Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is today widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for autism. History of ABA began in early 1960 derived from B.F skinner’s laboratory experimentations.

B.F. (Burrhus Frederic) Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) remains America’s most influential behavioral scientist. Skinner researched continuous actions (in animals and humans) to see what determined their frequency. With rate as a measure of probability, he discovered that control over actions lay in their consequence. He believed that consequences of behavior would determine the “contingency” (likelihood) of that behavior.  For example, if I’m thirsty, I look for water and put a cup under and open the “blue” marked faucet handle. If I get cold water, then anytime I need water, I would be attracted towards the “blue” marked handle of the faucet or cooler as the consequences of that action will make me get gold water when thirsty.Accordingly, the “behavioral culture” refers to the environmental conditions that reinforce or punish our behaviors. It includes not only a larger cultural identity such as nationality or ethnicity, but the specific conditions in which an individual encounters and is shaped by. Thus, the social interactions and environmental variables (including home and school) are important to modifying human behavior and his or her social capabilities.ABA methods are designed based on B.F. Skinner’s experimental results. For example, how positive reinforcement can shape behavior.  Thousands of researchers and practitioners have since expanded the science under the name of “behavior analysis.” Interest in B. F. Skinner’s work continues to increase, however.
Why ABA?

A is for Applied, which means that behavior analysis looks at the intervention to see if it has social validity or social significance. In other word, in order to teach an individual a skill, behavior analysis looks for skills that make the individual independent. “Socially significant behaviors” include reading, academics, social skills, communication, and adaptive living skills. “Adaptive living skills” include gross and fine motor skills, eating or food preparation, toileting, dressing, personal self-care, time and punctuality, understanding money & value, home and community orientation, and work skills.

When assessing a new client, behavior analysts identify and plan teaching strategy for the most important behavior or skill, which benefits the individual most. That behavior or skill must be thought in natural environment and generalizable outside of the treatment setting. This means that the surroundings, such as parents, teachers and other significant persons in a person’s life should be able to reinforce that skill or behavior. For example, if a therapist wants to teach the individual how to initiate a conversation in his language for his or her social skill, parents and teachers has to be able to reinforce the initiation of conversations in settings where patients live.

In contrast, if therapists select a skill such as initiating a conversation in French, this skill may not be teachable in his or her natural environment. In this scenario, parents and teachers wouldn’t be able to teach initiating a conversation in French.  Natural environment is therefore very important to teaching a skill or behavior.

B is for Behavior, which means that behavior analysis looks for obvious and measurable fact or facts that identify target behavior(s).   The behavior of concern must thus be measurable. This means that we are not measuring things that aren’t behaviors of concern or those that are not measurable at all. Unclear descriptions or judgments such as, “out-of-control,” or “aggression,” is not measurable. According to Centers for Autism (CAD, aggression is defined as “attempts, episodes or occurrences (each separated by 10 seconds) of biting, scratching, pinching or pulling hair.”  Additionally, CAD defines initiating social interaction with peers as, “looking at classmate and verbalizing an appropriate greeting.”

By defining the observable behavior, a behavior therapist will be able to collect data on each occurrence, what places they are happing at the most, what are the causes and environmental variables involved.  Thus, the behavioral therapist can explain the behavior clearly to the individuals and their significant others.  Using this process, the interventions will be based on facts. Behavior analysis will not use the “circular reasoning” such as, “he is crying because he is sad.” Being sad in this way simply justifies the reasons and but it does not solve the crying behavior.  Another example is suggestion or description that, “a student’s ADHD causes him/her to not focus on the task.”   Stating the problems this way ignores the specific measurable behavior(s) preventing the student from focusing.

In using ABA, behavior therapists should use what is described as “dead man” test to determine if that is a behavior of concern or not.  In short, if a dead man can do it, then it’s not a behavior.  For example, “can a dead man be sad?”  The answer is either yes, not, or maybe; but none of these can be measured.  But can a dead man cry and hear his crying voice?  The answer is no because it CAN be measured or affirmatively observed.

Why do behavior therapists do this test?  Because they need to observe, measure, and collect data on behaviors in order to increase or decrease the targeted behavior. In general, direct and continuous measurement enables practitioners to detect small improvement(s).   Tactics with positive outcomes are then used to future treatment strategies.

A in analysis means that behavior analysts look for the function of the behavior and what causes the behavior. There are experimental or environmental controls over a behavior. Let’s say that I respond to you when you yell at me.  If this yelling is identified as a problem behavior, therapist may intervene by teaching me to stop responding to you unless your voice is of a particular range of volume, tone and content.  In this way, not responding to your yelling behavior is an intervention because it will help extinguish your yelling behavior.

Through repeating this process will create discriminations, which your yelling behavior at me will less happen. Finally, the next few times that you yell at me, I begin to respond again (withdrawal of treatment); your yelling at me increases again. If I’ve tracked these data, I can show stimulus control over your yelling at me (baseline, intervention, withdrawal). Indeed, this process it is the analytic component of the behavior analysis ‘s philosophy.

The behavior analysis in ABA methodology believes in determinism.  That means, events do not just happen willy-nilly: they are related in systematic ways to other factors, which are themselves physical phenomena responsive to scientific investigation.  If someone says “He/she throw his pencil out of nowhere.” That is, determinism is the idea that the “rules” of behavior include events occurring as a result of other events. Behavior is caused by other events. It doesn’t just happen “for no reason.” This is what I mean when I say that things happen for a reason.

In general, behavior analysis’s technics and strategists are in natural environment. They are manipulating the variables that exist around the individuals to increase or decrease the behavior. They are looking for triggers that precede the behavior. Behavior analysis cannot work without data, the collections of data are extremely important in their practice. They have to observe the behavior (take a baseline), and then come with the intervention that fits with the function of that behavior.

Lastly, ABA interventions involve showing evidences that are responsible for the occurrence, or non-occurrence, of the behavior. Moreover, these behaviors of concerns are assessed within significant settings such as schools, home and the community.

For additional information about applied behavior analysis (ABA), contact McLean Counseling Center in McLean, VA.