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 (National Autism Center [NAC], 2015; Wong et al., 2014, 2015). In addition, many studies demonstrate that ABA is effective in reducing problem behavior (NAC, 2015). 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 (Reichow, 2012); 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:

National Autism Center. (2015). Findings and conclusions: National standards project, phase 2. Randolph, MA: Author.

Reichow, B. (2012). Overview of meta-analyses on early intensive behavioral intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 512-520.

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

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., … Schultz, T. R. (2014). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Evidence-Based Practice Review Group.

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, C. W., Fettig, A., Kurcharczyk, S., et al. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z

Related article: Research Synopses

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