Applied Behavior Analysis Research​

One out of every 59 children in the United States is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) each year, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. This figure has almost tripled over the last two decades as the medical and scientific worlds have become more aware of the condition. Physicians diagnose one in six children with some form of developmental disorder annually.

For parents struggling to help their children overcome those conditions, it may seem there’s little hope or help available. Many simply aren’t equipped to handle behavioral, mental, cognitive, and developmental issues on their own.

Though numerous treatment options are available, studies point to ABA therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis, as the most widely used and effective intervention to date.

WHAT IS ABA THERAPY FOR AUTISM?

Sources define ABA therapy as “the practice of applying the psychological principles of learning theory in a systematic way to alter behavior in humans or animals.” (1) The characteristics of Applied Behavior Analysis were first described by Baer, Wolf and Risley in 1968 in the first volume of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. It was aptly titled, “Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis. (2)

Dr. Montrose Wolf created the treatment specifically for a young child with autism he was treating at the time. He drew upon behavior modification techniques created by well-known psychologist B.F. Skinner. (3)

Wolf’s client with autism was prone to tantrums. Upon realizing that gaining attention was the purpose of those tantrums, Wolf applied Skinner’s previously developed conditioning methods to the child and was able to modify his behaviors successfully. Since that time, ABA has become the foremost treatment for autism as well as other conditions.

IS ABA THERAPY EFFECTIVE?

Over the past half-century, thousands of research studies have shown that ABA therapy is effective in improving a wide variety of behaviors. It increases positive behaviors, such as language, social, play and leisure skills, self-help skills and academics. It also decreases inappropriate behaviors such as aggression, self-injury and repetitive behaviors.

These benefits are true across a wide range of ages, from toddlers to senior citizens, and in nearly every conceivable setting, from schools and homes to institutions, hospitals and in community settings such as restaurants and public transportation.

HOW DOES ABA THERAPY WORK?

One of the critical features of how ABA therapy works is an emphasis on the functional relationship between behavior and the environment. In other words, how a person’s behaviors change the world around him/her, and how those changes affect the future likelihood on the same behaviors.

Kadiant’s treatment packages use strategies that make positive behaviors more functional (to “work” better) and inappropriate behaviors less functional (to “work” less well). For example, if language is targeted for increase—a wider variety, longer sentences, or even just single utterances more often—it must be functional to use more language. There needs to be a “reason,” and providing quality intervention includes increasing motivation, making targets more functional. It involves observing a client’s behavior and why it takes place. Three primary principles apply to this practice, and they’ve since become known as the ABCs of ABA. (4)

  • Antecedent: What initiates the behavior that needs to be improved.
  • Behavior: The behavior itself.
  • Consequence: What the client hopes to gain from his or her behavior.

By understanding what prompts the behavior in question, how the client reacts afterward and the outcome of the situation, ABA therapists can improve negative behaviors by altering their consequences. Positive behaviors are also reinforced when using this approach.

ABA THERAPY EMPHASIZES OBSERVATION AND MEASUREMENT

Applied Behavior Analysis emphasizes behaviors that can be observed and measured. Performance measures are essential for program evaluation and adjustments. While emotions — or “states” such as anger, depression, anxiety or overstimulation are certainly real and affect our behavior — they are simply descriptors of various behaviors that can be observed. In other words, you only know someone is anxious based on their behavior.

These might include an increase in repetitive or self-injurious behaviors, but both are behaviors that can be observed and measured. Consequently, even though treatment may include strategies to reduce anxiety, the only way to evaluate the effectiveness of that treatment is to measure observable behavior.

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HOW DOES ABA THERAPY WORK?

One of the critical features of how ABA therapy works is an emphasis on the functional relationship between behavior and the environment. In other words, how a person’s behaviors change the world around him/her, and how those changes affect the future likelihood on the same behaviors.

Kadiant’s treatment packages use strategies that make positive behaviors more functional (to “work” better) and inappropriate behaviors less functional (to “work” less well). For example, if language is targeted for increase—a wider variety, longer sentences, or even just single utterances more often—it must be functional to use more language. There needs to be a “reason,” and providing quality intervention includes increasing motivation, making targets more functional. It involves observing a client’s behavior and why it takes place. Three primary principles apply to this practice, and they’ve since become known as the ABCs of ABA. (4)

  • Antecedent: What initiates the behavior that needs to be improved.
  • Behavior: The behavior itself.
  • Consequence: What the client hopes to gain from his or her behavior.

By understanding what prompts the behavior in question, how the client reacts afterward and the outcome of the situation, ABA therapists can improve negative behaviors by altering their consequences. Positive behaviors are also reinforced when using this approach.

ABA THERAPY EMPHASIZES OBSERVATION AND MEASUREMENT

Applied Behavior Analysis emphasizes behaviors that can be observed and measured. Performance measures are essential for program evaluation and adjustments. While emotions — or “states” such as anger, depression, anxiety or overstimulation are certainly real and affect our behavior — they are simply descriptors of various behaviors that can be observed. In other words, you only know someone is anxious based on their behavior.

These might include an increase in repetitive or self-injurious behaviors, but both are behaviors that can be observed and measured. Consequently, even though treatment may include strategies to reduce anxiety, the only way to evaluate the effectiveness of that treatment is to measure observable behavior.

GRAPHS, DATA, AND ABA

Another important aspect of ABA is using graphic representations of data. The data that are collected based on the observable target behaviors are graphed. This provides a good visual image of each skill targeted for acquisition and each behavior targeted for reduction.

In comprehensive ABA treatment, it is vital to precisely identify skills that should be targeted for intervention. Generally, they should be sequenced beginning with the “simplest” skills and progressing toward the more complex skills, breaking them down as necessary along the way. This involves precision and specificity. The objective is to teach individuals to learn from typical environments so they can be as independent as possible.

CHANGING ENVIRONMENT TO CHANGE BEHAVIOR

Another aspect of Applied Behavior Analysis is the importance of changing the environment to change behavior. The intervention “points,” or “teachable moments,” include the stimuli around you: how adults respond to a child’s behavior, how peers respond to a child’s behavior and how the physical environment changes based on a child’s various behaviors.

For example, how should a child’s environment change when he or she says, “Can I watch TV please?” If someone turns on the TV, he or she may be likely to engage in that same behavior again (if he or she wants the TV on). If the TV is not turned on, that speaking behavior is less functional and the child may be less likely to engage in that behavior in the future. In other words, the lens through which Kadiant views its ABA programs is simple: We change our behavior to change that of our students.

COMPONENTS OF EFFECTIVE ABA THERAPY

It is also imperative that methods and rationales are defined precisely. Our methods include: a written program or set of instructions for teaching each skill; the Board Certified Clinical Supervisor in charge of each student’s programming trains those who work with the student to implement those programs consistently; and parents learn to implement the strategies outside of formal teaching sessions.

A high-quality ABA program such as that offered by Kadiant has behavior change procedures specified clearly so that effective program components can be implemented with precision by everyone.

WHAT APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS IS NOT

It is important to understand what Applied Behavior Analysis is not. ABA and discrete trial teaching (sometimes referred to as Lovaas training, or discrete trial instruction or training) are not the same thing. Discrete trial teaching, when done well, is based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, but they are not the same.

In discrete trial teaching, instructors break down complex tasks a child may be struggling with into simpler individual components. From there, they slowly bring those elements back together until the child can complete complex tasks on his or her own. Children receive rewards for their progress with each step.

A quality ABA program should include discrete trial teaching along with several other strategies that are not discrete trial teaching, such as naturalistic teaching procedures and using task analyses to teach complex skills.

It is critical for a learner with autism to have several opportunities throughout every day to learn and practice targeted skills. One way to engineer those opportunities is for an instructor to present a series of discrete trials, which are critical for teaching a variety of new skills to students with autism. But a state-of-the-art ABA program cannot rely exclusively on these DTT procedures.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ABA TREATMENT

Another misconception about ABA treatment is that using its principles results in “trained robots.” For example, certain speaking patterns and rote responses certainly present as robotic, but these aren’t caused by behavior analysis.

There’s a great deal of data to indicate that ABA programs can successfully produce spontaneous behaviors, social behaviors and even creative behaviors. (5)

ABA IS NOT A “COOKIE-CUTTER” TREATMENT

It is important to understand that ABA is a comprehensive science, not a “cookie-cutter” treatment package or a “cure” for autism. There are no “cures” for autism. Nonetheless, intensive ABA programming has clearly been identified as the treatment of choice for children with autism, and a substantial number of young learners who receive such treatment can achieve near normal or even normal levels of functioning.

RESOURCES FOR ABA RESEARCH

ABA research articles can be found in a variety of Peer Reviewed Scientific Journals:

The breadth of research in the ABA field is incredibly rich, and we highly recommend that professionals stay in touch with the current literature.

Following is a list of recent articles:

  • DeSouza, A. A., Fisher, W. W., & Rodriguez, N. M. (2019). Facilitating the emergence of convergent intraverbals in children with autism. Journal of applied behavior analysis52(1), 28-49.
  • Grob, C. M., Lerman, D. C., Langlinais, C. A., & Villante, N. K. (2019). Assessing and teaching job‐related social skills to adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of applied behavior analysis52(1), 150-172.
  • Akers, J. S., Higbee, T. S., Pollard, J. S., & Reinert, K. S. (2018). Sibling-Implemented Script Fading to Promote Play-Based Statements of Children with Autism. Behavior analysis in practice11(4), 395-399.

You can access many articles by using these links:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/journals/309/ (JABA) or
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/journals/299/ (JEAB)

References

  1. AppliedBehaviorAnalysisEdu.org
    https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/what-is-aba/
  2. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1310980/pdf/jaba00083-0089.pdf
  3. Harvard University Department of Psychology
    https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/b-f-skinner
  4. AppliedBehaviorAnalysisEdu.org
    https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/what-is-aba/
  5. Psych Central
    https://pro.psychcentral.com/child-therapist/2015/07/seven-dimensions-of-aba-applied-behavior-analysis-changing-human-behavior-the-scientific-way/