Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis--commonly called applied behavior therapy or ABA--is a treatment used to help people with autism. ABA uses principles of behaviorism to modify a person’s behavior over time.

Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism

Most children learn social and other developmental skills from observing and interacting with caregivers and other children. Because autistic children frequently struggle with empathy and theory of mind, they are less likely to pick up cretain skills from watching others. ABA works by actively teaching autistic children basic skills without requiring them to understand the underlying concepts.

How Applied Behavior Analysis Works

Behaviorism is an extremely popular method for teaching a variety of skills, and can even be used with non-human animals. Unlike other teaching methods, behaviorist methods do not require that the learner understand why he is mastering a concept. For example, a dog learning to “sit” does not have to understand why he should sit or the benefits of learning. He is simply conditioned to sit when told to do so.

Similarly, ABA helps to condition autistic children to respond properly to external stimuli. ABA therapists typically use rewards and positive reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior. ABA therapists typically use a combination of behaviorist approaches including:

  • Pivotal Response Training – This approach teaches children skills that affect a wide variety of behaviors. Thus when a child masters a pivotal skill, parents typically notice improvement in several other areas. For example, a child who learns to sit still may behave better in school, get along with teachers more easily, and listen to directions.
  • Discrete Trial Training – ABA usually begins with discrete trial training, during which a therapist gives a child a specific direction such as, “Look at me.” If the child responds positively, the therapist rewards the child. Discrete trial training typically requires several trials of each behavior the therapist wishes to shape in the child. A related concept, incidental training, uses the same methods, but works to teach behaviors within the concepts of the child’s daily life. For example, a child might be told to do something while sitting in a classroom or interacting with peers. This portion of ABA is often done by parents at home.
  • Fluency Building – This approach attempts to use several simple behaviors to shape more complex behaviors. For example, after a child has mastered listening, eye contact, and responding to communication, a therapist may begin working on helping a child to interact with peers.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Factsheet for autism therapy: Applied behavior analysis (ABA) | Healing Thresholds. (n.d.).Healing Thresholds. Retrieved from


Last updated: 07-03-2015

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