Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

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What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is an approach to understanding and changing behaviour. It's not a specific therapy itself, but a range of different strategies and techniques that can be used to teach people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) new skills and reduce their difficult behaviour.

When ABA techniques are used with young children with ASD, it's often called Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (EIBI).

Who is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) for?

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) teaching techniques can be used for all children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or children with other developmental disabilities.

What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) used for?

The Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approach and its techniques can be used to help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve their social skills, self-care skills, communication skills, play skills and ability to manage their own behaviour. It can also help reduce difficult behaviour like inattention, aggression and screaming.

Where does Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) come from?

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is based on learning theory, which comes from the field of behavioural psychology. The first study that looked at the use of ABA techniques with young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was published by Dr Ivar Lovaas at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1987. There was a long-term follow-up study by Dr John McEachin at UCLA, which was published in 1993.

What is the idea behind Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?

The key ideas behind Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) are that:

  • human behaviour is influenced by events or stimuli in the environment
  • behaviour that's followed by positive consequences is more likely to happen again.

ABA uses these ideas to help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learn new and appropriate behaviour. It does this by providing positive consequences for appropriate behaviour and not for problematic behaviour. For example, if a child points to a teddy she wants, her parents might follow this up with a positive consequence like giving her the teddy. This makes it more likely that the child will repeat the behaviour in the future.

What does Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) involve?

Programs based on Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) generally involve:

  • assessing a child's current skills and difficulties
  • setting goals and objectives - for example, learning how to say 'hello'
  • designing and implementing a program that teaches the 'target' skill
  • measuring the 'target' skill to see whether the program is working
  • evaluating the program itself and making changes as needed.

ABA can focus on a specific problem, like screaming in the supermarket, or it can work more broadly on a range of developmental areas at the same time, like communication, self-care and play skills.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in ABA programs are taught new skills using a range of teaching techniques, which might include Discrete Trial Training and incidental teaching. Programs might also use everyday interactions as opportunities for children to learn. Children are given lots of opportunities to practise new skills. As they learn skills, further skills are added to their programs. Over time, skills are combined into complex behaviour, like having conversations, playing cooperatively with others, or learning by watching others.

Depending on children's needs, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) interventions can be delivered one to one, in a small group format at a centre, at home or in the community.

There are many different styles of ABA, ranging from very structured and rigid to more flexible. There are branded intervention programs that use ABA principles, including the Lovaas Program.

Other programs based on the principles of ABA include the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Centre Program and the Princeton Child Development Institute Program.

Although interventions based on ABA can be time intensive, research has shown that this intensity is critical to their success. ABA in early childhood should involve more than 20 hours per week of intervention.

Cost considerations

The costs of ABA-based interventions vary depending on how many hours per week programs involve, whether programs are one to one or group based, and how much supervision is involved.

Does Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) work?

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is an effective approach for teaching a range of skills to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Quality research shows that it has positive effects on the behaviour of children with ASD.

Given the variation in how ABA is applied, however, you might need to check the outcomes of specific programs to judge their success.

Who practises Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?

Various professionals offer Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). Programs should include an experienced ABA practitioner who oversees the intervention program, as well as staff who work directly with your child. These staff are sometimes called behavioural therapists or behaviour interventionists.

Practitioners don't need formal qualifications to practise ABA therapy in Australia. But there's an international certification board - the Behavior Analyst Certification Board - which accredits practitioners as Board Certified Behaviour Analysts. This accreditation is widely used in the United States, but it's not yet the national standard of accreditation in Australia.

It's a good idea to consider the qualifications and experience of any providers you're interested in.

Teachers, parents, psychologists and other allied health professionals can all use ABA techniques and strategies once they've been trained by someone with the appropriate expertise.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

If your child is in an ABA program, you'll play an active role in your child's program. You'll work with the ABA practitioner to develop and prioritise your child's learning goals. Often, ABA practitioners provide parent training and support for parents, siblings and extended family.

Where can you find an ABA practitioner?

Your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child can help you find a provider. You could also talk with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

You can visit the Behavior Analyst Certification Board to find accredited practitioners.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child's options.