Applied Behavior Analysis
What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?
ABA is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree (Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968 / 1987; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). It is a methodology that can be used in all curriculum and skill areas: academic, social, cognitive, communicative, self-help, behavioral, fine and gross motor skills. Behavior analysis focuses on the principles that explain how learning takes place and why people behave as they do. Reinforcement is one of these principles. ABA indicates that when a behavior is immediately followed by some sort of reward, then that behavior is more likely to be repeated in the future. Through decades of research, the field of ABA has introduced many techniques for increasing useful behaviors and reducing challenging behaviors that could cause harm or interfere with learning. ABA is an important strategy for promoting meaningful and positive change in behavior for individuals with autism
How Does ABA Benefit Those with Autism?
ABA is widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for individuals with autism. Based on many years of effective implementation and positive results, ABA has been endorsed by a number of state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health. Over the last decade, the rates of autism diagnoses have significantly increased; however, explanations are these epidemiological changes have varied. Consequently, there has continued growth in the use of ABA to help persons with autism acquire adaptive skills, develop job skills, communicate more effectively, and reduce the presence of maladaptive, challenging behaviors. In other words, ABA principles and techniques can foster basic skills such as eye contact, receptive listening skills and imitation, as well as complex skills such as conversational skills, reading and writing, and understanding others’ emotions, feelings, and motivations.
Why Use ABA with Learners with ASD?
Research supporting the use of ABA with individuals with autism, particularly young children, has been well-established. Peer-reviewed studies have investigated the impact of intensive ABA services in high quality programs and the results have usually suggested that learners make significant gains in socially-relevant behaviors. In some cases, early, intensive ABA training provides students with the requisite skills to successfully Transition back into neighborhoods skills while other students continue to require more restrictive classroom settings even as they acquire positive adaptive skills. Generally, the research on ABA has suggested that children who receive intensive behavioral therapy make more significant gains than students who are educated in other educational programs.
There is also growing research support that ABA techniques are an important training tool for adolescents and adults with autism. ABA strategies can be utilized in programming and planning for older individuals with autism as they Transition from traditional academic environments into work settings and independent living. However, there is a paucity of conclusive research on older learners and ABA techniques and we will continue to examine the role of behavioral strategies in these situations.
What Are Components of High Quality ABA Services?
ABA can take many forms when used with individuals with autism. A common misconception is that ABA only consists of 1:1 massed, discrete trial training. That is not the case–there are many application of ABA and programming should always reflect the specific strengths and weakness of the learners with ASD. In short, ABA is not a “one-size fits all” intervention. That said, research has indicated that high-quality ABA programs for learners with autism should contain the following elements Assessment and programming components:
- Trained and certified behavior analyst leads processes of learner Assessment and goal development
- Process begins with comprehensive Assessment of learner’s current skills and deficits as well as interests and motivations
- Leaner’s family is consulted throughout entire process and their goals can be incorporated into programming
- Goals and objectives are individualized to promote learner’s progress toward independence
- Skills are broken down via task analysis in order to present steps in understandable and teachable components
- Measurement and progress evaluation is ongoing and objective and information obtained from progress checks informs adjustments and changes to programming
- Goals and instructional procedures are developmentally appropriate and target a broad range of skill areas such as communication, socialization, self-care, play and leisure, fine/gross motor development, and traditional academic skills
And, high quality ABA programs should employ the following techniques and philosophy:
- Learner’s programming is structured in a way that provides ample instructional opportunities or trials (as with discrete trial instruction), pre-determined and naturally-occurring, so that individual has more chances to perform the target behaviors and receive personalized Reinforcement
- Reinforcement for correct responses is immediate and frequent
- Positive behaviors are encouraged through research-supported behavioral strategies such as prompting and social stories; some are teacher initiated, others are learner initiated
- Negative, maladaptive, and other undesired behaviors are ignored and do not receive Reinforcement
- Programming includes plans for maintaining and generalizing skills
- Parents, caregivers, and other potential instructors should receive training in ABA strategies so they can support learning and skill development throughout the day
Who Is Qualified to Provide ABA Services?
ABA programming for learners with autism, as any other specialized, clinical field, should be designed and supervised by qualified professionals. This group of professionals can include licensed clinical psychologists with training in applied behavior analysis or behavior analysts, who are board certified with supervised experience providing ABA treatment (BCBA). While much of the day-to-day ABA work can be performed by certified teachers and well-trained teaching assistants, schools’ ABA programs should be overseen by highly-trained professionals who have the ability to provide staff training and create effective ABA systems.
Due to the rising rates of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses and the demand for high-quality services, there has been an explosion of ABA programs and schools that claim to provide expert interventions and treatments to students with ASD. This increase in purported ABA programs includes private schools, home-based services, and consultation services to public schools. However, many ABA “experts” and ABA programs do not fulfill the criteria for high-quality ABA establishments and instead label themselves as trained experts in order to attract more families and students. Therefore, it is important that parents and students understand the importance of program design and the presence professional credentials. Effective ABA services require more than calling one’s self an ABA program—they entail a combination of highly-trained staff, appropriate programming decisions, and individualized environments that target the specific learning needs of individuals with ASD.
What Is the Role of ABA in AHRC NYC Schools?
ABA is a significant component of all schools within AHRC NYC. In our preschools, there are dedicated ABA classrooms for students with autism. Educational programming, behavioral support, and classroom arrangement all reflect best practice ABA and our Program Coordinators’ comprehensive data collection plans and forms helps provide consistent monitoring of students’ progress. To ensure high-quality programming, staff receives pre-service and in-service training in ABA practices. ABA classrooms are continuously observed to guarantee that the students with ASD in these environments receive the appropriate instruction. Our preschools contain a number of BCBAs as well as staff who are in the process of obtaining their certifications.
Our elementary school, Brooklyn Blue Feather, is primarily founded on ABA methodology although some classrooms also incorporate other research-supported strategies when necessary. Programming and practice is supervised by a BCBA, and teacher and teaching assistants who have received considerable training in ABA principles, practices, and theories. ABA practice consists of scheduled 1:1, discrete trial training (DTT) periods as well as small group and full class instruction based on ABA methods. Within the classrooms, students are monitored through a Program Book system that clearly outlines individualized target goals, behavioral expectations, and ABA teaching procedures for each child. When student behavior becomes problematic and does not consistently respond to proactive strategies, our highly-trained ABA specialists conduct Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBA) and Functional Analyses (FA) in order to identify the reasons for behavior and to design comprehensive plans for behavioral modification.
Our middle/high school, AHRC MHS, utilizes ABA strategies in most classrooms as well. The Program Book system that has been so successful at our elementary school has been recently installed in our middle/high school. While there is less 1:1, DTT instruction within the students’ schedules in order to better prepare the students for the ratios of the adult world, teachers nevertheless utilize the same research-supported Reinforcement, extinction, task analysis, prompting, and behavioral modification strategies that work so effectively for students with autism. Staff receives consistent training in ABA principles from highly-trained instructors and a number of the administrative staff are in the process of earning their BCBA certification. In instances when student behavior becomes significantly challenging, experienced staff conduct FBAs in order to identify behavioral function and create successful, individualized behavior plans.