What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 19, 2023
3 min read

If you have a child who has been diagnosed with a spectrum disorder like autism, your pediatrician may have suggested a therapy called applied behavior analysis. Sometimes called ABA therapy, it’s designed to help children on the spectrum develop social and emotional skills. ‌

Applied behavior analysis is a type of interpersonal therapy in which a child works with a practitioner one-on-one. The goal of applied behavior analysis is to improve social skills by using interventions that are based on principles of learning theory.

ABA therapy helps children on the autism spectrum by:

  • Increasing their social abilities like completing tasks, communicating, and learning new skills
  • Implementing maintenance behaviors like self-control and self-regulation
  • Teaching them to transfer learned behaviors to new environments
  • Modifying the learning environment to challenge them in certain scenarios
  • Reducing negative behaviors like self-harm

Applied behavior analysis helps children on the autism spectrum to adapt to social scenarios they may not understand. 

Positive reinforcement. When a child in ABA therapy completes a task correctly or reaches a goal behavior, there is a reward. Studies show that when a person receives something of personal value following a behavior, they are more likely to repeat the behavior. Over time, applied behavior analysis helps to instill those desired behaviors in your child.‌

Behavior and consequence. Just as good behaviors are rewarded, negative behaviors are discouraged. Applied behavior analysis helps your child make the connection between what happens before and after a behavior.

For example, if the teacher asks your student to clean up toys, your child responds in one of two ways. If they begin cleaning up the toys, the behavior is rewarded (positive consequence). If they yell, throw a tantrum, or refuse, the behavior is met with a negative consequence.‌

Negative behaviors are often met by the teacher not responding to your child’s negative behavior. Until your child stops or indicates a willingness to cooperate with the command, there is no reward.

Over time, your child makes connections between what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. The goal of applied behavior analysis is for the desired behaviors to follow your child into the real world. With a better understanding of social dos and don’ts, your child is better prepared for social situations at school, at events, and with family.

When your child first begins ABA therapy, the practitioner sets benchmarks for behavior. They will talk to you about what you want out of therapy for your child and establish a treatment plan. Over time, as your child progresses or regresses, new goals are set.

Personalized plan. Applied behavior analysis looks different for each person. Individual goals are set based on what your child struggles with the most. During individual therapy sessions, the practitioner can adapt to your child’s needs that day.

Broad application. Applied behavior analysis is designed to help with many concerns, including:

  • Depression
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Fears and phobias
  • Issues with anger management
  • Severe anxiety

ABA therapy can also be helpful for adults with autism and other behavioral disorders.

Proven results. Studies show that children who participate in applied behavior analysis therapy have good outcomes. In one study that reviewed intensive, long-term therapy, the participants showed gains in:

  • Language development
  • Intellectual abilities
  • Skills for day-to-day living
  • Social abilities

The participants in this study went to therapy for 25 to 40 hours per week for between one and three years.‌

Compared to animal training.  Applied behavior analysis is also used to reinforce positive behaviors and dissuade negative ones in animals. Because of this, some people compare ABA therapy to animal training in a negative light. Not everyone believes that children should have a reward and consequence system for social behaviors.

Forced change. Applied behavior analysis is designed to change your child’s behaviors. Your child may struggle in feeling not understood during the therapy sessions. Some people believe that instead of children changing to fit in better socially, changes should instead be made to adapt to people on the spectrum.