If your child has had an autism diagnosis for any length of time, then you’ve probably heard the buzz about ABA therapy. Fellow parents may have already shared their stories, autism resources, or told you that ABA could change your child’s life.

Even so, you might be feeling uncertain about the prospect of starting therapy. After all, what IS ABA therapy?

If you haven’t heard a comprehensible explanation of ABA, and why it’s so powerful, then you’ve come to the right place.

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis.

As the name implies, it’s a behavior-based approach to supporting individuals with autism. Wikipedia defines ABA as:

“The process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior.”

But what does that translate to in plain English? Here’s how we’d sum it up:

ABA is the research-based process of helping individuals to change and better specific behaviors.

Scientists now understand that changing one’s behavior changes the brain in physical, measurable ways. As Bryan Kolb, Robbin Gibb, and Terry Robinson wrote in their psychological science paper, Brain Plasticity and Behavior:

“… Experience alters the brain …. The structure of the brain is constantly changing in response to an unexpectedly wide range of experiential factors.”

In short, while the brain controls behavior, behavior also shapes the brain. So, one of the most effective ways to address brain-based challenges (like autism) is to help an individual to modify their behavior.

Here are a few key points to know about ABA:

Behavior Analysis is the science or study of human behavior.

All behavior is a form of communication. Behavior analysis gives us an opportunity to learn about the messages behind human behavior.

Two individuals with autism may exhibit the same behavior, but the driving force behind those identical behaviors may be very different.

As we noted in Tips for getting the most out of ABA therapy:

“One child may scream because he doesn’t want to leave the park, and another child may scream because she’s experiencing sensory overload. The screaming may sound the same, but the motivation behind the behavior is different. Behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and myriad factors influence an individual’s actions at any given moment. That’s one reason why it’s helpful to work with an ABA specialist: they are trained to see connections and deduce the functions of behaviors.”

Not sure if your child needs ABA? Then be sure to check out 10 signs you need ABA therapy support.

Behavior is what people do (e.g. running, jumping, eating, playing, taking, etc.)

This might seem like an obvious point, but take pause to consider: how often do we interpret people’s behaviors, and do we consider those interpretations to be “the truth”? Every day, we place our own meaning on the actions of others, and in doing so we sometimes lose sight of the bare facts.

ABA approaches behavior from a place of curiosity. The focus isn’t on finding fault or casting blame, but on discovery. In a sense, you become a detective, adding up context clues and forming a picture of your child’s motivations and preferred modes of expression.

The core principle of ABA is this: Behavior is Lawful (guided by principles), Observable (we can see it), Measurable (we can count it).

Behavior analysis helps you to look at the myriad factors that influence your child’s behavior at any given moment.

For example, if your child suddenly exhibits agitation when it’s time to put on his sneakers each morning, behavior analysis can help to illuminate the reason behind that. Rather than assuming that your child is just being stubborn, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the sneakers wearing out and fraying, with pieces chafing against your child’s skin? Or are they overly stiff and new, not yet broken in and comfortable?
  • Do the sneakers feature flashing lights or other sensory elements that distract or over-stimulate your child?
  • Does your child always put on these particular sneakers before going to school? If he/she specifically associates them with school, might your child be trying to avoid school for some reason?
  • Did your child get frustrated when trying to learn to tie these sneakers (and might his refusal to wear them really be a refusal to attempt the tie-up process again)?
  • Have you changed the timing of this activity? If the usual routine has shifted and your child is putting on sneakers later – say, when the bus is already pulling up – he may be feeling rushed and stressed.

As you can see, there are a host of possibilities!

Applied Behavior Analysis seeks to apply procedures of behavior analysis to socially significant problems to produce practical change. The effectiveness of those procedures is always measured.

If you’ve watched sample ABA therapy sessions in action on our FirstPath Autism Youtube channel, then you’ll notice that our clinicians take data throughout. That’s because they want to measure both the child’s progress and the effectiveness of the teaching methods themselves.

As part of your child’s ABA, you may need to take data, too. Try to think of this not as a chore, but as an important key to unlocking your child’s potential. When you use ABC (antecedent, behavior, consequence) sheets to record your child’s behavioral data, you’re empowered to examine trends over time.

Data sheets give you spaces to write down what was happening before the given behavior occurred, how you responded to the behavior, and what happened afterward. And once you’ve collected a series of sheets, trends begin to emerge.

Behavior can be modified by altering what happens before and after the behavior.

This is one of the most exciting aspects of ABA, because it allows you to respect your child’s autonomy but also promote positive behavioral change.

For example, say your child has a habit of waking up in the middle of the night and banging on your bedroom door until you wake up and come out to interact with her. She does this almost every night because she wants companionship when she awakens in the wee hours.

Understandably, you’d like this behavior to stop! However, you can’t exactly control whether or not your child gets out of bed at night, can you? The good news is you can change your own behavior, thereby altering what happens before and after your child’s behavior.

In this scenario, you might talk to your child before bed, explaining that the middle-of-the-night wake-ups need to stop. You might offer a desirable incentive for getting through a night without banging on the door, such as extra computer time. In this way, you alter the antecedent (what happens before the problem behavior).

You can also change your response to the behavior itself. When she does bang on the door, you can break your old patterns. Rather than opening your door for her in the middle of the night, you can speak from behind a closed door, saying, “Honey, I hear you, but we talked about this: it’s time for sleep. Let’s both go back to our beds now.”

After that reminder, don’t provide additional interaction. You may still be awake for a while, but at least you’ve significantly altered the pattern by not opening your door. You’ve changed the consequence (or result) of her behavior, because you’ve stopped rewarding her for banging on your door.

Finally, remember that you’ll likely need to enforce your new boundaries for several days before your child grasps that things have changed. You might also face what ABA clinicians call an “extinction burst”.

In the night-wakeup example, an extinction burst would involve your child trying even harder to get you to open the door and engage. If you stand your ground, perhaps she’ll bang her fists more loudly against your door, or add screaming to the mix.

She will do her best to get what she wants, and it’s your job to stand firm and hold to your new behavior.We understand that this is difficult, but please don’t give up! Your child needs you to take charge and model appropriate behavior.

FirstPath is a skills building program based on the principles of ABA Therapy.

One of the most valuable things you can do for your child is to invest in ABA therapy support.