What is ABA?

Sure you might have heard the term before, that ABA – Applied Behavior Analysis. That’s for people who are diagnosed with Autism, right? That’s that thing that turns kids into robots, right?

The short answer – No. ABA is a science, a science of human learning. You may be surprised to know that aspects of this science show up in the everyday tasks all the time. The use of positive reinforcement: Many people use positive reinforcement on themselves to increase motivation to finish a workout, run that extra mile, do that extra chore around the house – all to get time to watch your favorite show or have that cookie after lunch. We see it at work – paychecks for working, bonuses for going above and beyond, even holiday parties for employees to tell them they are doing a great job.

While it is true that ABA has been proven as an effective method to teach individuals with Autism Spectrum disorders, it is false to say that it is only with those individuals where ABA’s effectiveness lies. The reason this practice is so effective is because, when used correctly, it is individualized to each recipient with program designs based on the science of human behavior.

Now, there’s that word, ‘behavior’, this isn’t for my kid because he doesn’t have ‘behaviors’ – that’s what you’re thinking, right? Well I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. Every single one of us has our own set of behaviors and our entire existance is shown through our behaviors. The actual definition of the word ‘behavior’ is “anything observable and measurable that a person does.” So typing on my computer, drinking my coffee, throwing my pen – that’s all behavior because I’m doing something in my environment that others can see and measure. And a big key here is that all behavior serves a purpose for that individual who is doing that behavior – the exact same behavior across 2 people may serve 2 very different purposes.

So what really is ABA then? Well, the basics of many ABA programs focus on skill acquisition: teaching someone a skill in a way that their individual progress can be tracked in a systematic way.

  • This may involve breaking the overall skill into a bunch of smaller component skills and teaching those on their own. Then once learned, linking them all together again. Like handwashing – teaching someone how to turn on the sink, or how to pump the soap until they can do it, then linking those parts with rinsing their hands under the water, turning the water off and drying their hands – until they can do the entire task entirely independently.
  • Or it may just be approaching the skill in a different way than you had been previously. ABA is decreasing those behaviors we want to see less.

But the big key here is that when we see a behavior we want to eliminate, such as screaming, before we can do anything we need to figure out why the person is engaging in the behavior. Why are they screaming? Once we figure out the why (or what we call the ‘function’), we can then do 2 things:

  • figure out a different, or replacement, behavior that can serve the same function (the ‘why’) but one that is safer, more appropriate, and more efficient. All while teaching that replacement behavior in a way that is meaningful to that person. Then with reinforcing the replacement we can eliminate the function of the previous behavior by eliminating it’s access to reinforcement.
  • For example, if screaming was a way for this person to get a cookie, I would no longer give them a cookie when they screamed. I would teach them to say ‘cookie’ and then and only then would I give it to them. All along, I would be taking data on the frequency of screaming AND the frequency of asking for a cookie to ensure we are using the right intervention. Data always tells us if we are on the right track!

Everyone uses ABA to some degree in their own personal lives. And if ABA did indeed turn someone into a robot, we would all be robots just walking around the world together. The next time you try to learn something new, think about the steps you take to master that skill and how you break it down to practice them – that’s ABA!