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Applied Behavior Analysis and Discrete Trial Therapy: There Is Hope

History of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA):

The study and analysis of human behavior dates back many years. The extensive use of behavioral techniques or ABA in teaching autistic children was first attempted in 1964 by Dr. Lovaas and his associates at the UCLA clinic. Over several years through trial and error they developed a method for teaching autistic children skills and knowledge they needed to help them function more independently in society. They have demonstrated over the past three decades that early intensive intervention using behavioral techniques can improve the functioning in approximately 90% of young autistic children.

The model we use today, although based on the same principles, has evolved mostly through experience to become an extremely effective program to teach autistic individuals the skills they will need to function in their day to day living. The most significant change is the removal of aversives from the program, something that Dr. Lovaas was heavily criticized for in his earlier work with autistic children. Other significant changes have included moving the teaching from a clinical to a home or school setting and involving the parents in the program.

What is ABA ?

ABA refers to a style of teaching which uses a series of trials to shape a desired behavior or response. Skills are broken down to their simplest components and then taught to the child through a system of reinforcement.

Prompts are given as needed when the child is learning a skill or refuses to comply. As the child begins to master a skill, the prompts are gradually faded until the child can do the skill independently.

Usually skills are taught receptively, then expressively. Each trial functions like a building block, and together these building blocks provide the foundation for learning. The program is very positive and the child is set up for success by starting out with easier trials, reinforced, then moved on to more difficult tasks. A high priority goal is making learning fun for the child.

Behavioral treatment is a data-based program in which the child's progress is documented on a daily basis. This is very important so that you can track what the child is learning and whether the teaching approach is effective. It is critical that all skills taught in the initial one-on-one setting be generalized to everyday settings (eg. in school and with other children).

The program is more than just a behavioral management technique, it is actually a step by step approach complete with curriculum that teaches the following: language skills, social skills, play skills, fine motor skills, self help skills, as well as academic knowledge needed to successfully mainstream these children into normal classroom settings. In essence, the program teaches autistic children "learn how to learn."

Why ABA ?

To date ABA is the only treatment program that is backed up by scientific studies. These include the following :

1) 1987 UCLA project by Dr. Ivar Lovaas and associates. In this study 19 children were given 40 hours/week of one-on-one behavioral treatment for two years. The findings were as follows:

  •  9 out of 19 (47%) children successfully completed regular first grade and obtained average or above average scores on IQ tests.

  •  8 out of 19 (42%) successfully completed first grade in classes for language delayed or learning disabled children. They had made substantial gains in most areas but not enough to enable them to participate fully in a regular classroom setting.

  •  2 out of 19 (11%) made little or no gain and were placed in classes for the severely autistic or mentally retarded.

The follow up to the 1987 study in 1993 by McEachin and Smith indicated that 47% (9/19) were able to attain normal functioning in school at the age of 13.

  •  May Institute Study

  •  Murdoch Early Intervention program

  •  UC San Francisco study

All of these studies indicate that early intensive (30+ hrs /wk) intervention greatly effects the outcome of the child and in some cases actually enables autistic individuals to function at a normal capacity when treatment is complete. Although most of these studies indicate the greatest gains are made the earlier the intervention is introduced (preferably before age 5), it has been demonstrated that children of all ages can make tremendous progress from an ABA type program. ABA is not a miracle cure for autism, but it is one of the best treatments that is currently available today to enable autistic individuals to reach their maximal potential.

Some of the advantages of the program are:

  1. Home setting vs. Clinical (children learn and generalize better in their natural environment)
  2. Step by step logical program
  3. Tailored to meet individual child's needs
  4. Can benefit all age groups
  5. Improvement in about 90% of children
  6. Brings undesirable behavior under control
  7. Backed up by scientific studies
  8. Can be integrated into school settings
  9. Parent vs. Professional control (parents know their child best)
  10. Allows breaks for parents to fulfill other duties (work and other children)
  11. Reduces the free time that autistic children can't organize (less stim time)
  12. Teaches the child how to learn!


Until recently, autism has been considered by many as a hopeless, incurable and absolute condition. Now, however research suggests that intensive early intervention can have a significant and lasting positive impact on these children. ABA is a highly effective treatment for autistic children of all age groups. It is a positive step by step method of teaching these children a wide variety of skills they will need to reach their optimum potential. Applied Behavior Analysis has enabled Autistic children to reach levels once thought impossible to reach.

Special Education Consulting ~ Advocates For Children With Special Needs






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