ABA and other therapies

There is a lot of misinformation in the autism community about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). We know that each person’s experience with autism is uniquely individual and personal, including the resources and supports they may need. Some autistic people and their families say that ABA therapy helped them learn valuable skills and coping strategies, while others have shared negative experiences.

ABA and other therapies based on ABA principles are the most widely used and researched behavioral interventions for autism. While ABA is an evidence-based, “best practice” therapy by the U.S. Surgeon General and by the American Psychological Associationthere is no one-size-fits all approach to autism therapy, and you should always consider all options prior to starting a therapy.

Our Autism Response Team can provide guidance on the various therapy options available for you or your child so that you can make the best decision based on your individual needs.

Learn more about ABA.

History of Applied Behavior Analysis

Infographic on the history of ABA

ABA has its beginnings in the work of Dr. John B. Watson, known as the father of behaviorism. Behaviorism is the idea that behavior is shaped by the environment, and that people can be taught to change their behavior through a process called conditioning. In 1913, Dr. Watson popularized the theory of behaviorism and established it as the dominant school of psychology until the mid-1950s.

Other researchers and psychologists further defined the principles of behaviorism, which formed the basis of ABA. In the 1930s, Dr. B. F. Skinner introduced the concept of operant conditioning, which is the idea that behavior can be changed by using rewards to reinforce good behavior (positive reinforcement) and punishment to reduce bad behavior (negative reinforcement).

In the 1960s and 1970s, psychologists began applying the principles of behaviorism to people in real-life settings. Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas was a prominent psychologist who used ABA techniques to teach language and other skills to autistic children. He pioneered the Lavaas model, an early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) that was based on ABA.

His approach consisted of 35 to 40 hours a week of intensive one-on-one instruction using operant conditioning. As a result of his research, ABA became increasingly popular as a teaching method for autistic children. Today, many of Lovaas’ original techniques, particularly his use of negative reinforcement through electric shock to reduce self-injurious behaviors, are considered unethical.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, research about the efficacy of ABA grew and it became one of the most widely used interventions for autistic children. Over the years, the therapy has evolved from the early Lavaas Model to include other teaching methods and strategies. A common model today is the antecedents, behavior and consequences (ABC) model.

Efforts have been made to abandon unethical practices and establish standards and guidelines for ABA therapy. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) was founded in 1998 to provide certification for ABA therapists and ensure adherence to evidence-based, ethical practices. The BACB introduced its first Ethics Code in 2000, with the latest revision occurring in 2022.

What ABA is and what it is not

ABA practices have changed dramatically since it was first developed in the 1960s.

ABA therapy is no longer about curing or reducing autism symptoms.

The goal of ABA is to help people with autism and other developmental disorders learn skills and behaviors that help them live safer and more fulfilling lives. ABA is not focused on preventing self-stimulatory behavior (stims).

Behavior analysts work with autistic people to improve skills like:

  • Communication and language abilities
  • Social skills
  • Self-care and hygiene routines
  • Play and leisure skills
  • Motor abilities

ABA does not rely on punishment or negative reinforcement to change behavior.

Instead, it focuses on using positive reinforcement to teach necessary skills that improve quality of life. ABA sessions should be done in a positive, supportive and respectful way, keeping in mind the autistic person’s boundaries.

ABA is not one-size-fits-all.

Goals and intervention plans are designed by a qualified board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) who evaluates the autistic person’s unique needs, skills, preferences, interests, challenges and family situation. BCBAs monitor progress and adjust plans as needed.

ABA is not exclusively clinic-based.

ABA interventions can be implemented in a variety of settings, including homes, schools, community settings and clinics. More and more, behavior analysts apply ABA principals in play-based settings.

Have more questions? Read these questions and answers about ABA.

I remember one of my first my Early Intervention Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) sessions. That was when I started to realize that I exist, and I am a person. When I look back, that was the time I found myself. 

- Jason H. on how ABA therapy improved his quality of life

Guidelines and qualifications

ABA programs can be intensive, with children often spending 20 to 40 hours each week with a behavior analyst. Treatment is often carried out by a registered behavior technician (RBT) or BCBA under the supervision of the BACB.

To ensure a good experience for everyone, choosing a quality BCBA is essential. High-quality behavior analysts are certified, experienced and follow the ethical guidelines laid out by the BACB.

Here are some red flags to look out for that might signal a harmful approach: 

  • Insufficient supervision by an experienced BCBA. 
  • Inability to respond to concerns. 
  • Use of punishment instead of positive reinforcement. 
  • Aggressive or controlling interactions. 
  • Unwillingness to listen and stop when the client is overstimulated. 
  • Lack of data showing progress. 
  • Offering general recommendations without a personalized assessment. 
  • Not involving the autistic person in planning and goal setting. 
  • Focusing on getting rid of “problem behaviors” rather than learning new skills. 
  • Forcing eye contact and fighting stimming or hand flapping. 

Learn what questions to ask to find a qualified BCBA.

Autistic people share their experiences with ABA


How to know if ABA is right for you

ABA therapy is not for everyone. Before starting ABA, it’s important that you have an open conversation with you or your child’s care team and gather vital information for you and/or your child. There is no one-size-fits all approach to autism therapy, and you should always consider all options prior to starting a therapy. Learn more about other therapies that may be available to you.

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