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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
What is it? Overview Usage Side Effects and Warnings

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Overview

Written by Olivia Cerf.

There are many forms of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is used to identify and then modify problematic behavior, and has been shown to be particularly effective in treating autism.

Though the methods are varied, all ABA programs share the following features:

  • Treatment may begin as early as 3 years of age
  • Intervention is intensive, between 20 and 40 hours a week
  • Intervention is individualized and comprehensive
  • Multiple behavior analytic procedures are used to develop adaptive repertoires
  • Treatment begins one on one, and then transitions to group settings and then natural day-to-day settings
  • Treatment goals are guided by normal developmental sequences
  • Parents are trained and become active co-therapists.1

Evidence on How It Works

A meta-analysis of 22 studies reported that ABA had been shown to have positive effects on symptoms of autism. The measures that these studies showed as improved by ABA treatment were

  • General IQ
  • Language development
  • Acquisition of daily living skills
  • Adaptive behavior
  • Nonverbal IQ
  • Social functions

Children who undergo ABA intervention have a greater chance of integrating into school environments. However, studies on ABA show that its effects are stronger in clinic-based programs than in parent-managed ones.2

Types of ABA

There are many types of ABA, and new ones are constantly in development. This is a sampling of ABA treatments, not a complete list.

Applied verbal behavior (VB)

This program involves helping the child gain verbal skills. The teacher or therapist breaks lessons down into small trials, gives prompts, and provides feedback to reinforce the desired behavior. The goal is to have the child use his verbal skills to communicate his needs.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

This is a structured method of teaching that involves breaking a lesson down into steps, providing prompts so that the child does the task, and having consequences for the child’s performance. For example, if a task is done as instructed, then a reward is given.

Pivotal Response Training (PRT)

This approach focuses on what motivates the child to learn. If the child chooses to play with a certain toy, then that choice can be used to teach a skill (like learning colors). PRT also involves reinforcing the child in "real" ways. If a child is learning how to tie his shoe, then the reward could be to play outside, as opposed to using candy as a reward.


1 Maurice, Catherine. Making a Difference: Behavioral Intervention for Autism. (Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, Inc., 2011).

2Virues-Ortega, Javier. “Applied behavior analytic intervention for autism in early childhood: Meta-analysis, meta-regression and dose-response meta-analysis of multiple outcomes.” Clinical Psychology Review 30, (29 Jan. 2010): 387.



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