Approaches to Autism – What is ABA?

What is ABA?


What is ABA exactly? Possibly the single most controversial intervention for autism that exists.

ABA stands for Applied Behaviour (Behavior) Analysis, and is a procedure based upon the principles of Learning Theory. Essentially it tries to understand behaviour in both humans and animals, and determine how learning takes place taking into account rewards and punishments. ABA is incredibly far-reaching and is used widely in many areas of education, employment or life in general. Essentially ABA aims to identify the function of a behaviour and then change that behaviour, typically by offering replacement behaviours or through the use of rewards or adversives.

So what does that have to do with autism in particular? Well that can be traced back to Ole Ivar Lovaas . He used the principles of ABA – both rewards and consequences – to develop a teaching strategy for autistic children. His work at the time, and the results he claimed at the time, were outstanding and garnered a lot of attention. The work he did was considered controversial at the time, and down-right cruel now, with consequences including striking children or delivering electric shocks. I would probably change my behaviour pretty quickly if the punishment for not changing was an electric shock so it is perhaps not surprising that Lovaas’ ABA was so effective.

Most ABA today, although not all, has done away with adversives but the controversy still remains. Autistic adults have come forward to give their thoughts and feelings on ABA that they underwent as children and reports are mixed – there are some who felt it was valuable and they are glad they went through it, others have been greatly and negatively affected by their experiences in ABA, with some developing conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder after undergoing ABA. Some argue that ABA is essentially a way of telling autistic people that the way they are is wrong and needs to be changed, others argue that their method of ABA embraces autistic traits and uses ABA principles simply to teach life skills or other relevant skills, and parents say it has helped their children out to great degrees. Yet others still argue that many things that call themselves ABA today are just calling themselves that in order to get covered under insurance.

That makes it all very difficult to come to any conclusions about ABA. Of course, one thing that people (mostly) agree on today is that adversives should rarely, if ever, be involved in teaching autistic people.

This was a very short introduction, because it would be entirely possible to write for a long time about ABA. The next posts on ABA will look at it’s use as an intervention with autistic people in greater detail.

Until next time.

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