Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis is a program specifically tailored to each individual and focuses greatly on positive reinforcement. It can be used to teach new skills, as well as to reduce problem behaviors such as self-abuse.

This is vital since people with autism don’t learn from their environment as much as their neuro-typical peers. Many times they have to be taught communication skills, self-help skills, how to play with their toys, etc.

How does Applied Behavior Analysis work?

An Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) consultant observes and assesses the child’s current skills and behaviors. Information is gathered from the parents, and together they decide what behaviors and skills to begin working on. The consultant develops a program for each one.

Behavior therapists (sometimes called habilitators) come to the home and work the programs, taking data each day on the child’s progress. Assessments are repeated periodically and programs are changed correspondingly.


Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a powerful method of motivation. In basic terms, when someone does something and immediately receives a desired result, they are more likely to do it again. If they don’t get that result, they are less likely to do it again.

ABA uses an immediate schedule of positive reinforcement when teaching a new skill. As progress is made, the schedule becomes varied in order to fade out the supplementary reinforcement and let the natural reinforcement suffice, while maintaining the skill.

When my daughter, Hannah, was little, she would line up her Legos by color instead of building with them. The therapist, began to teach her to attach one Lego to another. When she did, Hannah’s “supplementary” reinforcement (which was an m & m) was given to her immediately while the therapist clapped her hands and praised Hannah for “good building.”

As Hannah made progress, the m and m’s were faded out, because the “natural” reinforcement of seeing what she could build was enough to maintain the skill.

People with autism sometimes have problem behaviors such as screaming or self-injurious behavior. A tool called Functional Behavior Assessment can be used to determine the purpose of the behavior and what is reinforcing and maintaining it. A program can then be developed to reduce or eliminate it.

Functional Behavior Assessment

A baseline is taken by noting what happens directly before (antecedent) and after (consequence) the behavior.

It may look something like this:

Scene: child is hungry before lunch. He sees cookies on the counter and takes one. Mom takes it away and tells him he can have it after lunch. He looks up and sees mom looking at him. He starts screaming. Mom gives the cookie back to him.

Antecedent: has mom’s attention

Behavior: screaming

Consequence: mom gives him back the cookie.

He knows he has his mom’s attention; he screams to get the cookie back. This is the function or purpose of the behavior. Mom gives the cookie back to him which reinforces the behavior.

Changing either the antecedent or the consequence, or both can help.

Mom can put the cookies up where the child can’t see and/or reach them.

Important to remember:

Sometimes, problem behaviors can get worse before they get better, because the child is used to his behavior producing a certain result. When that result is not forthcoming, the behavior intensifies until he sees that he is not going to get the desired result. Then the behavior will decrease.

It is this way with all of us. For example, when we put money into a coke machine and push the button, we expect to get a coke. If we don’t, we may put in more money. If we still don’t get a coke, our behavior gets worse. We may hit the machine, try to tilt it, kick it etc. If we still don’t get a coke, our behavior stops and we walk away.

*It is important that ABA programs and Functional Behavior Assessments are developed by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

Task Analysis

New skills can be taught by breaking them down into their smallest steps. This is called Task Analysis. The following is a task analysis of washing your hands:


Turn on the water
Wet hands
Put soap on hands
Rub hands together (front and back)
Rinse hands
Turn off water
Dry hands

There are two options for teaching with this method. Children can be taught the first step and the therapist will complete the rest. Then the child carries out the first two steps, etc.

The other option is the same but in reverse order. The therapist completes all the steps except the last one, which the child completes. Then the child does the last two steps, etc.

Positive reinforcement, Functional Behavior Assessment and Task Analysis are some of tools of Applied Behavior Analysis. This program may sound simple in its basic form, but it is scientifically developed, tested, and supported. Many people have made significant progress through this program.

My daughter, Hannah, is one of them. When she was little, we didn’t know if she would ever regain her speech and language, or be able to take care of herself. We didn’t know if she would be able to be in mainstream classrooms.

Hannah is now  in college majoring in Early Childhood Education. So far, she has consistently been on the dean’s list. She has her driver’s license and her own car. Applied Behavior Analysis was truly a “Godsend” for her.

I would love to hear from you!