Desmond Kaplan MD FAPA

Child, Adolescent & Adult Psychiatry

1777 Reisterstown Road, Suite 50
 Baltimore, MD 21208

Applied Behavioral Analysis

Applied behavioral analysis, also known as applied behavior analysis or ABA, is a type of therapy that uses a protocol of rewards and consequences to teach new skills, to reinforce desirable behavior, and to eliminate actions that are undesirable. Formerly called behavior modification, ABA is based on scientific studies of human behavior, its components and process. Its methodology has applications in training animals as well as in teaching people.

ABA has become a mainstay of interventions designed to assist autistic children in functioning at their highest possible level. This type of behavioral treatment has its roots in Pavlov's studies of conditioning in animals in the late 19th century and in the work of the behaviorist B.F. Skinner in the mid-20th century.

Uses of Applied Behavioral Analysis

Applied behavioral analysis has been found to be a highly successful method for teaching language and social skills to autistic children. Children with autism do not learn from their environment in the same way as children without the disorder do. Using ABA over a period of time helps children with autism or other developmental disorders to function more normally at school and in other social settings.

Beyond their applications in teaching autistic children, ABA techniques have proven useful in other areas, including:

  • Changing dysfunctional marital behavior
  • Toilet training young or developmentally challenged children
  • Re-establishing language and living skills in patients with brain injuries
  • Overcoming obsessive-compulsive symptoms
  • Eliminating self-injurious behavior
  • Training companion or service animals

How Applied Behavioral Analysis Works

Applied behavioral analysis works by setting up a protocol involving three basic elements: antecedent, behavior and consequence. The antecedent is the request for a certain behavior, such as responding to a question. The individual may respond positively, completing the task by responding to the question, may be unresponsive and remain silent, or may engage in other undesired behavior. In using ABA, the therapist reacts to the patient's response with an action known as a consequence, rewarding desired behavior or responding negatively, with a resounding "No!" for example, to undesired behavior.

This structured method of response provides an environment in which learning is programmed to occur and in which individuals can achieve success even if they are starting out at a disadvantage. Autistic children, for example, for whom learning to speak or respond appropriately to social cues may not come naturally, can be guided to learn the necessary skills through repeated practice using ABA techniques. These techniques can also be taught of to teachers, parents or other family members, so reinforcement occurs in all aspects of the environment.

Components of Applied Behavioral Analysis

There are several components to applied behavioral analysis. These include:

  • Prompting
  • Chaining
  • Behavior momentum
  • Verbal or physical guidance
  • Modeling
  • Differential reinforcement
  • Shaping
  • Fading

In using applied behavioral analysis, the therapist begins by prompting, or requesting, the desired behavior. Frequently, the desired action is broken down into its sequential steps. Chaining refers to the way each action in a sequence is a reminder of the one to follow. Behavioral momentum is the term used to describe initially prompting an easier action, followed by one that is slightly harder, giving the child increasing reinforcement as the target goal is approximated more and more.

If the appropriate response is not made, the therapist may use physical guidance, such as pointing in the desired direction or positioning the child's hand in the desired location. The therapist may also model the desired action.

Once the patient has successfully accomplished the task, the therapist provides a reward, or consequence of the desired behavior. The reward is differential, meaning it will be varied over time. At first it may be something concrete, such as an appealing food. Later, it may be something more abstract, like a chance to play outside or to have a favorite story read. Later still, the consequential reward may be symbolic, like a gold star. Over time, the reward will be given less frequently as the behavior and the therapist's approval becomes sufficient to reinforce the desired behavior. This process is called fading.

When applied behavioral analysis is used, monitoring and recording results are important parts of the process, providing as they do evidence of a successful and satisfying learning experience.

Additional Resources