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ABA Therapy- What is it and is it right for your child?

ABA. These three letters get brought up a lot in the Autism and special needs community, but what exactly do they mean? It sounds like a simple question, but there is a lot to unpack with those three little letters! Let’s start with what the letters stand for: ABA is Applied Behavior Analysis. The technical definition of ABA is the science in which the principles of the analysis of behavior are applied systematically to improve socially significant behavior and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for behavior change.” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). Well, that’s a lot of information in one sentence! Let’s break that down a little bit... The simple definition: ABA focuses on the relationship between behaviors and the environment. It looks at how we can alter the environment in order to increase desirable behaviors and minimize unwanted behaviors.

Can ABA help my child?

ABA focuses on behavior, so anyone who displays any behavior can benefit from ABA (which is everyone!). This includes both humans and animals. Anyone can learn from techniques and teaching procedures used in ABA. Can ABA help your child… the simple answer is YES! Now, does your child need ABA Therapy? That is not so simple. I use the principles of ABA with my children (and maybe my husband…) every day. Understanding the principles of ABA is only going to help any parent! You need to know the why behind a behavior in order to fix it and ABA can help you get to this answer. ABA therapy is a little different, more intense and focused. ABA therapy has been found to be one of the most effective treatments for people with Autism and other developmental disabilities. The data backs this up! ABA is great for both learning new skills and for decreasing negative behaviors. A common misconception is that ABA is only used to treat individuals with negative behaviors. NOT TRUE!! ABA is a great way for individuals to learn and acquire skills! So if your child is not learning in a traditional classroom and is falling behind in communication, academics, social skills, or displaying inappropriate and negative behaviors… ABA therapy could help!

What does it look like?

ABA therapy utilizes a variety of behavioral techniques including reinforcement, consequences, prompting, fading, extinction, discrete trial training, natural environment teaching, pivotal response training, and so much more. Therapists are constantly observing and evaluating the strengths of an individual and working to expand on these, and in contrast also focus on teaching skills in the areas where there are deficits. Behavior reduction and skill acquisition go hand-in-hand with learners acquiring new skills; problem behaviors are being targeted for reduction by manipulating the environment and learning new replacement behaviors.

Each ABA program is tailored to fit the individual’s needs and utilizes a variety of different teaching strategies. Two of the most common strategies include Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and Natural Environment Teaching (NET). DTT breaks down large skills into small and “discrete” components. It focuses on teaching one small skill at a time, and then building on each skill. In comparison, NET involves teaching in the environment that the child is in naturally, generally the home or community. When using this method, therapists generally teach through play and use the individual’s motivation to guide the learning.

What does it teach?

ABA therapy can be used to teach pretty much anything. Generally ABA therapy is used to increase independence, social skills, speech, and functional communication. Here is a list of other areas that may be addressed during therapy:

  • Behavior Management

  • Following Directions

  • Pre-academic and Academic Skills

  • Play Skills

  • Daily Living Skills

  • Bathroom Skills

  • Eating

  • Safety Skills

  • Sleeping

  • Self-Regulation

  • Executive Functioning

  • Fine and Gross Motor Skills

What makes ABA therapy so effective?

There are a variety of factors that make ABA therapy effective, and the research backs it up! Here are four reasons that ABA remains one of the most effective therapy for individuals with Autism.

1.) ABA therapy is evidenced-based: ABA therapy is considered an evidence-based practice by both the US Surgeon General and by the American Psychological Association. This means that it has passed scientific tests and has been found to be both useful and effective. The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies has a great wealth of information reviewing the evidence and studies completed regarding the effectiveness of ABA. Check out this link if you want to dive into some scientific journals!Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies

Here are some compelling statements regarding the effectiveness of ABA therapy:

  • Autism Speaks wrote that “More than 20 studies have established that intensive and long-term therapy using ABA principles improves outcomes for many but not all children with autism. “Intensive” and “long term” refer to programs that provide 25 to 40 hours a week of therapy for 1 to 3 years. These studies show gains in intellectual functioning, language development, daily living skills, and social functioning. Studies with adults using ABA principles, though fewer in number, show similar benefits.” (Autism Speaks)

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

  • The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concluded: “ABA techniques have been repeatedly shown to have efficacy for specific problem behaviors, and ABA has been found to be effective as applied to academic tasks, adaptive living skills, communication, social skills, and vocational skills” (Volkmar et al., 2014).

I am also going to add a great article to the library titled, Overview and Summary of Scientific Support for Applied Behavior Analysis for all of those research nerds like myself!! Check it out!

2.) ABA therapy relies on data: ABA therapy involves continuous data collection and an ongoing analysis of that data throughout the learner’s treatment. If this is not happening, it is not ABA! All programming decisions should be made with a thorough examination of the data! This allows the analyst to evaluate current treatment protocols consistently and assess what is effective and what needs to be changed. Analysts are consistently looking at the child’s rate of skill acquisition, frequency of behaviors, ability to generalize skills, and much more.

3.) ABA therapy is individualized: Each treatment plan is individualized to meet the needs of the individual. ABA is not a one size fits all treatment plan. A thorough assessment of skills and deficits is completed prior to implementing any treatment plan, and each treatment plan and overall programming is geared to meet the needs of the individual learner.

4.) ABA therapy includes parent and caregiver training: An important aspect to ABA therapy is the component of family and caregiver involvement. Parents, family members, and caregivers receive training so that they can support the individual’s learning and practice skills throughout the day. This allows the individual to learn through ABA techniques even when the therapists are not present! This is a crucial piece of ABA therapy to ensure consistency and that learning is maintained.

Who Can Provide ABA Therapy?

In most cases, a therapist or registered behavior technician (RBTs) will provide direct therapy to your child. These therapists and RBTs are trained and supervised by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). The BCBA holds a Master’s Degree or higher in Applied Behavior Analysis or in a related field, completes a set amount of internship hours supervised by a seasoned BCBA, is required to pass national board certification exam, and holds a state license (in some states).

The primary role of a BCBA is to assess the learner and develop an individualized treatment plan for therapy. Assessments include reviewing records, interviewing parents and caregivers, and doing direct testing. They may also develop a behavior intervention plan that is geared towards decreasing maladaptive behaviors.The treatment plan that they develop will be based on the individual’s strengths and areas of need. The treatment plan will then be implemented by the therapist with the BCBA overseeing and supervising. Generally, the BCBA will attend one to two sessions weekly (depending on how many hours of therapy are occurring) to monitor progress, supervise the therapist, give recommendations, make programming changes, evaluate data collected, and to provide family/caregiver training.

The BCBA is also responsible for developing written procedures, training behavior technicians and caregivers, providing ongoing and frequent direct observation and measurement of target behaviors, reviewing data, adjusting programming and targets, reviewing progress with the family and team, coordinating care with other providers (i.e. doctors, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, teachers, etc.), and re-assessing the learner as needed but no less than every 6 months

How do I get started?

After reading this, if you think that your child could benefit from ABA therapy, you should speak with your pediatrician or other medical provider. Together you can determine whether ABA may be right for your child and they can point you in the right direction of getting a diagnostic evaluation and a prescription for ABA, if your insurance requires these. Next, if you are ready to move forward, you can reach out to us by phone, email, or contact form. We can help you determine if your insurance will cover ABA and next steps in the enrollment process.


  • Walsh M. B. (2011). The top 10 reasons children with autism deserve ABA. Behavior analysis in practice, 4(1), 72–79.

  • Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.

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

  • Volkmar, F., Siegel, M., Woodbury-Smith, M., King, B., McCraken, J., State, M., & the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Committee on Quality Issues (2014). Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 53, 237-257.

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