What Is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy for Autism?

Applied behavior analysis, which is often referred to as ABA Therapy is a process that teaches skills and instills positive behavior patterns through data-driven reinforcement. When it comes to therapeutic outcomes for individuals on the Autism spectrum, ABA therapy is typically thought of as being the gold standard.

ABA treatment strategies have a long reputation for success when it comes to helping individuals with autism learn behaviors, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and learn new skills. To help you understand if ABA therapy is right for you or your child on the autism spectrum, we will need to take a closer look at its underlying concepts.

What Is ABA Therapy?

Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy works well for individuals on the autism spectrum by helping to reinforce desired behaviors while also helping to discourage unwanted or otherwise negative behaviors. It typically calls for a therapist to offer rewards and encouragement via communication, language, and other skills.

Fundamentals Of ABA Therapy

Positive reinforcement is the primary driving strategy used in ABA. The principle behind it states that when a specific behavior is followed by something that is valued (a reward), a person is more likely to repeat that behavior. With time and consistent repetition, it encourages positive behavior change in the individual. It is a process that has shown great success for individuals on the autism spectrum.

The process starts with the ABA therapist identifying a goal behavior. Each time the autistic patient uses the behavior or skill correctly, they are rewarded. Though the reward needs to be meaningful to the patient. This might include:

  • Verbal praise
  • Access to a specific toy
  • A book
  • Getting to watch a video
  • Special privilege access to a playground or other location the patient enjoys

Positive rewards encourage the person to continue using the skill. Over time this leads to meaningful behavior change.

Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence

Another key component of ABA therapy involves a process of understanding antecedents, which is what specifically happens before a behavior occurs and consequences that occur after the behavior. Then this data factors in the individual’s reaction.

This typically involves a series of events, where the antecedent occurs right before the target behavior. It can be verbal. This might be a command or request. It can also be physical, such as a toy or object, or a light, sound, or something else in the environment. Sometimes a specific antecedent can come from the environment, from another person, or be internal such as an emotion of a recurring thought.

The individual’s response or lack of response to the antecedent plays a critical role in the evolution of their personalized ABA therapeutic process.

The consequence is what comes directly after the behavior. It can include positive reinforcement of the desired behavior. Though this could come in the form of non-reaction for incorrect or otherwise inappropriate responses.

What Are The Symptoms Of Autism?

Autism is often detected in the early childhood years. Many educational institutions screen for autism before the age of three. Common symptoms of a child on the autism spectrum include things like:

  • Poor eye contact
  • Delayed speech
  • Lack of speech
  • Lack of social smiling
  • Lack of play skills or imitation
  • Repetitive movements
  • Sensory sensitivities
  • Conduct issues

Early diagnosis provides parents and families with the opportunity to begin early childhood intervention to improve long-term outcomes.

What Causes Autism?

The specific cause of autism isn’t known. Though the general assumption is that is a combination of both biological and environmental variables. This can include things like:

  • Paternal age
  • Genetics
  • Having a sibling with autism
  • Brain abnormalities
  • Maternal lifestyle factors
  • Exposure to environmental chemicals
  • Events that occur in the prenatal period

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is considered to be the standard reference for diagnosing individuals on the autism spectrum. The DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing autism specifically focus on:

  • Deficits in social communication
  • Deficits in social interaction
  • A restricted pattern of behavior
  • Repetitive patterns of behavior or activities
  • Repetitive or obsessive interests

ABA Therapy For Autism

As an evidence-based treatment process, ABA therapy emphasizes how consequences can be manipulated to promote increasingly positive behavior while also minimizing problem behavior. It is a data-driven practice that takes a scientific approach to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder to live their highest quality of life.

The majority of ABA clinicians will perform consultations and assessments, and develop an individualized treatment plan. The ABA therapist will then use specific interventions to support the unique needs of the patient. It’s important to understand that ABA therapy is most effective as a collaborative approach that integrates parents, teachers, caregivers, and the therapist to progressively meet treatment goals.

Types Of ABA Strategies For Individuals On The Autism Spectrum

There are several different types of ABA techniques that might be used to help an individual on the autism spectrum. The best one might vary depending on the person’s age, where they are on the spectrum, and the skills they need the most help with.

Discrete Trial Training

This classical ABA therapy technique divides key lessons into simple tasks. Each accomplished task is then directly rewarded with positive reinforcement for correct behavior.

Early Start Denver Model

This model is scaled for children on the autism spectrum between the ages of 12 to 48 months. The therapeutic techniques it employs include play and joint activities to help kids with language skills as well as cognitive, and social skills.

Pivotal Response Training

This ABA modalities’ primary goals focus on helping children to start conversations with others. It also helps to increase their motivation to learn, as well as develop the skills they need to effectively monitor their own behavior.

Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention

This ABA therapy technique works best for children who are under the age of 5 years old. It is designed to help them build positive behavior and reduce unwanted behavior. Therapy sessions are one-on-one with a trained therapist.


If you are concerned that your child or loved one is displaying symptoms of autism, early detection is critical. An ABA therapist can help dial in the diagnosis as well as find the best ABA modality for their needs. ABA therapy remains the gold standard for helping individuals with autism spectrum disorder live their best lives