Applied behavior analysis or ABA is the application of behavior analytic principles for the improvement of socially significant problems. ABA is based on a long history of sound behavioral research and is characterized by defining the behavior in clear, observable terms; systematic analysis of the problem in question; a clear description of the techniques to be used; clearly demonstrated efficacy; and durability over time (i.e., maintenance) along with generalization to other environments, people, and behaviors. Although ABA has become a popular treatment for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), this is only one of many areas in which behavior analysis has been successfully applied. Based on a preponderance of scientific evidence, numerous scientific, professional, and government organizations have concluded that ABA- based procedures represent best practices in treating individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities. For additional information about ABA and ASD, go to the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (click Autism) or go to the Association for Behavior Analysis Autism Special Interest Group.
More about ABA
The field of ABA as applied for individuals with ASDs has evolved over time, based on published research studies. A sound ABA program should include four components: (1) discrete trial instruction (DTI), (2) chaining procedures, (3) natural environment teaching, and (4) incidental teaching. The component selected at a given time should be based not only on the skill itself (e.g., chaining is used to teach most self-help skills) but also on individual factors, such as one’s ability to learn incidentally and one’s cognitive level. Discrete trial instruction is implemented when the skill to be taught is “discrete” or has a clear beginning and ending and allows for many practice opportunities.
B.F. Skinner extended operant conditioning to verbal behavior in his book Verbal Behavior (1957), thus providing a functional analysis of language, meaning that use of a word can functionally represent more than one thing. These were termed verbal operants (e.g., mands (requests), tacts (labels), echoics, receptive identification, intraverbals, etc.). Thus, the word “apple” can represent a request or mand given a state of deprivation (e.g., hunger) or label when stated in the presence of the item. This led to the application of the analysis of verbal behavior to teaching functional communication to students with ASDs. Incorporating Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior into an ABA program has become more popular in recent years and is based on research. It is important to conceptualize that the use of verbal behavior analysis is not distinctly different from ABA but rather a component of ABA programming. Given that verbal behavior analysis is focused on communication and that this skill deficit is a critical component of an ABA curriculum, a well-rounded, comprehensive ABA educational program should also target readiness to learn, imitation, socialization, academics, daily living skills, motor skills, and recreation/leisure skill areas.
Other areas of advancement in the field of ABA programming for individuals with ASDs in recent years includes the use of errorless teaching with specific error correction strategies, mixing and varying operants (versus mass trailing) in order to enhance motivation during discrete trial instruction, and teaching skills to fluency as instruction are more likely to maintain over time.
A recent research article by Howard et al. (2005) found preschoolers with autism receiving intensive behavior analytic instruction to be superior in language, cognitive, adaptive skills and learning rate compared to students receiving either intensive “eclectic” intervention (1:1 or 1:2 ratio) in public, special education classrooms, and students receiving non-intensive public early intervention programs. This adds to the database of research supporting the effectiveness of applied behavior analysis for instructing individuals with ASDs.
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