In an era where communication transcends words, a strong sense of emotional intelligence in non-verbal…
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by challenges with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, and restrictive/repetitive behaviors.
According to the CDC, about 1 in 44 children has been diagnosed with ASD. While there is no cure for autism, various therapies can help support people with ASD.
One of the most well-known autism therapies is applied behavior analysis (ABA).
What is ABA Therapy?
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach to understanding behavior and how it is affected by a person’s environment. The goal of ABA is to identify challenging behaviors, determine why they are happening, and develop positive interventions to improve skills and behaviors.
ABA draws on the principles of learning theory to motivate positive change. Key techniques used in ABA include:
- Positive reinforcement – Providing rewards to encourage desirable behaviors. For example, giving praise or a favored toy when a child completes a task.
- Shaping – Breaking larger skills down into smaller, achievable steps and rewarding progress.
- Modeling – Demonstrating a target skill so the person can learn by example.
- Discrete trial training – Structured teaching of specific skills using prompts, repetition, and positive reinforcement.
- Self-management – Teaching individuals with autism strategies to regulate their own behaviors.
- Generalization – Helping people apply skills learned during ABA therapy to other environments, such as school and home.
- Data collection – Carefully monitoring progress and skills to identify when interventions are working.
ABA Therapy for Autism
ABA therapy uses these techniques to address skill deficits associated with ASD such as:
- Communication skills – from basic listening skills to holding conversations
- Social skills – such as making eye contact, sharing, and turn taking
- Self-care – like getting dressed, brushing teeth, feeding oneself
- Behavior challenges – decreasing tantrums, aggression, or self-injury
- Academic skills – like following instructions and completing work
- Adaptive living skills – including safety and independence
Programs are tailored to each individual’s needs, targeting the most significant skill deficits first. ABA therapy can be provided one-on-one or in small group settings. Sessions are conducted by board certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) and registered behavior technicians (RBTs).
ABA therapy is often initiated when children are young, as early intervention can improve outcomes. However, ABA can benefit people with autism throughout their lives.
The intensity of ABA programs varies based on each person’s needs and progress. On average, 20-40 hours per week is recommended, especially for younger children.
The Goals of ABA Therapy
The overarching goals of ABA therapy for autism are to:
- Increase positive behaviors that allow greater independence
- Reduce challenging behaviors that interfere with learning
- Improve quality of life at home, school, and in the community
More specifically, goals depend on the individual’s needs but often include:
- Improving communication and social skills
- Fostering academic success
- Reducing aggressive or self-injurious behaviors
- Teaching self-care and daily living skills
- Improving focus, listening, and learning readiness
- Promoting safety awareness and appropriate social interactions
Is ABA Therapy Effective?
Decades of scientific research support ABA as an effective therapy for autism. It is considered an evidence-based practice by agencies like the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association.
Studies show ABA can:
- Teach communication, social, academic, and self-care skills
- Reduce problem behaviors
- Improve IQ scores and cognitive functioning
- Support success in school and community settings
Research also indicates early intensive ABA intervention leads to the best outcomes long-term. While autism is lifelong, ABA therapy helps people reach their full potential and lead more independent, fulfilling lives.
Of course, progress depends on factors like age of intervention, program intensity, and each person’s individual abilities. But overall, studies show 40-50% of children who receive ABA therapy are able to succeed in mainstream classrooms. And some are even able to function without special supports.
ABA therapy also helps improve quality of life for families of children with autism. Parents and caregivers report lower stress levels and more optimism about their child’s future after ABA.
Finding Quality ABA Therapy
Because ABA involves changing behaviors, it is critical programs are designed and overseen by properly credentialed professionals.
When researching ABA therapy, look for providers who are:
- Licensed behavior analysts (BCBAs) – Have met rigorous education, training, and experience standards. BCBAs design treatment plans, oversee RBTs, and monitor progress.
- Registered behavior technicians (RBTs) – Complete ABA coursework plus supervised fieldwork. RBTs provide the direct ABA therapy.
- Accredited – By organizations like the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) or Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA)
Quality indicators also include:
- Individualized, comprehensive assessments – To identify each person’s unique needs and goals
- Evidence-based treatment plans – Designed around scientifically-proven ABA techniques
- 1:1 intervention – Especially when initiating an ABA program
- Intensive hours – Most experts recommend 25-40 hours per week
- Parent training – So families can apply ABA strategies at home
- Continual progress monitoring – With data collected to track skills gained
- Supporting generalization – Helping apply learned skills to other settings
The Benefits of ABA Therapy
When provided by qualified professionals, ABA therapy offers numerous benefits for people with ASD:
- Helps achieve individualized goals related to communication, behavior, social, academic, and adaptive living skills
- Can improve cognitive and language abilities, social skills, and daily functioning
- Evidence-based method proven effective through decades of research
- Uses positive reinforcement to motivate positive change
- Fosters independence, confidence, and quality of life
- Allows people to learn and grow throughout their lives
- Provides resources and support for families and caregivers
Of course, ABA therapy also requires a significant commitment in terms of time and effort. But for many families, the rewards are life-changing. ABA can make a real difference for people with autism at any age.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some common questions people have about applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
What is ABA therapy?
ABA is a research-based approach to improving socially significant behaviors for people with ASD. It uses techniques like positive reinforcement, shaping, modeling, and data tracking to teach communication, social, academic, adaptive, and behavioral skills. ABA programs are tailored to each individual’s needs and overseen by licensed professionals like board certified behavior analysts (BCBAs).
At what age can ABA therapy start?
ABA can benefit people with ASD throughout their lives. But research shows starting intensive ABA therapy early leads to the best outcomes long-term. Many programs begin when children are as young as 2-3 years old, as early intervention is key. However, people of any age can make progress with ABA.
How many hours per week is ABA therapy?
Experts recommend 25-40 hours per week of intensive ABA therapy, especially for younger children first starting treatment. This level of intervention is shown to produce the greatest skill gains. As children get older and progress is made, the hours may be reduced gradually.
How long does ABA therapy last?
ABA is not a short-term treatment. To fully benefit from ABA, most individuals continue therapy for multiple years. Exact duration depends on factors like the age treatment begins and each person’s individual needs and rate of progress. Many people continue ABA therapy well into their school-age and teenage years.
Where does ABA therapy take place?
ABA therapy takes place in a variety of settings depending on the individual’s needs. Sessions often occur in clinics, homes, schools, or community settings. Training in natural environments helps promote generalization of skills.
What is a typical ABA session like?
ABA sessions are structured and focus on targeted skills individualized to each person. They often involve 1:1 work between an RBT and person with ASD using prompting, reinforcement, modeling, and repetition to teach and practice goal behaviors. Data is collected to track progress.
How much does ABA therapy cost?
The cost of ABA varies based on factors like geographic location and the credentials of your provider. Many health insurance plans cover ABA services for ASD. Medicaid, state agencies, and school systems may also offer ABA funding support depending on eligibility.
How can I find qualified ABA therapy services?
Look for ABA providers accredited by organizations like BACB or APBA. Key credentials to look for include licensed behavior analysts (BCBAs) overseeing treatment and registered behavior technicians (RBTs) providing therapy. Also look for evidence-based, individualized programming.
How do I know if ABA will help my child?
While ABA has decades of research supporting its effectiveness for ASD, benefits still depend on proper implementation and each individual’s needs. Reputable ABA clinics provide comprehensive assessments to help determine if ABA is appropriate for your situation. Progress monitoring also helps gauge ongoing success.