Applied Behavior Analysis in Simple Terms

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is perhaps best known in today’s world as a “therapy” or “treatment” for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but it can be valuable to ask ourselves what those terms imply – and whether ABA does in fact match up.

In simple terms, ABA can be thought of as a method of making changes to the environment to help promote learning. Board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) and registered behavior technicians (RBTs) work collaboratively with learners one-on-one to figure out what methods work best for their own desired skill acquisition, and then use those methods in regularly-scheduled sessions. This might include using examples and materials that are directly relevant to the learner, breaking down long-term goals into achievable shorter-term checkpoints, and providing personalized learning supports during each step toward mastering new goals.

While chances are that most of the folks reading this blog are interested in ABA services for autistic children and youth, as one article cheekily noted, “None of the A’s in ABA stand for autism.” In fact, the principles of ABA have been applied in a wide variety of contexts, including organizational behavior management, health and fitness, and even environmental sustainability!

applied behavior analysis

ABA Is About Changing Environments—Not Changing People

In most contexts, “therapies” and “treatments” are typically prescribed to heal something about a person. However, ABA is based on the science of behavior analysis (also sometimes referred to as behaviorology), which emphasizes that behavior is a function of environment.

A common motto in the field of behavior analysis is that “the learner is always right.” This means that if they are not learning, they are not the problem; the environment is, and it’s our responsibility to adapt it as needed. Practitioners of ABA, then, should not be attempting to change a person, but rather to improve and enrich their environment in order to accommodate individual learning needs.

Perhaps this seems like a pedantic distinction, but it can make all the difference when it comes to how learners are treated!

Behaviors Are Affected by Antecedents and Consequences

Behavior, environment – these are such broad terms. What do they really mean?

Students of behavior analysis learn a notoriously wordy definition of behavior, but in a nutshell, from the ABA perspective, everything anyone does is behavior. That includes walking, talking, writing, smiling, stomping, and even thinking.

Every behavior is influenced by the environment, made up of innumerable stimuli that affect your senses. Those influences can include events that signal that a behavior will have positive outcomes, such as a greater likelihood that you’ll have a pleasant conversation when you see your best friend’s name pop up on your cell phone. Other environmental events increase the value of engaging in certain behaviors, such as going for a run on a hot day increasing the probability that you’ll grab an ice-cold drink once you get home. Those kinds of events are called antecedents; they occur before behavior.

There are also, of course, consequences such as reinforcement. Reinforcement can be “positive” in the sense of behavior leading to something desirable being added to the environment, like a stranger smiling at you when you give them directions, or “negative” in the sense of something unpleasant being removed from the environment, like an annoying alarm turning off when you hit the off button. Both types of reinforcement make the behaviors that they follow more likely to occur in the future.

All of these kinds of environmental events can be naturally occurring, but can also be deliberately manipulated to create a more effective learning environment. For example, when someone is learning to write, worksheets may initially have solid lines to trace, then dashed lines, until the lines are faded out completely and writing can occur independently. When someone learns to read out loud, pointing to words that are pronounced incorrectly and giving extra prompts for how to sound them out when they try again provides extra feedback and opportunities to practice.

These are relatively simple examples, but they’re representative of core methods of using principles of ABA to change the environment to aid in skill-building.

How ABA Can Help with Dangerous Behavior

ABA is often thought of in conjunction with “problem behavior reduction,” but you’ll note that I haven’t written much about that up to this point. The judgment of what is and is not a “problem” is fraught, and it’s not up to us to draw that distinction. Further, at Waypoints, we always want to make it clear that we deeply value neurodiversity and its expression; we want to celebrate autistic children, youth, and adults for who they are, and do what we can to help build an environment that will enable them to learn what they want to learn in order to thrive and find joy in this world.

Some behaviors, like aggression or self-injury, can put individuals and others around them in danger. But it’s important to understand that those behaviors happen for a reason. There is an incredible body of research showing that if those individuals are able to get their needs met in safer ways, the dangerous behaviors will have no need to occur. That is why we place such great emphasis on skill building, advocacy, and a supportive environment.

How Waypoints Can Help You and Your Family

Waypoints provides diagnostic assessments, ABA therapy, and skills training to help kids engage positively with their environment and learn the abilities they need to thrive. If you’d like to learn more about ABA, or if ABA services sound like they could be helpful for you or your family, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at info@waypoints.life! We’d love to hear from you.

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Whether you’re looking for diagnostic testing, one-on-one in-home ABA therapy and skill-building resources, or simply want to learn more about our unique approach, please don’t hesitate to reach out! (We love getting mail.)

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