What is Applied Behaviour Analysis?

Updated: May 26



ABA stands for Applied Behaviour Analysis. Putting all the scientific jargon aside, ABA utilises the core principles of behaviour analysis and applies them to real life issues, in order to make a meaningful change that is of social significance, not only for the person in question, but also for those closest to the individual such as friends and family members.

Emphasis is placed on socially significant behaviours and skill sets, so that behaviour analysts teach what is actually needed for an individual, and not what others want or deem necessary. Behaviour analysts teach what is relevant for that person and their family, equipping them with the tools that they require in order to navigate the world and allow them to access new learning opportunities and environments that were otherwise inaccessible.


Behaviour analysts teach skills such as language, communication, social skills, daily living skills, academic skills, toileting, feeding and much more. We also reduce behaviours that are of social significance e.g. behaviours that might be stopping an individual from accessing environments and preventing them from engaging with parents, peers and most importantly, behaviours that impede on the individuals learning. In addition to this, behaviours such as self-injurious or aggressive behaviours, which may harm the individual and others around them would be of social importance for meaningful change. Again, we do not target behaviours that are not deemed socially significant. For example, hand flapping might be something that a parent feels uncomfortable about and would like this behaviour to be targeted, but this behaviour may be functioning as a coping mechanism for their child, and may not necessarily interfere with their child's learning. Most importantly, if this behaviour is not interfering with the child's day to day functioning, nor preventing the child from accessing learning environments, social inclusion and so on. the behaviour is not deemed a socially significant behaviour for behaviour reduction, and therefore will not be targeted.

The Behaviour Analyst Certification Board (BACB) offer an insightful explanation about applied behaviour analysis here



Applied Behaviour Analysis is a data driven science. As practitioners, we would not know what we now know about behaviour, if it wasn’t for the decades of research that used data to prove their results and to demonstrate that their interventions and techniques were effective. When we look at a behaviour, we must first define that behaviour, so we know what it looks like, and then once we know what it looks like, we can look out for it, and thus measure it in the environment. We can measure how many times it happened, how long it happened for, how many times the skill was displayed when prompted and how many times it was shown independent of any help. The reason we measure behaviour is so that we can be sure that change is happening. I don’t want to be the therapist saying ‘Yeah, I think he has the hang of it now, lets move on’, I want to be the therapist saying ‘Yes he has learned this skill, and here is the data to show it!! ABA is not a subjective science. We take data to show clear, objectivity. Data tells us if learning is happening, and when learning has occurred to a level that meets the programmes criteria, and it tells us when it is time to move onto the next target. Most importantly, data shows us when skills are being generalised to the natural setting i.e. outside of a direct teaching context, and when it is being applied to situations where it is most required e.g. at school, in a shop, on a play-date. Data also tells us when learning is not happening, and tells us when we need to make a change to the programme, and change what we are doing or how we are doing it, in order to continue to promote learning for the individual.

Data also show patterns. Take for example a child who hits himself. Data can tell us the function, or reason why this behaviour is happening. By data collecting on these instances of self-hitting, over time we can begin to develop a clear picture and establish a pattern to behaviour. Remember, behaviours don't just happen out of the blue, most, if not all behaviours serve a function or purpose. It can tell us if the child is hitting to get your attention, or to escape bath time, or to get a toy, or to tell you ‘stop go away’, or as a self-stimulatory behaviour. Data can tell us are there any other patterns, such as a specific time of day that this behaviour happens, if this behaviour only occurs with mum and not dad, etc. Gathering data over time can show these patterns, which provides us with crucial knowledge and informs us, for when it comes time to design our programs, to help support the individual in question.


Today, behaviour analysis is applied to areas such as mental health, addiction, acquired brain injury and rehabilitation, education and classroom management, dementia and Alzheimer's disease, developmental and intellectual disabilities and organisational behaviour management, but ABA is more widely known for its efficacy in Autism Spectrum Disorder.


ABA is a widely recognised, scientifically validated and effective therapy option for Autism Spectrum Disorder.


-The National Research Council in America concluded in their book 'Children with Autism' (2001) that ABA was the best research supported treatment available and the most effective treatment for children presenting with autism.


-The American Academy of Paediatrics stated that children who receive early intensive behavioural treatment have been shown to make substantial gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behaviours as well as some measures of social behaviour.


-The U.S Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health have both endorsed ABA therapy.


-A United States District Court Judge ruled that withholding ABA from children with autism causes irreparable harm.


-The American Psychological Association stated that since medication on their own are rarely effective, behavioural interventions are crucial to help children with autism.


A link to reference the above mentioned are provided here, along with a summary of other sources, which attest to the efficacy of ABA.

Email: sarah.murrayaba@gmail.com

Tel: +353 85 776 8924

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