Why You Should View ABA as a Skill-Building Tool—Not “Therapy”

What is the purpose of ABA services?

In previous blog posts, I’ve explained Waypoints’ perspective that autism is not something that can (or should) be cured, and as such that we don’t think of “ABA therapy” as a true type of therapy at all. Instead, ABA (applied behavior analysis) consists of application of behavior-analytic principles in order to aid in learning new skills – communication skills, social skills, daily living skills, etc.

That can take the form of assisting skill acquisition directly, and also potentially habit reduction in cases of behaviors that are of immediate danger to clients or others.

what is the purpose of aba

Socially Significant Behavior

When the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis made its debut in the 1960s, consideration went into what set it apart from the Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior. This also reflected differentiation between applied practice vs. experimental research in general. As Montrose Wolf reported in his 1978 recounting, the purpose was “the publication of applications of the analysis of behavior to problems of social importance” (emphasis added). But how is social importance judged?

The term social importance or significance can sometimes be misapplied to behavioral changes that are considered the most “socially acceptable.” However, the term social significance actually refers to the degree to which the behavioral changes we’re targeting benefit and are valued by the clients themselves.

The first A of ABA stands for applied, and this is also one of the seven critical “dimensions” of the field of behavior analysis as described in a seminal article by Don Baer and colleagues in 1968. The applied characteristic of ABA requires that our procedures target behaviors that will result in improved quality of life for the individuals we’re serving.

Wolf proposed evaluation of the significance of programming goals, the appropriateness of procedures used, and also the importance of the ultimate outcomes of the programming – and that these aspects of social validity should be evaluated by clients directly, not by those designing and implementing the procedures.

Starting Points for Skill Building

Initial shorter-term goals of skill development are sometimes thought of as behavioral cusps and pivotal behaviors.

A behavioral cusp is a skill that allows access to new environments and sources of reinforcement – for example, learning to communicate or use public transportation. A pivotal behavior is a skill that, when mastered, also influences many other more complex skills and can generalize across diverse situations – for example, fine motor skills or asking for help.

In their textbook Applied Behavior Analysis, John Cooper and colleagues provide a useful worksheet for collaboration with clients in identifying what skills would be of the highest importance to work on. For example, “is this behavior a necessary prerequisite for another useful skill?” Prerequisite skills, also sometimes called component skills, can build toward more complex composite skills. Individual fine motor skills might seem relatively insignificant at first glance, but working on learning to pinch, point, and pull can lead to the ability to dress oneself, hold a pencil, or use a touchscreen.

Another question to consider is “will this behavior increase access to environments in which other important behaviors can be learned and used?” Learner readiness skills, for example, could allow for enrollment in and greater benefit from general education classrooms. Learning to type and safely use the internet opens up entire worlds of resources and socialization.

Every learner’s goals for skill development will be different, and will necessitate a different starting point and benefit from individualized instruction!

Skill-Building Strategies

As I’ve hinted at in this post, a common instructional tactic in behavior-analytic services is to start by teaching simple component skills that can then recombine into numerous, more complex composite skills.

Instruction can take place in a more structured format, as well as throughout the natural environment. Procedures like shaping allow for gradual improvement of the “form” of skills, like learning to effectively swing a baseball bat or chop vegetables safely. Chaining procedures help to bring individual skills together into useful activities, like self-care routines or driving a car.

These strategies, though, primarily address skill deficits related to simply not yet learning how to engage in certain behaviors. Another strategy is to make adjustments to the environment, both to increase the number of learning opportunities and to accommodate learning in different ways. Materials used during skill development might be visual, auditory, or tactile, depending on the learner’s needs, and other tools like schedules or checklists could be helpful as well.

Behavior-analytic services also support learning by aiding in motivation – for example, by clarifying clients’ values and talking through rationale for goals and desired outcomes. It’s also critical to ensure that reinforcement is available in the day-to-day environment, in the sense that caregivers, teachers, and others actively cheer on and support clients in working toward their goals.

Supporting Learning at Home

To that end, families of clients absolutely can and should get involved in the skill-building process! Caregiver trainings to use behavior-analytic instructional methods are available through Waypoints, and we also strongly encourage clients and their families to chat with their Waypoints team to brainstorm ways to carry over skill-building activities to maintain and generalize accomplishments at home, school, and other environments.

This might take the form of providing opportunities to practice skills that are being worked on, but also making similar environmental adjustments used during ABA sessions (such as using visual schedules or avoiding sensory sensitivities) throughout day-to-day life.

If you’re receiving services through Waypoints already, I hope that you’ll reach out to discuss options to enhance skill-building outside of sessions! And if you’re curious about how learning supports like those discussed here could aid in your (or a loved one’s) progress towards a goal, we’d love to hear from you at info@waypoints.life.

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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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