Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy (ABA Therapy) is a data-driven approach to behavior science that has proven itself to be the gold standard for helping individuals on the autism spectrum to improve their skills and social interactions. ABA therapy’s principles can be applied to a wide range of other behavioral disorders including:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Psychiatric disorders
- Substance abuse
ABA Therapy Principles
ABA therapy focuses on altering negative behaviors and creating positive behavioral patterns through positive reinforcement as well as a process of antecedent-based interventions. One of the major strategies for doing this includes a process known as discrete trial training. As therapeutic outcomes are met, the child may be introduced to other ABA therapy techniques to target the development or improvement of other behaviors.
ABA Therapy Uses Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement essentially provides the individual with a reward or some type of praise that further encourages them to continue to repeat the behavior in similar situations in the future. Though to be truly effective as an ABA therapy technique, the praise or reward needs to immediately follow the desired behavior. This helps assert the notion of positive reinforcement with the behavior, which makes them more likely to increase the rewarded behavior.
Antecedent Based Interventions
Antecedent Based Interventions or ABI theory is essentially an ABA learning technique. It involves three distinct stages. The first is the Antecedent Behavior Consequence which occurs and triggers a behavior. The second stage is the behavior itself, which then leads to the third stage which is the consequences of that behavior.
One of the learning issues is that there can be many things occurring within an environment, all at the same time. This can interfere with, or effectively replace, the intended Antecedent. Fortunately, ABI strategies specifically focus on modifying the environment to reduce interfering stimuli. The net benefit is that it reduces the likelihood of something in the environment triggering an interfering behavior. In some cases, the ABA Therapist may engage your child in an environment that has few distractions. Further teaching your child in this type of environment may also help your child to focus on the intended antecedent to facilitate learning as part of a greater positive dynamic.
Discrete Trial Training is one of ABA therapy’s strongest teaching strategies. It essentially breaks behaviors down into smaller, “Discrete” or “Distinct” elements. The ABA therapist then introduces the discrete elements of the skill to your child, in parallel experiences that are easier for them to process. Each successful attempt is immediately followed by positive reinforcement. As time goes on more and more of these discrete elements can be combined to help a child on the autism spectrum to master a much broader, and important life skill.
In some cases, Discrete Trial Training can be used by an ABA therapist to engage the autistic child’s emotions. This technique helps to break the concept of emotions down into individual emotions that can then be connected to specific lessons. Though for this ABA technique to work the child will need to be taught to distinguish the emotions.
This process typically starts with having the child identify emotions. They might begin by introducing a pleasant emotion such as “Happiness.” The child can then be given an array of photographs in which children portray a variety of emotions. The child might also be asked to point out the picture of themselves or another child expressing happiness. When correctly identifying the emotion, the child is then positively reinforced with meaningful praise or reward.
As time goes on, the child will be able to positively identify happiness. Then the ABA therapist will gradually move on to another emotion, breaking them each down in time using the same positive reinforcement techniques.
Functional Behavior Assessment
A Functional Behavioral Assessment is a tool used by ABA Therapists to clearly identify the behaviors that need to be altered to help the child learn effectively. It helps to determine the factors that are maintaining key behaviors, which is the first step in reducing negative behaviors and increasing positive outcomes.
Functional Communication Training
Functional Communication Training employs a process known as Differential Reinforcement, to teach a child on the autism spectrum to effectively replace one negative behavior with a positive one. This is done through a series of time-tested stages.
It starts by conducting an assessment of the problem behavior and determining appropriate communication. It then progresses to teaching the child the new communication skill. The process engages positive reinforcement for every use of the appropriate communication and ignoring the problem behavior whenever it happens.
Modeling is a process where the ABA therapist or an assisting RBT intentionally shows the patient what an ideal behavior looks like. This modeling technique can then be used to help your child understand the behavior that they need to demonstrate to receive positive reinforcement. This is rarely a standalone technique but is often used in conjunction with other ABA therapy techniques such as Discrete Trial Training, or ABI.
Picture Exchange Communication System
Also known as PECS, a Picture Exchange Communication System is a modified ABA therapy technique that allows individuals without the ability to speak to use images to communicate. It has shown to be very helpful for engaging children on the autism spectrum who have speech pathology or verbal expression issues.
Pivotal Response Training
Pivotal Response Training is another modified ABA therapy technique. It is based on the concept that there are pivotal behaviors that essentially influence or act as triggers for other behaviors. An ABA therapist using Pivotal Response Training will look at a variety of areas of communication, including social engagement, and learning to see larger trends in behavior.
Redirection is a common technique used by many therapists, educators, mental health professionals, and childcare caregivers. When taken into the realm of ABA therapy, the therapist will often distract the patient from a problem behavior that is occurring. The patient’s attention is then drawn toward more appropriate behavior with repetition.
Scripting means the process of using the same words repetitively. With these techniques, the ABA therapists might use scripting to help your child gradually learn a new skill. This might include things like using a memorable description of a skill or situation. The ABA therapist will then practice the script with your patient before the skill is used.