Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Description: Practitioners of applied behavior analysis (ABA) aim to improve socially important behavior by using interventions that are based upon principles of learning theory and that have been evaluated in experiments using reliable and objective measurement. ABA methods are intended to support persons with autism spectrum disorders in many ways:

  • To increase behaviors (e.g. to increase on-task behavior, or social interactions) and to teach new skills (e.g., life skills, communication skills, or social skills);
  • To maintain behaviors (e.g., self control and self monitoring procedures to maintain and generalize job-related social skills);
  • To generalize or to transfer behavior from one situation or response to another (e.g., from completing assignments in the resource room to performing as well in the mainstream classroom);
  • To restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviors occur (e.g., modifying the learning environment); and
  • To reduce interfering behaviors (e.g., self injury or stereotypy).

Research Summary: Many studies show that ABA is effective in increasing behaviors and teaching new skills (Goldstein, 2002; Odom et al., 2003; McConnell, 2002). In addition, many studies demonstrate that ABA is effective in reducing problem behavior (Horner et al., 2002). A number of studies also indicate that, when implemented intensively (more than 20 hours per week) and early in life (beginning prior to the age of 4 years), ABA may produce large gains in development and reductions in the need for special services (Smith, 1999); however, large studies with strong experimental designs are needed to confirm the results reported for intensive, early intervention.

The United States Surgeon General (1999) concluded, “Thirty years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning and appropriate social behavior.”

Recommendations: ABA is an effective intervention for many individuals with autism spectrum disorders. ABA interventions should be supervised by qualified behavior analysts. Because of the scientific support for ABA, professionals and families may wish to obtain additional information about this approach; resources are listed in the references below.

An important area for research is to conduct large studies with strong scientific designs to evaluate long-term outcomes of early, intensive ABA and other comprehensive ABA intervention programs.

Selected References

Systematic reviews of scientific studies:

Goldstein, H. (2002). Communication intervention for children with autism: A review of treatment efficacy. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 373-396.

Horner, R. H., Carr, E. G., Strain, P. S., Todd, A. W., & Reed, H. K. (2002). Problem behavior interventions for young children with autism: A research synthesis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 32, 423-446.

McConnell, S. (2002). Interventions to facilitate social interaction for young children with autism: Review of available research and recommendations for educational intervention and future research.Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 351-372.

Odom, S. L., Brown, W. H., Frey, T., Karasu, N., Smith-Canter, L. L., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Evidence-based practices for young children with autism: Contributions from single-subject design research. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 166-175.

Smith, T. (1999). Outcome of early intervention for children with autism. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 6, 33-49.

United States Surgeon General (1998). Mental health: A report of the Surgeon General. Washington, DC: Author.

Position statements from professional organizations:

Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities (MADSEC). (1999). Report of the MADSEC autism task force (revised ed.). Manchester, ME: Author.

New York State Department of Health, Early Intervention Program . (1999). Clinical practice guideline: The guideline technical report. Autism/ pervasive developmental disorders, assessment and intervention for young children (Age 0-3 Years). Albany, NY: Author.

For additional information:

Maurice, C. Green, G., & Luce, S. C. (Eds.). Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals. (pp. 45-67). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Maurice, C., Green, G., & Foxx, R. (Eds.). Making a difference: Behavioral intervention in autism. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Related article: Research Synopses