How Effective is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy for Autistic Children?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is the most common treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder, yet also the most questioned. So, how effective can it be?

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a form of autism treatment that studies human mannerisms and behavior. It uses consequences and rewards to enhance learning, social and communication skills. It incorporates the application of the principles of behavior, which are:

  • Motivation
  • Reinforcement
  • Conditioned reinforcement
  • Punishment
  • Extinction
  • Stimulus control
  • Schedules of reinforcement

Behavioral analysis includes establishing target behaviors and recording related data, in order to analyze it in case treatments require modification to improve effectiveness. The therapy aims to reduce problem behaviors and tendencies enabling learning difficulties, and to increase helpful mannerisms.

Being one of the very few autism therapies backed by scientific data, ABA therapy is perhaps the most commonly employed treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Though, it is not the only condition it is employed for. ABA can also be used for the treatment of substance misuse, eating disorders, anger issues, dementia, etc.

How ABA Therapy Helps

Essentially, Applied Behavior Analysis notes how behavior works, how it is affected by one’s surroundings, and how learning takes place. ABA therapy then applies this comprehension of behavior to real-life situations.

ABA therapy programs can help to enhance linguistic and communication skills, and to lessen behaviors that may be detrimental. It can additionally aid in the improvement of attention, social skills, academics, memory, and focus. For those with autism, ABA’s concentration on adaptive training provides a useful method to learn new skills or relearn the skills they may have lost.

Results of Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, commonly observed in children of determination, include an increased interest in the people around them, requesting for the objects they desire clearly, a decrease or complete halt in self-harming tendencies, and having fewer outbursts. They have also exhibited better focus in school and seemed to have greatly overcome communication deficits.

The Development of ABA Therapy

Perhaps the history of ABA can be traced back to the development of Behaviorism. The conception of the behaviorist theory may further go as far back as 1913, when John B. Watson published “The Behaviorist Manifesto,” highlighting a behaviorist perspective of psychology. However, a more relevant time period to be noted may be the mid-20th century, with Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s growing interest in the practical application of behavior analysis. It was also around that time when a school for animal trainers was established, being the first behaviorally based animals-as-performers business; and the First Conference on the Experimental Analysis of Behavior was held at Inidana University.

These events are typically implied as influences for Skinner’s behaviorist theory of operant conditioning.

Skinner introduced the concept of operant conditioning in 1948, claiming that behaviors are manipulated when they are followed by either positive or negative reinforcement. This method of encouraging useful behaviors and discouraging detrimental ones was adopted by therapists as a general mode of treatment, with earliest examples of use for autistic children appearing in the early 1960s. Having become a commonly applied tactic, it was also used by Ivaar Lovass, the psychologist majorly credited with developing ABA in the 1970s. However, he eventually realized that punishment, or negative reinforcement, was not as effective as rewarding desired actions. He classified the two types of reinforcement into:

  • Aversive: an unpleasant stimulus as a result of undesired behavior. The subject would receive this stimulus until it follows the desired behaviors. It could include time-outs, uttering negative statements, or even violent stimuli, like slapping.
  • Reinforcement: a pleasant stimulus as a result of desired behavior. The subject is rewarded for performing a useful behavior, so as to encourage them to adopt it. It may include giving them snacks or toys, playful interactions, or even just a leisure time break.

Having determined that aversive are of no real effect, nor were they morally or controversially sound, Lovass decided to focus on reinforcement instead. Initial research in 1987 proved this approach quite helpful in enhancing children’s functional learning and their IQ scores. This version of ABA is what prevails today, with an addition of several techniques that can be viewed as its subcategories.

Controversy Surrounding ABA Therapy

The history of the development of Applied Behavior Analysis therapy is quite controversial, and most of the biases against it can correlate to that. It is accused to be a mere method of conditioning, turning children into robots that only seem enhanced because of their learned behaviors following a socially normative pattern. Many adults who had undergone ABA therapy in their childhood have raised concerns that the technique has been part of a horrid experience.

While one cannot undermine the experiences of another, it is important to note the principles of ABA and how it can be misused. One of the allegations against it, for example, was that ABA is mostly used to increase business than as a way to help children of determination. However, one cannot ignore how the therapy is constantly developing and being modified to improve further. With awareness generated on neurodiversity, treatments are no longer aiming to “fix” people, but are directed at helping them instead.

ABA therapy can incorporate as much as 40 hours a week of one-on-one therapy. Yet it is not as common a practice anymore. It focuses now on removing problem behaviors that stand as obstacles for children in reaching their full potential, as much as possible. Research depicts many a case studies calculating as much as an 80 to 90% success rate with ABA therapy.

That is not to deny the existence of ABA therapists who abuse and misuse the approach. However, this cannot take away from the effectiveness of the treatment itself. It can be advised to do a thorough study of the ABA therapy center and therapist beforehand, and to keep a keen eye on the child during the treatment. Controversies have sprung a dime a dozen, as they do in countless sectors of life, but a tried and tested, measurably fruitful approach cannot be undermined because of the exploitation by some others.

How Effective is ABA Therapy?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is till date the only treatment for autism that is backed by scientific data, and the outcomes of which can be measured. In the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Barbaresi et al. heralded ABA as the most ideal, comprehensive method of treatment for autistic children. In consequence, inclusion centers and autism support programs in UAE incorporate Applied Behavior Analysis as part of their aim to enhance common, everyday skills in children of determination and integrate them into society. For instance, Gess Education Awards 2020 finalist Small Steps Big Dreams in Dubai, and the Austin Center for Rehabilitation in Sharjah. While it may trigger a lot of controversies, it has been the only proven treatment for autism spectrum disorder to this day with more positive traction than negative reviews.


“ABA: The Most Effective Treatment For Autism.” Steinberg Behavior Solutions.

“Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).” Autism Speaks.

“Applied Behaviour Analysis and Autism.” Research Autism.

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