WABA or Applied Behaviour Analysis is most commonly known in Ireland as an intervention for people with autism, but ABA was not designed specifically for autism!


Applied Behaviour Analysisis the science of human behaviour. The best definition available is by Baer, Wolf, & Risley in 1968: ‘Applied Behaviour Analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviours to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behaviour’.

Specifically, ABA involves the principles of learning theory. That is, the use of reinforcement and other important principles to increase behaviours, generalise learned behaviours or reduce undesirable behaviours, is fundamental to ABA.

It was not until the 1960s that researchers began exploring Applied Behaviour Analysis as a method to educate children on the autism spectrum. Behavioural analysts agree that consistency, in and out of the classroom, is key for children with autism to develop to their greatest potential

ABC Model

The first step in Applied Behavior Analysis is to analyse the behaviour. This is done using the ABC model:

A – Antecedent – a directive or request for the child to perform an action.

B – Behaviour – a behaviour, or response from the child i.e. successful performance, noncompliance, or no response.

C – Consequence – a consequence, defined as the reaction from the therapist, which can range from strong positive reinforcement (ie. a special treat, verbal praise) to a strong negative response, “No!”

ABA Techniques

The following are some of the techniques used in ABA

Chaining: the skill to be learned is broken down into the smallest units for easy learning. For example, a child learning to brush teeth independently may start with learning to unscrew the toothpaste cap. Once the child has learned this, the next step may be squeezing the tube, and so on.

Task Analysis: a process in which a task is analysed into its component parts so that those parts can be taught using chaining: forward chaining, backward chaining and total task presentation.

Prompting: the parent or therapist helps encourage the desired response from the child. The aim is to use the least intrusive prompt possible that will still lead to the desired response. Prompts can include:

• Verbal cues: “Take the toothpaste cap off”

• Visual cues: pointing at the toothpaste

• Physical guidance: moving the child’s hands to unscrew the lid

• Demonstration: taking the cap off to show the child how it is done.

Fading: the overall goal is for a child to eventually not need prompts. Therefore, the least intrusive prompts are used, so the child does not become overly dependent on them when learning a new behaviour or skill. Prompts are gradually faded out as the new behaviour is learned. Learning to unscrew the toothpaste lid may start with physically guiding the child’s hands, to pointing at the toothpaste, then just a verbal request.

Shaping: is the gradual modification of an existing behaviour of a child into the desired behaviour. For example, a young child who only engages with their pet by hitting it. Although time-consuming, the parents intervene every time the child interacts with the dog, grab their hand and turn the hit into a stroking motion. This is paired with positive reinforcement “It’s great when you are gentle with …!” and doing a favourite activity immediately afterwards as a reward.

Differential reinforcement

Reinforcement provides a response to a child’s behaviour that will most likely increase that behaviour. It is “differential” because the level of reinforcement varies depending on the child’s response. Difficult tasks may be reinforced heavily whereas easy tasks may be reinforced less heavily. The teacher must systematically change the reinforcement so that the child will eventually respond appropriately under natural schedules of reinforcement (occasional) with natural types of reinforcers (social). Reinforcement can be positive (verbal praise or a favourite activity) or negative (an emphatic ‘no’).

Positive reinforcement is an incentive given to a child who complies with some request for behaviour change. The aim is to increase the chances the child will respond with the changed behaviour. Positive reinforcement is given immediately after the desired behaviour has occurred so that it will shape the child’s future behaviour.

Generalisation: once a skill is learned in a controlled environment (usually table-time), the skill is taught in more general settings. Perhaps the skill will be taught in the natural environment. If the student has successfully mastered learning colouring at the table, the teacher may take the student around the house or his school and then re-teach the skill in these more natural environments.

Be aware all year round

After reading this, you may realise that we all initiatively use ABA when teaching new skills to young children. ABA just patiently and systematically breaks that intuition into its component parts in order for the child to learn the skill more easily

April is the international awareness month for autism, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be aware all year round?

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