ABA is an intensive intervention for autism. It is a science based on the principles of learning, with a focus on improving lives. The central theory behind ABA is that behavior can be learned and modified by changing environmental conditions, such as through motivation, shaping, and prompting procedures. Goals target both increasing and decreasing specific behaviors. Behavior that is reinforced (rewarded) is more likely to be repeated than behavior that is not reinforced. Behavioral intervention may help children “learn to learn,” so they eventually begin to learn and develop skills on their own and become less dependent on therapists and intensive teaching. ABA can be implemented as a focused treatment to address a narrow range of targets (e.g., toileting, self-help skills, problem behavior) or a comprehensive treatment, where the behavior analyst designs and oversees a range of behaviors targeted for change. The most extensive research support for ABA services is in the area of autism.
In ABA, a wide variety of treatment methods are used, from highly structured programs using discrete trial training (DTT) to parent-driven naturalistic behavioral programs such as pivotal response training (PRT). Treatment intensity typically ranges from a few (5 or less) to 40 hours per week, and should be administered by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), a professional who is credentialed by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) (see www.bacb.com).
Be advised that waiting lists for BCBAs can be long because the demand for them is great. When looking for ABA services, it is important to make sure that the training and experience of the potential provider fit your child’s area of need. Your child’s developmental specialist can help you identify the right fit for your child. The Association for Behavior Analysis International provides guidelines to help consumers select professionals qualified to design and oversee ABA interventions: bit.ly/ASATonline.
Although many in the research community agree that ABA services are evidence-based, you may find that some representatives from the Defense Health Agency disagree. One reason is that two recent large reviews (Cochrane, 2017, Hayes, 2018) found limited evidence for the effectiveness of early intensive behavioral interventions, including some ABA interventions. The American Psychological Association (APA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Professional Development Center (NPDC) on Autism Spectrum Disorder maintain that ABA is evidence-based, as studies have shown positive gains in areas of academic, readiness-to-learn, social, communicative, motor, behavioral, and adaptive skills.