Put simply, applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a framework for helping people. ABA services often are provided for children who have disabilities, particularly autism spectrum disorder. ABA can be a useful way to understand why behaviors occur or do not occur, and how to encourage learning, independence, communication, social skills, or a variety of other outcomes. ABA therapy services are provided with the aim of promoting inclusion and success in home, school, community, and social settings.


How it Works

Though ABA is often used to help people with disabilities, its possible applications are actually very broad. The main idea of ABA is that human behavior is predictable, and we can make predictions about which behaviors will or will not occur by looking at a person’s past experiences and environment. An “environment” includes physical locations like a home or school, but also includes things like sights, sounds, tangible objects, or other people. We can change existing behaviors or develop new behaviors by making some changes to a person’s environment. 

A clinician called a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) creates and supervises each ABA treatment plan. BCBAs are credentialed by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) following successful completion of a graduate degree, specialized training in ABA and ethics, a supervised internship, and a certification exam. In Virginia, BCBAs must also be licensed by the Virginia Board of Medicine in order to work with clients.



What to Expect

ABA services begin with assessments and interviews to help identify client and family goals. Once the BCBA and family have decided on appropriate goals together, the BCBA will develop programs to help the child achieve these goals both during therapy sessions and in the child’s normal, everyday environment. During ABA sessions, the child will work with either the BCBA or a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT), who is supervised by the BCBA. Family members will also learn new techniques to help the child make progress.



The Approach

ABA is an optimistic approach! It does not assume a person’s limitations based on diagnosis, intelligence, etc. Instead, ABA works to identify strengths, build new skills, and bring out the best in people.

ABA is also an evidence-based approach. This means that there is an entire field of science (behavior analysis) and several related areas (psychology, education, medicine) that produce research on why and how ABA works, as well as best practices for therapy and intervention programs. When choosing a treatment program, it is so important to know if the program is supported by objective research. ABA is tried and true. Its science dates back to the early 20th century and its practice has stood up to scientific, medical, government, teacher, and parent scrutiny.

If you are interested in learning more about research in ABA, or if you have questions about the philosophy or principles of ABA, please do not hesitate to contact Ally Patterson, Ph.D., BCBA-D.