Understanding ABA

If you’ve explored treatment options for your child with autism, you’ve likely encountered the acronym ABA. What does ABA mean, and how can it help your child?

ABA stands for applied behavior analysis and is considered the most effective treatment for autism by the medical, psychological, and behavioral health communities. Supported by decades of empirical research, coverage for ABA treatment is mandated in the United States, with treatment taking place in your child’s home, community, school—or in centers designed especially for ABA therapy and related services.

Despite what many people think, ABA isn’t one specific type of treatment. It’s an approach that uses a variety of interventions to do two things:

  • increase helpful behaviors
  • decrease behaviors that interfere with growth and learning

Essentially, the approach is based on the scientific finding that behaviors that are reinforced will increase, while those not reinforced will decrease and eventually disappear. Treatment, then, becomes about identifying and reinforcing helpful behaviors—and not reinforcing those that cause harm.

How ABA Originated—and Evolved

Applied behavior analysis stems from a school of psychology known as behaviorism that originated in the early 20th century. Although ABA can be used for multiple purposes—to train and change behavior in athletes and affect consumer shopping patterns, for instance—in the mid-1960s, researchers started using ABA to teach language and other skills to children with autism. At this time, however, ABA involved long, intense hours of children sitting through multiple, repetitive drills to learn skills—an exhausting regimen that challenged even the most dedicated kids and families. 

ABA has evolved significantly since that time period, with research advancing therapeutic interventions and protocols—and transforming the overly rigid, structured approach from the early years into something far more child-centered and age-appropriate.