Does ABA Work for Older Children?

Answered by Bobby Newman, PhD, BCBA

Question: I have a 13-year-old son, and I am late-comer to the field of ABA. Almost everything I read is about preschoolers and recovery. Can ABA help my son?

Answer: Yes! ABA can certainly help your son to learn new skills and to manage behavior that is interfering with his ability to partake in whatever life has to offer. Now, let’s expand a bit. ABA is not limited in its effectiveness to only autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), nor to any specific age group. Many ABA professionals do not work with individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders at all, or any other form of developmental disability. ABA professionals work in business and industry, sports, education (typical or special), and other fields. The fact that ABA works so well with people diagnosed with ASDs and can achieve such amazing gains is, in part, an historical accident.1

As I prepared to answer your question, I found myself thinking back to a symposium in which I took part at the 2001 ABA convention in New Orleans. ASAT past-president Catherine Maurice was the discussant, and she reminded us (I’m paraphrasing here) that while we must celebrate, popularize, and testify to the reality of recovery from autism, we must be no less enthusiastic describing how ABA can help individuals, regardless of age, to make amazing achievements. A student who learns to tie his shoes, or to achieve another step towards independence, must be held in no less regard and celebrated no less enthusiastically than the child who recovers. Both individuals are testaments to the power of this science, and to the humanistic ends to which it is directed. In my own books of case studies2 , many of the procedures described were used to help teenage and adult clients to learn greater independence, or to overcome crippling or physically dangerous rituals and behavior. Many of the people who taught me about ABA had never worked with anyone under 15 in their lives. As Skinner always reminded us, the laws of behavior are universal (so far). We can apply our science equally, regardless of the age or the behavior of the individual.

Goals and teaching techniques will differ, depending upon the skills that need to be taught, and upon the behaviors interfering with independent functioning. Which brings us to more about ABA most people don’t realize:

  1. ABA is not discrete trial teaching (DTT).
  2. ABA is not a “related service.”

“How many hours of ABA is he getting?” is a nonsensical question. ABA is the applied science of human behavior, and more generally, a way of looking at behavior, and a literature of proven techniques that are in effect 24 hours a day. That’s not to say that you are providing intensive programming 24 hours a day, but rather that you are carrying out general behavior management strategies, setting up and taking advantage of teaching and generalization opportunities, performing functional analyses of behavior, and shaping and chaining new skills whenever possible.

Find a well-trained Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)3 and forge ahead with no less enthusiasm than you would if your child were in Early Intervention.

1 See studies in:

Cooper, Heron and Heward. (1990). Applied behavior analysis. New Jersey: Prentice Hall College Division.

Malott, R., Malott, M., and Trojan, E. (1999). Elementary principles of behavior. New Jersey: Prentice Hall College Division.

2 Newman, B. (2000). Words from those who care: Further case studies of ABA with people with autism (author and contributor). New York: Dove and Orca.

3 Go to and search by state.

Buckaroo Banzai!
One of the charges that I have frequently heard leveled against ABA is that it takes away an individual’s freedom. Somehow, so the story goes, ABA has the ability to remove an individual’s autonomy and individuality. Consistent with a line of argument BF Skinner and Kenneth MacCorquodale made decades ago, I take the opposite view: ABA increases autonomy. How can an individual truly be free if he is unable to engage in a particular behavior? When I have the ability to engage in a specified behavior, then I have a choice. If I do not have the ability, I do not have the choice.

A mini case study: I was working weekends with an adult diagnosed with autism. He enjoyed movies but did not have the ability to operate the television or VCR, nor did he know how to select the videos he wished to watch. In other words, he did not have the freedom to make these choices as others do. We used a very basic shaping and forward chaining model, following a task analysis I created to help the individual learn to select a tape and to operate the television and VCR. As is almost always the case, the task analysis had to be rewritten a few times, since particular steps proved to be too difficult and needed to be broken down further. (Remember, the student is always right.)

After learning, Joe was able to independently engage in this very common and very appropriate leisure skill. Luckily, he also had excellent taste in movies. One of his favorites was also one of my all-time favorites, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. A few times when I came to the house, he greeted me with an enthusiastic “Buckaroo Banzai!” His parents found this endlessly amusing and began to refer to me as the fictional scientist/rock star/social reformer/adventurer. That’s ok, I’ve been called a lot worse, and we could all choose much worse role models than Buckaroo.

Television/VCR Operation Task Analysis
Student: Joe Smith

Task: Television / VCR Operation

Special Notes: The unit in Joe’s room is a TV/VCR combination unit. It has one power supply, turns on automatically when a tape is inserted, plays automatically when a tape is inserted, and automatically rewinds at the end of a tape. If using this task analysis with other equipment, alterations are required.

Use a forward chain.

  1. Select a tape from the cabinet.1
  2. Remove desired tape from sleeve.
  3. Orient tape so that plastic flap faces VCR tape slot.2
  4. Insert tape (this will automatically turn the machine on and it will start playing the movie automatically).
  5. Sit down and watch movie.
  6. At the end of the movie, the tape will automatically rewind. Wait until “stop” is seen on the screen (this will indicate that tape has rewound completely).
  7. Press the “stop/eject” button.
  8. Place the tape back in sleeve.
  9. Replace the tape on shelf.
  10. Press the “power” button on the TV to shut the TV/VCR off.

Note: I have written this for a “perfect world” scenario. For the time being, make sure each step is completed so that the system will work each time. As Joe’s skills with the TV/VCR become reliable, we will expand the chain to help Joe solve problems such as:

  1. Deliberately do not rewind a tape so we can teach Joe how to use the “rewind” button.
  2. Be sure a tape is already in the machine, so we can teach Joe it must be ejected before the new tape can be inserted.
  3. Leave the power plug unplugged so that it must be plugged in before the system will work.
  4. Give Joe the opportunity to use TVs and VCRs that are not one unit, so he can master a more complex task analysis.
  5. Teach Joe to use pause, fast forward and rewind.

1 Joe cannot at present read the video boxes. I have therefore marked each tape box with a unique colored sticker. This sticker corresponds to a colored sticker on a “menu” of available movies that I have hung from the cabinet. This menu features a colored sticker and photo from the movie that will allow Joe to know which movie is on which tape; for example, the Shark from “Jaws” or Raul Julia as Gomez Addams for “The Addam’s Family.” All Joe must do is match the colored sticker on the tape box to the colored sticker on the photo at the menu.

2 This has not proven to be difficult for Joe. Should it for some reason prove difficult in the future, use a marker to draw arrows onto the tape itself that show how to insert the tape. We have used such “arrow” systems for other skill areas.

Please use the following format to cite this article:

Newman, B. (2002). ABA for older learners. Science in Autism Treatment, 4(2), 6-7.