What is ABA?

Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is a discipline devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behaviour (Heward & Cooper, 1987).    ABA focuses on clearly defined, observable behaviours of social significance, improving behaviour while showing a clear relationship between intervention and outcome, using methods of derived from several decades’ worth of scientific study.  The use of ABA for children with autism largely came about from a study conducted by Ivar Lovaas.  In 1987, Lovaas conducted a study applying methods of ABA which children with autism.  Results indicated 90% of children substantially improved compared to the control group.  Nearly half attained a normal IQ and tested within the normal range on adaptive and social skills. 

Since that time, over 500 papers have been published on ABA and autism.  A recent study (Eldevik et al, 2010) collected data from 453 children who were allocated into three groups: those that had received behavioural intervention, those that had received another intervention of similar intensity or to a control group where no specific intervention was provided. The outcomes for the behavioural intervention group were significantly better than those for the control and comparison groups and were even demonstrated to compare well with statistics used to evaluate mainstream healthcare interventions. They found that intensity of intervention (35 or more hours per week of EIBI) was related to both IQ and ABC gains, and that IQ and ABC scores at intake were related to gains in ABC scores.

ABA is generally acknowledged as the most effective approach in working with children with autism.


So, what’s the key idea?

The key idea behind ABA is that most human behaviour is learned through our interaction with our environment. What happens before and after any behaviour influences the likelihood of it being repeated. For example, if behaviour is rewarded, it’s more likely to happen again. If it’s not rewarded, or is ignored or punished, it’s less likely to happen again.

ABA uses this idea to teach and encourage new and appropriate behaviour in children with autism.

What’s involved?

ABA-based programs generally involve:

  • assessing the child’s current skills and difficulties
  • setting goals and objectives (for example, learning how to say ‘hello’)
  • measuring how often the behaviour or skill happens currently
  • designing and implementing a program that teaches the ‘target’ skill
  • ongoing measurement of the ‘target’ skill to see whether the program is working
  • ongoing evaluation of the program itself, making changes as needed.

How programs incorporate and apply these elements will vary. The way they’re applied will also vary from one child to the next. For example, an ABA-based program can be run in the family home, at a clinic, school or centre (such as an early intervention service), or in a combination of two or more of these settings.

Most ABA-based programs incorporate several teaching techniques, which might include Discrete Trial Training (DTT), incidental teaching or using everyday interactions (‘naturalistic teaching’) as opportunities for children to learn.



"Using participant data to extend the evidence base for Intensive Behavioral Intervention for children with autism."

Eldevik, S., Hastings, R.P., Hughes, J.C., Jahr, E., Eikeseth, S., & Cross, S. (2010).

American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 115, 381-405.

Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children.

Lovaas, O. I. (1987).

Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,
55, 3-9.