Applied Behavior Analysis and the Autism Spectrum

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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Autism Spectrum Disorder

For a developmentally-typical person, learning social behaviors happens pretty much naturally. Sure, you might have been caught eating with your mouth open, committed a faux pas you wished you could take back, or found yourself struggling to read another person’s cues. But, chances are that you were able to learn from the reactions of others around you, and adapt your behavior to achieve the effects you desired.


Learning New Behaviors Is Not Easy for Everyone

For somebody with a developmental disorder such as being on the autism spectrum or having Fragile X Syndrome, social behaviors aren’t so intuitive. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help people with these conditions develop the kinds of skills and behaviors necessary for getting by in life – like responding when someone asks a question, resisting disruptive impulses, or adding up purchases while grocery shopping.

Who Can Change Through Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Anyone can change their behavior through Applied Behavior Analysis. While this approach has been shown to help children and adults with developmental disorders, it can also apply to those who want to learn a new skill, become a more effective parent, break a bad habit, etc.

Applied Behaviour Analysis Infographic

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Influencing Behaviors (and Changing Lives)

Simply put, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is an approach to understanding behavior, including how certain behaviors are learned and how they are affected by a person’s environment. ABA can be applied (hence the name) in order to teach new behaviors to people who need a little extra help.

According to the VCU Autism Center, Applied Behavior Analysis can help people in at least five ways:

  1. Increasing desirable behaviors. For example, encouraging a person to develop a good habit, like greeting peers or remembering to say please and thank you.
  2. Reducing undesirable behaviors. Individuals could be helped not to engage in behaviors that are disruptive, like screaming or belching in public.
  3. Teaching new behaviors. For instance, using utensils at mealtimes or performing addition and subtraction.
  4. Maintaining behaviors. This means practicing a behavior that has been learned, such as reading words that were taught previously.
  5. Transferring behaviors from one situation to another. Also known as “generalizing,” transferring a behavior from the situation in which it is learned to another, different situation can present a challenge to those on the autism spectrum.

Skinner’s Box: Using Reinforcement (and Rats!) to Influence Behavior

So, how are behaviors changed? Well, the biggest factor in influencing behavior tends to be consequences, which teach the person whether or not to repeat a particular action. Naturally, if you touch a hot stove and burn yourself, you are far more likely to be careful next time!

But while consequences may arise from the environment in which a behavior takes place, and therefore can’t always be controlled, there is one type of consequence that can be harnessed and used for positive change, and this is: Reinforcement.

The Fundamentals of Reinforcing Behavior

Reinforcement is anything that occurs after a behavior and affects the frequency of that behavior. The behaviorist B.F. Skinner introduced this idea in 1938. He also came up with the term “operant conditioning,” which refers to changing behavior by the use of reinforcement.

You may have heard of the Skinner Box, a contraption B.F. Skinner used in a series of famous experiments. Skinner placed rats in a box that was hooked up to both a food dispenser and an electrical shock generator. If rats accidentally knocked a lever, food was dispensed, meaning the hungry rodents quickly learned to push the lever on their own.

However, the Skinner Box could also produce unpleasant electrical currents. In another experiment, rats subjected to the shock discovered that when they accidentally bumped a lever, they could stop the current. Similar to the food-based experiment, the rats learned to run straight to the lever and turn off the electrical shock generator to avoid getting zapped.

Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement: Which Is Which?

B.F. Skinner’s experiments not only demonstrated how reinforcement works, but they highlighted the two different kinds of reinforcement recognized in Applied Behavior Analysis: positive and negative.

Yes, Please

Positive reinforcement is when a person’s target behavior is increased because of the addition of something they enjoy, like praise, money, or treats. This was demonstrated by the rats in Skinner’s experiment who learned to push the lever to receive tasty food.

And humans aren’t so different. A child who gets a piece of candy after brushing his teeth will probably start loading up the toothbrush more willingly, going forward – which is not to say he’ll have fewer cavities.

No, Thank You

Negative reinforcement is when something the person doesn’t like is removed in response to a desired behavior. This was demonstrated by the rats in Skinner’s experiment who learned to push a lever to turn off an unpleasant shock.

So, contrary to popular misconception, negative reinforcement is not punishment. Rather, it’s when a behavior is rewarded by subtraction rather than addition. Say that at a sales company, employees who reach their weekly goals don’t have to work Friday afternoons. As a result, these workers are more likely to hustle in the beginning of the week so they can avoid that Friday p.m. slump.

Penalty as Retribution

So where does punishment fit into the concept of changing a person’s behavior? Well, experts say this method is not nearly as effective in the long term as positive and negative reinforcement. And, social disapproval or corporal punishment can have unintended negative consequences that end up doing more harm than good.

Acing Antecedents: How Behavioral Cues Work

Equally as important as the consequences of a behavior is the antecedent that prompted it. In other words, Applied Behavior Analysts can study the instruction or signal used to cue a positive behavior, in order to optimize it.

Say you’re taking a boot camp-inspired fitness class. The instructor may use both verbal and physical cues to put you through your paces. For example, she might shout out an instruction while getting into jumping jack position to demonstrate the class’s next move. In such a scenario, giving students a clear instruction prompts the desired behavior (jumping jacks).

Behavioral Cues and ASD

For those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, sometimes an antecedent may need to be altered in order to be more effective. For example, instead of verbally asking a child with ASD to perform a task, like putting on her shoes, a parent or instructor might show her a picture of a pair of shoes. Workarounds like these may help those with developmental disorders become more self-sufficient, or join in on activities they might otherwise have had trouble grasping.

Staging a Behavior Intervention

You may have seen A&E’s Intervention, a TV show where people with substance addictions are confronted by their families, bombarded with all the ways their behaviors affect others, and shown a path to more desirable behavior.

While (hopefully) far less melodramatic, ABA interventions may help those with developmental disorders to develop positive or useful behaviors and lead more fulfilling lives. An intervention focuses on the skills and behaviors the person may not be able to pick up naturally, from mealtime etiquette and personal hygiene skills to seeing things from someone else’s point of view.

According to Autism Speaks, experts recommend early, intensive intervention for children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. “Intensive” typically means 25 to 40 hours of programming per week for one to three years. The idea is to help kids with ASD learn and practice skills related to communication, self-care, school readiness, and other key areas, in both structured and unstructured situations.

Of course, progress – and the speed at which progress is made – will vary depending on the person’s age, level of functioning, and other factors.

Did You Know?

Behavior analysts first began working with children with autism and related disorders in the 1960s.

When Should an ABA Intervention Take Place?

Ideally, an ABA intervention will take place as early as possible, thereby helping to prepare kids for success in the classroom and beyond. In fact, Autism Speaks cites cases where preschoolers who have participated in ABA programs for at least two years are sometimes able to thrive in the classroom with little or no extra support.

However, ABA can also be used to support teens and adults with ASD or another developmental disorder. For example, say that George, who has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), has just gotten his first job. A targeted ABA intervention may help George learn to safely ride a bus into the city where his workplace is located.

George may also benefit from learning appropriate workplace behavior, and how to make small talk with his colleagues during downtime. Such an intervention could help George understand what to expect and how to behave at his new job, ensuring he’s more comfortable, confident, and productive.

Besides Those with Developmental Disorders, Who Could Benefit from ABA?

Think of how many times you’ve wanted to change your own or somebody else’s behavior. For instance, say you wish you were more assertive at work, you have a friend who clears his throat constantly while speaking, or your new puppy regularly chews up your throw pillows.

Well, the good news is that behaviors can be changed. In fact, you have probably used some of the principles of ABA without even realizing you were doing it.

The Principles of ABA

In other words, the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis are not just useful to special education teachers and therapists who work with clients who have ASD or Fragile X Syndrome. They apply to everybody. And, ABA principles may be useful in many situations, from the personal to the professional.

These are just a few of the fields/areas in which ABA is used:

  • General education
  • Weight loss
  • Animal training
  • Gerontology
  • Industrial safety
  • Advertising and marketing
  • Automobile safety
  • Sports
  • Job training

Who Applies ABA Principles?

Professionals who use ABA include teachers, psychologists, managers, and others. For those seeking intervention to help a loved one, it’s necessary to work with a licensed clinical psychologist with training in applied behavior analysis, or a board-certified behavior analyst.

Informally, anybody can. For example, you might use positive reinforcement – e.g. a treat – to teach your dog to sit and stay. And that kid who whines until his parent gives in and buys the sugary breakfast cereal? He’s using negative reinforcement like a pro.

Use ABA to Make Lives Better

Thinking of studying psychology or learning more about how Applied Behavioral Analysis can help people live more rewarding lives? You might want to browse our psychology graduate programs or applied behavioral therapy graduate programs to see where your interest in ABA might take you.


  • VCU Autism Center for Excellence
  • Autism Speaks
  • Simply Psychology
  • written by Shannon Fandler

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