The gold-standard treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or other developmental disorders is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). Yet, this effective therapy, based on the science of learning and behaviour, has expanded its reach to include many other disorders such as:
- Eating disorders
- Anxiety disorders including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and phobias
- Anger issues
- Borderline personality disorder
- Substance use disorder
- Cognitive impairment after a brain injury
The goal of ABA is to increase positive behaviours and decrease negative behaviours that might interfere with learning. One of the main strategies used in ABA is A-B-C — antecedent, behaviour, and consequence. This is the study of how our interactions with our surroundings shape and maintain our behaviour.
Strategies of ABA
Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence
What makes ABA so effective, is that it’s data driven. Observing the data collected on an individual’s behaviour informs decisions of how effective a treatment effectiveness is . This often happens by looking at the A-B-C’s that help us teach and understand behaviour change. Let’s take a closer look: Antecedent: anything that happens right before the target behaviour. This can come from a person in the form of a verbal command or request. It can also come from the environment and be something physical, such as a object, light, or sound. It can also be an internal emotion or thought. Behaviour: the response or lack of response to the antecedent. It can be in the form of an action, a verbal response, or nothing at all. Consequence: this happens after the behaviour and can include strategies to increase or decrease the target behaviour. Antecedents can help us understand why a behaviour is happening, while consequences illustrate if anything is maintaining the behaviour
Positive reinforcement is a main strategy utilized by ABA. If you want someone to sustain a certain behaviour, you need to reward them with something positive or of value every time they display the target behaviour. This can be something tangible or naturally occurring in the environment. For example, a child gets a cookie for eating their dinner, or an adult gets a bonus for completing a project at work. A behaviour is likely to happen again when rewarded by something good.
Negative reinforcement is a way of increasing the chances that a target behaviour will happen again in the future. (It’s not the opposite of positive reinforcement.) To use negative reinforcement, you withdraw something unpleasant from the environment after someone does a desired behaviour. The idea is that this will make them more likely to do the desired behavior again when they’re in a similar situation. An example would be if you had a hard time falling asleep, until you turned the light off. Turning the light off, removes something unpleasant from the environment (light) and resulted in you falling asleep. So, in the future you’re likely to turn the light off when you want some sleep.
Is ABA Controversial?
Although ABA is highly effective, it does have its critics. Those opposed to this therapy describe ABA as being restrictive, rigid, and forceful. ABA has also been compared to animal training as well as forcing change on someone, usually a child, who may not want or understand that change.
Does ABA Have a Future?
Even the most committed practitioners of ABA agree it needs to evolve to stay current and relevant. As such, ABA can be practiced through a trauma-informed lens. This means, ABA has adapted to become less rigid and more compassionate. Today’s ABA is trauma-informed and based on the principles of listening, creating joy, empowering individuals, and using evidence-based practices.
Written by Jackie Kamrowski
Dandelion Psychological and Assessment Services