What Is ABA Therapy?

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People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle with many areas of cognitive and behavioral development. Because this disorder functions on a spectrum, different people tend to struggle with different issues, and at different levels of intensity. But many people with ASD need treatment and intervention to thrive in modern society.

One of the most common methods of treatment for ASD today is ABA therapy. But what exactly is this mode of therapy and how can it help?

The Basics of ABA

ABA stands for Applied Behavioral Analysis. ABA therapy attempts to use a combination of behavioral analysis and gentle, but consistent interventions to guide people with ASD to better behaviors. This includes rewarding and reinforcing positive behaviors, while ignoring and reducing the prevalence of problematic behaviors.

ABA therapy is typically practiced by experienced, licensed professionals, though the basic principles of ABA therapy can be understood and followed by parents and teachers as well. Every individual is unique, and ABA therapy adjusts to those unique cases; different strategies are more or less effective, depending on the individual receiving treatment.

Why behavioural analysis?

Why should we use behavioural analysis for treating ASD?

Behavioural analysis helps us do several things:

  • Identify and understand behaviours. First, this approach allows us to identify and understand behaviors, rather than just categorizing them as problematic symptoms. A professional may be able to identify that a problematic behavior, like inappropriate yelling, has identifiable patterns of emergence that can be addressed.
  • Analyse environmental influences on behaviour. This method also allows us to analyse environmental influences on a person’s behavior. For example, professionals may notice that inappropriate yelling usually has a root cause; they may notice an increase in inappropriate yelling when the child feels threatened or socially anxious.
  • Choose strategies for modifying behaviour. Behavior modification comes in many forms, and an analytic approach guides us to the most useful forms. Therapists may choose to ignore certain problematic behaviours or issue consequences for those behaviors, and they can reward favorable behaviors in different ways.

How can ABA therapy help people with ASD?

Ultimately, the goals of ABA therapy for people with ASD are as follows:

  • Decreasing problematic behaviours. First, ABA therapy attempts to decrease problematic behaviors, allowing people with ASD to demonstrate fewer disruptions and become more socially successful.
  • Improving attention and cognitive skills. ABA therapy also can improve attention and cognitive skills, allowing patients to focus without obsessing and thrive in academic environments.
  • Improving communication and social skills. This method of therapy is also invaluable for improving communication and fundamental social skills.

The ABCs of ABA

Many ABA practitioners follow a system that follows an “ABC” approach.

  • Antecedent. First, there’s the antecedent – a set of circumstances or causes that lead to a given behaviour. This can include environmental elements, like sensory stimulation, and inciting events, like a problematic social interaction.
  • Behaviour. After the antecedent comes the actual behavior. ABA therapy looks at both positive and negative behaviors to better understand how a child is functioning.
  • Consequence. Then, there is a consequence. Something happens in response to the behavior, and if that event is focused on favorable behavioral changes, it can lead to meaningful improvements.

Why ABA is so valuable

These are just some of the reasons why ABA therapy has become so valuable:

  • Individual attention. ABA therapy has the capacity to treat different individuals in different ways. Since autism presents so uniquely in different people, this is indispensable. Treatment plans evolve as therapists better understand their patients.
  • Environmental recognition. ABA therapy also recognizes environmental antecedents that lead to problematic behaviors, taking an analytic and thorough approach to behavioral understanding.
  • Positive reinforcement. Much of ABA therapy is focused on positive reinforcement; in other words, therapists prioritize rewarding positive behaviors, rather than punishing bad ones. This approach is supported by modern philosophies of positive psychology and generally make parents feel good about the process.
  • Multiple areas of improvement. Some methods of ASD treatment focus on specific symptoms or areas that need improvement, such as cognitive performance or socialization. But ABA therapy has the potential to work on many different areas of improvement simultaneously.
  • Evidence-based strategies. ABA therapy effectiveness is supported by scientific evidence. There are many studies showing that participants in ABA therapy demonstrate behavioral improvements after even a relatively small number of sessions. With adequate support, and in conjunction with other treatment strategies, ABA therapy can make a big difference in a person’s life.


If you have a child with ASD, consider pursuing ABA therapy. There is no cure for autism, and there is no be-all, end-all treatment, either. Every child with ASD needs their own unique blend of treatments to truly reach their full potential – and ABA therapy is one of the best all-around options to start with.

Ellen Diamond, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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