ABA Basics

Applied Behavior Analysis uses the principles of behavior already outlined to create behavior change of benefit to children with autism. The consequences of behaviors can be manipulated to strengthen some behaviors and weaken others. In addition to reinforcement, punishment, and manipulation of motivation, there are a number of behavior change procedures that can be implemented.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a science that studies the relationship between a person’s behavior (communication, how s/he acts) and the person’s environment (items, people, what is said or done). ABA uses specific principles to change behavior such as teaching adaptive behaviors and reducing inappropriate behaviors. Pioneered by B.F. Skinner, ABA is currently the only research-based treatment recognized by the U.S. Surgeon General for children with autism. The use of Applied Behavior Analysis emphasizes the teaching of important lines of ABA research:

• Functional Assessment—Classifying and selecting treatments based upon the function of a problem behavior
• Motivative Operations—Understanding and control of what happens before a behavior occurs
• Matching Theory—Changing teaching strategies (speed, simplifying) increase student answers/following directions
• Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior—How to teach communication of wants, needs, and information to persons who do not acquire it typically

Decades of research exists in the behavioral sciences. ABA is based on individual studies that can be found in journals such as the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA)

The basics of Applied Behavior Analysis are extensive, to say the least. Professionals dedicate years to obtaining advanced degrees in the field of ABA.

The following pages represent a brief overview. It is best to read books, attend workshops, join email lists, and hire a consultant to understand ABA terminology and put in practice the science of behaviorism within the context of a behavioral curriculum.

First Step: Pairing in an ABA Program
Pairing ensures the child runs to the teacher, not away from the teacher. Pairing is important because the child sees you as fun and rewarding, and knows that “work” can be “fun.”

Pairing involves:

• Active interaction between therapist and child, where the teacher is critical for the activity
• Controlling access to reinforcers (deliverable in small amounts, which go away by themselves)
• Presenting the teacher and words followed by a reinforcer
• Therapist seen as “Giver” that improves the child’s experience
• Narrating (versus instructing)
• Use of natural language in the child’s natural environment
• Waiting for interaction before reinforcement
• Use of reinforcers (such as high fives and treats) and freebies
• Following the child's motivation
• Being patient—don’t rush the pairing process just to get to “teaching stuff”
• Wide variety of play activities that are sometimes child-directed and sometimes contrived by therapist
• Child looking at therapist for reinforcement, child moving toward therapist for reinforcement and interaction
• Improving set of conditions for the child (child is happier while interacting with therapist than alone)
• Little to no demands are placed on child (very easy demands may be slowly added over time)
• Expectations that child only begin to view therapist as reinforcing person, someone who they look forward to seeing
• Fun, talking, cheering, laughing, giggling (wide variety of activities to choose from with lots of materials, etc)
• Emphasis on establishing reinforcing relationship between child and therapist so that new skills can be taught at a later time

Pairing is not:

• A lot of demands (questions, commands, etc.)
• Turning the reinforcing activity into a task
• Silence, passive, or playing next to the child without engaging the child
• Work, where the situation becomes a worsening set of conditions for the child (child would happier alone, stimming, etc)
• Totally child-directed
• A high frequency of escape and/or avoidance behaviors on part of the child
• Where the therapist is seen as “Taker”

Pair the teaching environments with reinforcement: Initially, correlate the teaching environment (such as the table, chair, flashcards, and non-preferred toys) with highly valuable reinforcers.

Pair the parent, teacher, or therapist with reinforcement: “Pairing” refers to associating yourself with the delivery of reinforcing items and events. When a session begins, the child should run to you, not away from you. Through pairing you establish yourself as a reinforcer. The child looks at you knowing their world will get better and they will get things they like. Your job is to build the work in such a way that the child has no idea learning is taking place.

Avoid the use of escape (“Go Play”) as the reinforcer for responding during intensive teaching sessions such as table work. Therapists can also use non-contingent reinforcers or “freebies” while you are pairing and the child is not exhibiting inappropriate behavior.

Verbal Behavior
Many programs for young children with autism teach skills that do not advance a child’s motivation to improve their vocal skills. By implementing Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior, children are started on a program to teach requesting behavior (Manding), followed by identifying (Tacting) and following directions (“Do this”), and finally advanced verbal skills with Intraverbals (fill in the blanks within songs and sentences, answering and asking questions, and general conversation skills). See The Verbal Behavior Approach by Mary Barbera and Teaching Language to Children with Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities by Mark Sundberg and James Partington

Behavioral Principals
It is important to know how and why behaviors happen. This allows us to figure out how to change them. The basic principles of behavior include a four-part formula:

(Instruction or prompt) + (Motivation)

(Response or a Behavior)



Instruction can include "Touch your nose" or “Point to the cat.”

Prompting can include the act of putting your hand over the child’s hand to show how to dry their hands using a towel or pointing to a correct answer.

Motivation can include the satiation (too much of something) or the deprivation (not enough of something) that can cause a behavior to occur more often or less often. For instance, giving salty foods will increase the behavior of requesting juice or a favorite drink.

Behavior can include saying something or doing something such as answering a question, screaming, or kicking.

Consequences can include positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

Types of Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement: the method most often used, where something reinforcing is presented after a response, and as a result, the future frequency of the behavior increases (e.g., child receives candy after saying “cup.”)

Negative Reinforcement: very seldom used, where something aversive is removed after a response, and as a result, the future frequency of the behavior increases (e.g., child leaves work table after saying “cup.”)

Reinforcer Examples
• Swinging
• Trampoline
• Edibles (candies, chips, carrots)
• Tickles
• Toys
• Video
• Computer
• Specific complements such as “Nice work putting away your clothes”
• Games

Types of Punishment
In general, punishment should be used sparingly and carefully. Punishment can lead to control issues, gives an example to children that punishment is OK, can lead to abuse, and can often be avoided if positive reinforcement is done correctly.

Positive Punishment: an aversive stimulus is presented after a behavior which therefore decreases the frequency of a behavior (e.g., child must do tasks whenever he/she hand flaps.)

Negative Punishment: a reinforcing stimulus is removed after a behavior which therefore decreases the frequency of a response class (e.g., candy is taken away whenever s/he hand flaps.)

Behavior Change Procedures

Extinction: Previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced, resulting in a decrease in the frequency of the behavior. May produce an extinction burst, a brief increase in the frequency, duration, and intensity of the behavior and/or novel behaviors. An example is to ignore screaming behavior in a store because the child wants candy.

Differential Reinforcement: Desired behaviors are reinforced while undesirable behaviors are placed on extinction. An example might be to teach a child to tap someone on the shoulder to interrupt and ask a question.

Compliance Teaching Procedure: A teaching session set up in advance to ensure the child follows through with a request or demand. The instruction is given without any emotion until the child complies. This can be a time consuming procedure and will likely cause an extinction burst. It is important to not quit before the child complies as an inappropriate behavior might be reinforced.

Shaping: Reinforcing successive approximations to a target behavior. For instance, when teaching a new sign language item, the approximation of a sign would slowly become closer to the actual sign by reinforcing an approximation. Then when the initial approximation is consistent, put that approximation on extinction and then only reinforcing a closer approximation. Continue until the sign is an appropriate approximation.

Prompting: Prompts increased the likelihood that a behavior will occur. Prompts include verbal, gestural, modeling, and physical guidance. It is important to fade prompts so that they are no longer needed. Reduce errors by using errorless teaching or errorless prompting which insures a high level of correct responses. Errorless teaching involves use of prompts before the child responds.

Chaining (forward & backward): Chaining requires a task analysis, which involves breaking a task (such as shoe tying) into its individual small parts (such as tying a knot, making one loop, then crossing the other string over and making the second loop, and finally pulling tight). You can teach one step at a time where the beginning steps are completed by the instructor and the final steps are completed by the student or in reverse order where the first steps are completed by the student and the rest are completed by the instructor. After each step is completed correctly, add another step one at a time until the student can do all steps of the task.

Other Behavioral Procedures

Generalization: Generalization occurs when a behavior that has been taught transfers to the natural environment across different people and places, when training of one behavior leads to the development of a similar behavior not specifically taught, and when behaviors taught are maintained in the natural environment over time.

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA): A functional behavior assessment involves procedures used to identify the causes of maladaptive behaviors and then creating a plan to address the behaviors. It is important to take data before the plan is implemented, as well as after implementation to ensure the plan is effective.

When a Problem Behavior May Occur
• When working on a demanding task
• When access to items or activities is denied
• When adult attention is not focused on the child
• When the environment is unstructured or under-enriched
• When the child is bored and doesn’t know what to do with self

Steps in a Functional Analysis
1. Functional Interview
2. Direct Observation
3. Formulation of a Hypothesis
4. Experimental Analysis
5. Functional Analysis Summary
6. Behavioral Plan (interventions based on the function of the behavior)

If the problem behavior is a function of attention or desire for tangible items:
1. Enrich the environment (e.g. give non-contingent attention frequently)
2. Withdraw attention for problem behavior (unless self-injurious)
3. Teach the child an appropriate way to ask for attention or tangible items

If the problem behavior is a function of escape from demands:
1. Use effective teaching practices (e.g. pair with reinforcement) to reduce the motivation for escape
2. Never allow the child to escape demands again (require the child to complete the task, even if this means physical guidance) – “Compliance Training”
3. Teach the child an appropriate way to ask for a break

If the problem behavior is a function of self-stimulatory sensation (stim):
1. Provide an enriched environment
2. Block the stim
3. Teach more appropriate/less harmful forms of self-stimulation

Effective Teaching Practices
• Pair teaching environment with fun
• Keep the demands low at first, then fade into more demands slowly
• Reduce learner errors
• Teach the child to communicate the need for assistance
• Teach the child to communicate the need for a break
• Reduce task complexity when you notice the child is losing attention
• Provide consistent breaks
• Provide a choice of task activities
• Provide a choice of reinforcing activities
• Ensure maintenance of mastered tasks while presenting new tasks (intermix easy and difficult demands)
• Pace instruction properly
• Mix and vary instructional demands (motor skills and flash card identification)
• Teach to fluency (skills are demonstrated correctly and quickly)