improve extreme behaviors of children on the autism spectrum. Still, there are often misperceptions and mistaken ideas about when to use ABA and who can benefit from it. On one hand, there are those who think that ABA should only be used in cases of severe behaviors that endanger the child or those around him. I recall a time of asking for ABA services for my son and being told that he only needs ABA if he has “behaviors.” As parents, we know that “behaviors” mean if he is constantly in “melt down” mode or is “non-compliant.” What is seemingly hard for some to get is that ABA is not only for extreme situations or only for those with some type of developmental disability. ABA is useful for anyone and everyone. It is simply a way of recognizing a person’s motivations and using that to increase certain wanted actions. Here, I use the word “actions” so not to confuse it with “behaviors” which is typically used in a negative context. In all actuality, everything that we do is behavior. For example, if you want your child to pick up his toys and he wants to play with his iPad, you simply apply a “first – then” contingency: “First, pick up your toys. Then, you can have the iPad.” It’s the same contingency that exists for most employment. “First, work your hours. Then, receive your paycheck.” ABA is all around us!

So, for those parents who might have a difficult time getting ABA for their child, approach goals with the end result in mind. First, identify the actions that you might want your child to increase. For example, you want him to increase time attending to instruction, or you want him to increase time interacting with peers. Next, identify what motivation would be relevant and important to your child. For example, increasing time attending to instruction might be reinforced by gaining time to engage in a preferred activity or simply a high five or smile from a teacher (again, this all depends on knowing what your child likes and using that as reinforcement). Maybe there is an activity that your child likes to do (e.g. playing tag, being chased, etc.). If the goal is to increase time engaged with a peer, then the motivation should include a game of chase as the target activity. These are merely examples. My point is to show that ABA is not always about decreasing unwanted “behavior.” It is a very useful tool that can help to increase positive actions and interactions.


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