Applied Behavior Analysis

Categories: Applied Behavior Analysis; ASD and DD, Child-focused

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is a scientific approach to understanding the relationship between behavior and the environment. It involves describing, predicting, and then changing a specific behavior by modifying environmental factors that affect that behavior.

When ABA was first introduced, it focused on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Over time, it has expanded to include people of all ages with and without disabilities. Its principles –reinforcement, teaching in small steps, prompting, and repeated practice – can be applied to a wide variety of areas and fields, including addiction recovery, business, health and wellness, parenting, and sports. Today, ABA is most often used to address behavior problems and skill deficits of people with intellectual disabilities and ASD.

It is important to note that behavior change principles can be used with any person to change any behavior. Most of what we do on a daily basis is classified as behavior! Walking, talking, driving, and shopping are all behaviors that can be changed. We can increase or decrease these behaviors through reinforcement and other ABA-based interventions.

The overall goal of ABA is to replace negative (undesirable or inappropriate) behaviors with positive (desirable, more socially acceptable) behaviors. People sometimes use inappropriate means or behaviors to get what they want. Behavior analysts design intervention plans (based on ABA) to teach important skills that will help a person with intellectual disabilities to communicate appropriately and get his needs met.

ABA targets problem behaviors such as screaming, crying, aggression, self-injury, and the destruction of property. Behavior analysts use a wide variety of techniques to address these behaviors. Most frequently, they use reinforcement. Using the principles of reinforcement, a person is rewarded for not engaging in inappropriate behaviors. Rewards can include food items, access to a preferred item, or the opportunity to engage in a favorite activity.

ABA-based intervention programs are also used to increase appropriate behaviors and build skills, including language, social, and independent living skills. Behavior analysts teach new skills by breaking down larger goals into measurable objectives, which often consist of small steps that are repeated until the person masters the skill. Examples might include learning all the steps necessary to dress yourself in the morning, or to be able to buy a loaf of bread. Prompting, or assistance, facilitates learning along the way. Reinforcement can be provided as the individual masters new skills. ABA skill training programs are customized to each learner’s skill level and need, and incorporate his or her preferences for rewards.

ABA is a field that continues to gain scientific support. Hundreds of scientific studies have shown that ABA is the most effective method to teach individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities. ABA has been endorsed by the National Institutes of health and the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, and has been identified by the Surgeon General of the United States as the most effective way to treat autism.

ABA-based interventions and skill training programs improve the quality of life for many children and adults with autism and other special needs. ABA teaches them the skills they need to live as independently as possible, to express themselves effectively, and to interact appropriately with others.

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. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit