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Back to Basics: Core Concepts in ABA

Over the past two decades, dozens of task forces, panels, and independent research studies have found that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the only effective intervention for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Although ABA is helpful for many issues other than autism, and in fact is not a treatment of autism in and of itself, the practice of the science is often linked to ASD.  I’d like to share some of the core principles of ABA that are associated with the many ways in which ABA is helpful for supporting individuals on the autism spectrum.

First, ABA works from the crucially important framework of determinism.  This means that behavior analysts see behavior as being determined by the environment.  In other words, the reasons for behavior are external, not particular to the person.  As we like to say, “The student is always right.”  This perspective is tremendously helpful because it means that there’s always something that can be done to help.  If an individual is having difficulty learning, we can adjust the environment to improve his or her ability to learn.  If someone is engaging in behavior that is dangerous or upsetting, we can adjust the environment to reduce the likelihood of that behavior.  We never try to change a PERSON; rather we attempt to change the events that occur before and after behavior, making that behavior more or less likely.

Next, ABA is highly individualized.  One of the reasons that it is so effective as a practice in teaching and supporting individuals with ASD is that each person receives a tailor-made intervention that addresses his or her needs, strengths, and preferences.  ASD does not look the same in every person who has it, therefore intervention should not look the same.  Furthermore, continuous data collection and analysis allow for continuous updating and refining of interventions, so that each individual should be receiving the most effective strategies at all times.

Finally, ABA focuses on lifestyle changes and involves parents and significant others in all interventions.  ABA is not something that is done by behavior analysts to people with autism.  Rather, it’s the practical application of the science of behavior by the people who interact with – and care for – those in need of intervention the most.  In many cases, behavioral programming is carried out by teachers or paraprofessionals, but ABA is most effective when it’s also carried out by parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.  The design of effective strategies and ongoing analysis of outcomes should be overseen by a well-qualified behavior analyst, but the strategies themselves should involve everyone in the individual’s life.  This helps to ensure generalization and maintenance of behavior change, and to provide the individual with ASD maximum exposure to supportive strategies throughout his or her day.

For these reasons and more, ABA is the intervention of choice for individuals on the autism spectrum.  It is humane, effective, and fair.  Given the right intervention, those with ASD can achieve personal goals and reach increased levels of independence in their lives.


About The Author

Dana Reinecke, Ph.D., BCBA-D is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA).   Dana is a Core Faculty member in the Applied Behavior Analysis department at Capella University.  She is also co-owner of SupervisorABA, an online platform for BACB supervision curriculum, forms, and hours tracking.  Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities. She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism.  Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education.  Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA).