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  • Writer's pictureCoField ABA

What is ABA (and what it is not)

Over the past several years, there has been a lot of attention in the media about Autism in Ontario. In February 2019, the Ontario government made major changes to the way funding for children with autism is allocated. The government’s proposed plan gives money directly to families, and allows them to choose from different types of services. Before making treatment decisions for your child and family, it is important to do your research.

Currently, the intervention with the strongest evidence for positive outcomes is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). See below for some information on what ABA is, and what it is not.


1. ABA is scientific

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is the science of human behaviour. ABA is a way of looking at the environment to understand why people behave in certain ways. ABA also helps people learn new behaviours in order to better meet their needs. Behaviour analysts take data to make sure that teaching procedures are working. For example, by collecting data, a behaviour analyst may learn that a child with autism is screaming/crying in class when they are presented with work that is repetitive or boring. A behaviour analyst may then work with a classroom team to make work tasks more interesting, and teach the child to indicate when they need a break.


2. Therapy based in ABA is evidence-based

Over the past sixty years, thousands of studies have been conducted on the use of ABA in many different situations. Through data collection, behaviour analysts have been able to demonstrate success in behaviour change with many populations, such as Autism, Acquired Brain Injuries, Alzheimers/Dementa, workplace safety and productivity, and post-secondary education. Strong research designs and good data collection help to create effective interventions that can be used in many situations.


3. ABA therapy is individualized

An ABA program or intervention should always be individualized to the person who is learning. This involves working with an individual and their family/team to identify priorities, the use of teaching strategies that account for a person’s specific strengths and needs, and the use of materials that ensure learning is enjoyable. Data collection allows behaviour analysts to see when an intervention is not working, and make changes to ensure success.


ABA is not:


1. A cure for autism

Autism is complex neurological disorder that impacts people across the lifespan. Although autism may present challenges to individuals and their families, there are many wonderful things that make people with autism unique. Behaviour analysts value each person they support, and use the strengths of people with autism to help them learn. A good behaviour analyst never aims to suppress the traits that make your child unique, unless they are causing harm (e.g., self-injury, pica, elopement). Behaviour analysts do not seek to cure autism, but rather, to help people with autism reach their fullest potential.


2. Autism specific

ABA is the science of behaviour, and has been successfully applied to many populations, such as employee productivity, sports/physical fitness, Alzheimers/Dementia, animal behaviour, acquired brain injuries, and mental health. Many people use ABA principles everyday without even realizing it! (have you ever used a chore/allowance system for your child? Do you get a paycheck for going to work? Do you slow down when you see a police car?) Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) however, is the use of ABA principles applied intensively (20 + hours per week), and is most commonly used as an intervention for children with Autism. IBI breaks down complex skills into small, manageable tasks, involves repeated practice, and provides reinforcement during teaching.

3. Punishment

Historically, many behavioural programs included a punishment component when teaching young children with disabilities and autism. Thankfully, ABA has progressed as a science, and punishment procedures are not a common part of ABA programs. Behaviour analysts use reinforcement procedures, and work with children and families to make sure learning is enjoyable.



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