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How Does Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Work?

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Updated April 13, 2009

Question: How Does Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Work?
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is probably the best-known and best-researched treatment available for autism spectrum disorders. Based on behavioral psychology, it teaches basic and complex skills through a reward system. Dr. Ivar Lovaas is the developer of ABA. Discrete Trials describes the method by which practitioners use ABA. Researchers at the Lovaas Institute explain the terms and their meaning.
Answer: The following answer was supplied by researchers at the Lovaas Institute:

The Short Answer:

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. It is a scientific discipline, based on the theory of behaviorism. Discrete Trials refers to a specific procedure, based on the principles of applied behavior analysis, that can be utilized in behavioral treatment programs.

The Lovaas Method, or rather the Lovaas Model of Applied Behavior Analysis, is a specific behavioral treatment method employed by the Lovaas Institute and other replication sites throughout the world. It is unique in that it has undergone rigorous, peer-reviewed research, including both long-term and follow-up studies, proving its effectiveness as an intervention in treating children with autism.

The Long Answer

Applied Behavior Analysis is a scientific discipline based on the theory of behaviorism. Part of the guiding philosophy of applied behavior analysis can be summed up as follows:

  • . What we can observe is worthy of scientific investigation.
  • 2. Internal events are private and cannot be truly known by others (wants, needs, desires, feelings). a. This doesn't mean we don't care about feelings; we just don't try to read into them. If we think a child is tired, we explain what we observe that leads us to think the child is tired (e.g., the child didn't go to bed until 3 in the morning and keeps laying down on the floor). Saying a child feels tired,feels sick,or can't concentrate can't just be an excuse for why they aren't learning something.
  • 3. Principles such as reinforcement and punishment adequately model the way the world works. a. For example, if a child hits his brother, we don't say, "I think the child was mad" or "I think the child wanted some attention." Instead, we look at what happened directly before (did the brother take a toy from the child?) and directly after (did the brother cry, yell at the child, etc.) and then determine how changes to these events may change the behavior.

    The use of applied behavior analysis is not unique to the field of autism. In fact, applied behavior analysis has been used effectively in many intervention programs to address the needs of a variety of populations and diagnoses. There are programs used to decrease phobias, help someone quit smoking, and teach someone to read, to name just a few.

Discrete Trials refers to a specific procedure, based on the principles of applied behavior analysis, that can be utilized in behavioral treatment programs. A discrete trial is a three-part teaching unit consisting of

  • 1. an antecedent (called the SD),
  • 2. a behavior (called the response), and
  • 3. a consequence to the behavior (providing or withholding reinforcement) For example, an instructor tells a child, "Find the balloon." The child looks around the room and picks up the balloon. If the child finds the balloon, the instructor says "hurrah!" and plays with the child and balloon. If the child picks up a different object, the instructor says, "no," or "try again" and repeats the instruction, "find the balloon." The instructor may or may not then help the child find the balloon. The above example gives a basic idea of what discrete trial teaching looks like. Believe it or not, the procedure is effective in teaching a variety of complex social skills including maintaining a conversation and leading play. Discrete trial teaching is a complex teaching procedure with many decisions that need to be made for each individual child. However, it also is only one procedure among many utilized in behavioral treatment.

The Lovaas Method, or rather the Lovaas Model of Applied Behavior Analysis, is a specific behavioral treatment method employed by the Lovaas Institute and other replication sites throughout the world. The Lovaas Model utilizes procedures from applied behavior analysis, as do all behavioral treatment programs. These programs go by different names (ABA therapy, Intensive Early Intervention Behavior Therapy Services, Verbal Behavior, etc.). The specific emphasis given to different procedures in applied behavior analysis and the way in which skills are combined to create a comprehensive intervention may vary from one behavioral treatment program to another.

The Lovaas Model of Applied Behavior Analysis is unique in that it has undergone rigorous, peer-reviewed research, including both long-term and follow-up studies, proving its effectiveness as an intervention in treating children with autism.

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