Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior. 

Scientific studies demonstrate the effectiveness of ABA. The National Autism Center (2009) characterized comprehensive ABA-based interventions as “established” treatments for autism. Thousands of studies reporting on ABA-based assessment and treatment techniques have been published since the 1960s. These controlled studies have strong internal validity as they use experimental designs that permit one to conclude that the intervention was responsible for the change in behavior.

ABA may come in many different forms; however, they all are based on a simple concept: behaviors that are reinforced will increase; behaviors that are not reinforced will decrease and eventually disappear. 

A good ABA provider will place a strong emphasis on: 

  • The value of caregiver knowledge
  • The value of autistic individuals
  • The value of educators 
  • The value of science 

Basic Principles in ABA 3-Term Contingency 


An environmental condition or stimulus that occurs just before a behavior. Basically, anything that occurs before a behavior. It can occur immediately before a behavior or a relatively long time before a behavior takes place, but is usually referenced in temporal relation to a behavior. 


The activity of living organisms. This includes human behavior, which includes everything that people do. 


A stimulus change that follows a behavior of interest. In other words, what happens right after the behavior occurs? Some consequences, especially those that are immediate and relevant to current motivational states, have a significant influence on future behavior. Two consequence variables: reinforcement and discipline

Examples of 3-Term Contingency 

AntecedentBehavior Consequence
Wanting info on autism and ABA Reading this webpageGaining the desired information
Red light at intersection Stop car Not getting into accident
Needing help from a friend Asking for HelpReceiving help
Alarm clock goes off Get up Not late to work
Need money to pay bills Go to work Receive money
Heading out to work and notice it’s rainingGrab umbrella to useStay dry

Our responses can increase or decrease behaviors


A stimulus change that immediately follows a behavior increases the future likelihood that one will engage in the behavior again so that they can access the related reinforcement. 

We use reinforcement for behaviors we want to increase. 

Consider a few things: 

  • Would you go to work if you did not get paid?
  • Would you continue to ask for help if you never received it whenever you asked?

Just about everything we do was learned due to being reinforced. (There are a few things that get reinforced that are not learned, e.g., breathing, hunger, warmth, and sexual stimulation.)

Functions of Behavior 

The function of a behavior can be thought of as the “why” of the behavior. What is the payoff for the person engaging in that behavior? For example, we engage in the behavior of going to work because the payoff is receiving our paycheck.



Some behaviors do not rely on anything external to the person to be reinforced and instead are internally pleasing in some way. In other words, they are “self-stimulating” or “automatically reinforced.” They function only to give the person some form of internal sensation that is pleasing or to remove an internal sensation that is displeasing (i.e., pain). 

For example, a child might rock back and forth because the sensory stimulation it provides is enjoyable. Another example: when you have an itch, you engage in the behavior of scratching it to relieve the sensation of the itch.


Many behaviors occur because the person wants to get away from something or avoid something altogether. If we allow the person to escape the activity or stimulus, we increase the likelihood the person will engage in the same or similar behaviors in the future to avoid tasks. 

For example, a student might engage in disruptive behavior in class because the teacher sends them to the principal’s office and then gets out of the non-preferred academic activity. 


A person may engage in a certain behavior to gain some form of social attention or a reaction from other people. If we provide attention to the person following the attention-seeking behavior, we increase the likelihood the person will engage in the same or similar behaviors in the future to gain attention. 

For example, a child might engage in a behavior to get other people to look at them, laugh at them, play with them, hug them, or scold them. Yes, sometimes any attention is good attention—even a reprimand! Sometimes, for some people, it’s better to obtain “bad” attention than no attention at all.


Some behaviors occur so the person can obtain a tangible item or gain access to a desired activity. If we provide attention to the person following the attention-seeking behavior, we increase the likelihood the person will engage in the same or similar behaviors in the future. 

For example, someone might scream and shout until their parents buy them a new toy (tangible item) or bring her to the zoo (activity). 

Strategies Utilizing the Science of ABA 

There are lots of different ways ABA can be implemented. Here are some ways you may see ABA utilized in your sessions with AAI.

NET – Natural Environment Taching

A child’s natural environment can create many opportunities for learning. NET is a way to implement learning during almost every activity. NET is taking whatever activity is going on and creating a learning opportunity from it. If you are playing blocks with your child, you can ask for the red block, reinforcing colors. If the child is playing with bubbles, you can ask them to pop the big bubbles, reinforcing sizes. At the general store, you can ask the child where the towels are, reinforcing communication.

  • Engagement: Children are more engaged in learning because they are doing activities they enjoy. The learning will feel more natural when the child is engaged.
  • Child-led: When the child leads the activity, the reward for learning will be inherent in the activity.
  • Less Disruptive Behaviors: When children are doing activities they enjoy, there are often fewer disruptive behaviors. Children are motivated to limit behaviors such as irritability, aggression, or noncompliance when they are doing an activity they have chosen to do. 
  • Exposure to Skill Building: Parents, grandparents, caregivers, babysitters, siblings, and teachers can all participate in NET. This means that NET can take place throughout the day, not just during an ABA therapy session. Having multiple adults interact with the child can also increase the generalization of a skill. 
  • Generalize: Providing opportunities to learn in the environment in which they will be used increases the likelihood that the child will continue to use the learned skill. 

Pivotal Response Training (PRT) 

PRT focuses on targeting pivotal developmental areas rather than specific individual skills. For example, increasing a child’s motivation to learn, the initiation of communication, functional play skills, and skills to monitor their own behaviors. 

The focus on motivation is crucial. To motivate children, PRT is typically play-based, and the therapist lets the child initiate activities, such as what game to play, what to talk about, or what to learn. Tasks are varied, and children are given natural reinforcers that relate to the current situation (e.g., asking appropriately for a toy and then being handed that toy).

What are some targets that we might target while running PRT? 

  • Manding (requesting)
  • Imitation 
  • Matching 
  • Listener responding 
  • Tacting (labeling) 
  • Attending 
  • Social behavior 
  • Group skills 
  • Intraverbal skills (conversations) 
  • Motivation 
  • Responding to multiple cues 
  • Self-initiation 
  • Shared control 
  • Self-management 
  • Empathy 

Functional Communication Training (FCT) 

FCT is a procedure in which an individual is taught an alternative communication response that results in the same reinforcement as the problem behavior (e.g., the child is taught to say “juice” instead of having a tantrum for juice to get the juice). The child is no longer reinforced for engaging in the problem behavior and is only reinforced for functional communication. 

FCT can be used to teach replacement behaviors for inappropriate or harmful behaviors such as aggression, escape/elopement, and self-injurious behavior.

It is vital to understand that a child’s problem behavior is a form of communication. It is a learned behavior. 


Antecedent interventions are designed to alter the environment before a behavior occurs to make the problem behavior less likely and the desirable behavior more likely to occur. 

Examples include: 

  • Offer choices (“It’s time to go to the art table. Do you want to cut the shapes or color them?”
  • Visual schedule 
  • Social stories 
  • Video modeling 
  • High-probability sequences (focus on easy tasks before harder tasks
  • Visual timers 
  • Contriving Motivating Operations (create a state of satiation or deprivation to increase or decrease motivation for a child to engage in behavior). 
  • Practice target (role play or practice target outside of the real situation)

Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) 

DTT is a structured ABA technique that breaks skills down into small, discrete components. Discrete means single. 

Step by step, according to a set treatment plan, the trainer teaches these skills one by one. Along the way, the trainer uses reinforcements for the target behavior. 

For example, a trainer teaching colors to a child might begin by teaching red. She would ask the child to point to red and then reward the behavior. She would then move on to teaching yellow by itself, reinforce that skill, and then ask about both colors. After the child learns all his colors, the trainer might teach the child to say each color’s name, etc. 

Many therapists have found DTT to be particularly effective for teaching skills to children with autism. DTT was one of the very first interventions developed for autism and has extensive research supporting it. 

What are some targets that we might target while running DTT? 

  • Imitation 
  • Matching 
  • Listener Responding 
  • Tacting (labeling) 
  • Attending 

Benefits of Intensive Early Intervention 

In a study, children who were enrolled in ABA therapy before 48 months of age were far more likely to achieve an inclusive educational placement in a regular education class. 

It has been found that children who began ABA therapy prior to 5 years old had better outcomes than those who entered the program after 5 years old. 

When compared to a group of children who received “eclectic” treatment, it was found that children who received intensive early intervention in the form of ABA therapy had higher scores on standardized tests of cognitive, linguistic, and adaptive functioning. 

Children who are completely non-verbal and begin intervention in the early pre-school years are far more likely to become vocal. 

With early intervention, disruptive behaviors are often avoided, reduced, or eliminated, as the focus is on teaching appropriate communication. 

Early intervention techniques to address the core symptoms of ASD may prevent secondary symptoms and reduce the need for more substantial and expensive interventions later in life.

Learning to Learn Skills 

Children with ASD and other developmental disabilities often lack skills that are pre-requisites for success in school and other social situations. For example, before a child can acquire language, hold scissors, hold a pencil, or learn from instruction, he or she needs to be able to do a few things: 

  • Sit 
  • Pay attention 
  • Imitate behaviors 
  • Remember/understand the content of an instruction 

We call these skills “learning to learn skills”

It is also important that your child learns to understand the previously mentioned 3-Term Contingency. There are desirable consequences for engaging in behaviors requested by others. For example, a child follows a teacher’s instruction to sit down with their group, then receives social praise and high fives from the teacher, which results in the child following the teacher’s instructions in the future because they enjoy social praise and high fives. 


Children with ASD often have great difficulty with imitation. Researchers have studied the imitation abilities of children with ASD and the effect this has on other areas of development. They have found that: 

  • Their ability to imitate gestures and body movements predicts their language outcomes.
  • Their ability to imitate actions with objects is related to their development of their play skills.
  • Their difficulty with imitating other children’s actions affects their peer play.
  • They need to develop some imitation skills before they can acquire joint attention (the ability to share a focus with another person or an object).
  • Due to its connection to other areas of development, many researchers have suggested that imitation is an important focus of intervention for children with ASD and that teaching imitation should result in improvements in children’s overall social abilities. 

Consistency and Follow Through 

  • However, we know that to change another person’s behavior, we must first change our own (yes, we realize this is easier said than done!).
  • Without consistency, replacement skills may suffer. If what has worked in the past (e.g., challenging behavior) continues to work, then there is no need for the child to learn anything new. 
  • When we have a plan established, we all must remain calm when difficult behavior is occurring.
  • Develop your own self-control plan. This will provide you with an opportunity to step back in a difficult moment to evaluate your response.
  • If you do not feel you will be able to follow through, then don’t start. The last thing you want to do is teach your child that more intense and/or socially inappropriate behavior is effective. 

Early Start Services (CA) 

The Early Start Program is California’s response to federal legislation ensuring that early intervention services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families are provided in a coordinated, family-centered system of services.

Infants and toddlers from birth to age 36 months may be eligible for early intervention services through Early Start if, through documented evaluation and assessment, they meet one of the criteria listed below: 

  • Have a developmental delay of at least 33% in one or more areas of either cognitive, communication, social or emotional, adaptive, or physical and motor development.
  • Have an established risk condition with a high probability of resulting in delayed development.
  • Be considered high risk of having a substantial developmental disability due to a combination of biomedical risk factors, which are diagnosed by qualified personnel.