What Does That Mean? Commonly Used Terms Defined

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA, and Sarah Helm, M.A., LABA, BCBA

If you are a parent of a child newly diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may feel as if you need to learn a new language. For most, there is a steep learning curve necessary in order to understand the terms that the professionals working with your son or daughter may use to describe the treatments and therapies s/he will receive.
The following is a list of five common terms – and their definitions – that teachers and therapists often use when providing services to children with ASD and other special needs.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA is a science devoted to the improvement of human behavior. It is a methodology, or framework, that applies scientific interventions to address behavioral needs. ABA facilitates the development of language, social interactions, and independent living by applying basic behavioral practices — positive reinforcement, teaching in small steps, prompting, and repeated practice. ABA techniques can benefit a wide variety of people who would like to change their behavior, including typical adults who may want to lose weight or quit smoking.

This word has a negative connotation in our culture. In the field of ABA, however, a consequence is what happens after a behavior occurs. It can be negative, but it also can be positive. For example, if parents allow their son to watch his favorite television show after he finishes his homework, or ground their daughter after she stays out too late, these are both consequences in the field of ABA.
Contingency refers to the relationship between a behavior and its consequence. The consequence is contingent upon the behavior. In the world of ABA, contingency can mean either positive or negative consequences. "If, then" relationships are contingencies. For example, "If you do well in school, then I will be very proud of you" is a contingency statement.
A reinforcer is something you give to someone to increase the chances that they repeat a behavior you would like to see again. This "thing" can be as simple as attention, food, or permission to change activities. It can only be defined as a reinforcer if it actually increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. For example, if a teacher gives out stickers to children who sit quietly and raise their hands before speaking, the stickers would be reinforcers only for those students who continued to sit quietly and raise their hands in order to get more stickers. For some students, stickers might not work as reinforcers – they might prefer to leave their seats rather than earn a sticker.
Behavioral Momentum
Behavioral momentum is a technique often used by teachers to get their students to comply with requests and complete tasks. The theory behind behavioral momentum is that performing easier tasks first – and with success – increases the likelihood that a student will attempt a more difficult task. The successful completion of several simple tasks builds the momentum s/he needs to try the more difficult task. Behavioral momentum is why basketball coaches call time-out when the other team is playing very well. When that basketball team is seemingly doing better and better as the clock is ticking down, the opposing team's coach disrupts that team's growing behavioral momentum with the time-out. 
Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA, is Executive Director of the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at


About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit