First of all, I would like to start with a scientific definition (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007):
Applied behavior analysis is the science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied systematically to improve socially significant behavior and experimentation is used to identify the variables responsible for behavior change.
This definition states that an important goal of applied behavior analysis is to achieve a significant improvement in socially significant behaviors and to analyze the influencing factors. ABA is based on more than 50 years of scientific research and is still enhanced continually by further studies and new evidence. ABA is derived from the behaviorism and B.F. Skinner’s work (American psychologist and behaviorist). University programs in applied behavior analysis are offered in many countries and also in Germany, the first program has now been started by the IFKV (Institut für Fort- und Weiterbildung in kinischer Verhaltenstherapie e.V.) Bad Durkheim.
ABA is used in various professional fields, but it is especially popular as an intervention for children with autism. In many countries, ABA is the most widely used approach to support children with autism. Research has shown that children with autism often have difficulties to learn readily from the typical environment. Although they are not able to learn as other typically developed children, they are still able to learn a great deal given appropriate instructions.
This behavior analytic intervention for autism focuses on teaching small, measurable units of behaviors systematically. Thus, behaviors that are too complex and too difficult to learn can be divided into many small steps that can be taught step by step. That way the various skill areas can be addressed reaching from eye contact, to social or communicational skills.
At the beginning of the intervention teaching usually takes place in an 1:1 teaching setting, but the goal for the child is to be ready to learn from the natural environment more and more. When teaching new skills prompts are used to ensure the child is able to be successful, but these prompts will be faded as soon as possible until the child is ready to perform the task independently.
Reinforcing consequences are used to strengthen behaviors and newly learned skills. Reinforcers can consist of a wide variety of items, activities or snacks and always dependent on the particular child. Some examples for secondary reinforcers are (objects: balls, cars, books, music, video, computer, etc.; activities (trampoline, swings, tickles, rough and tumble play, massages, riding a bike, swimming, etc.). But also primary reinforcers (e.g. certain snacks, drinks) can be important. One of the first and most important tasks for the families is to find possible reinforcers for their child.
One of the main priorities of this intervention is to make learning fun for the child, so he/she has even more desire to learn new things. Learning can and should take place in a variety of situations (e.g. different settings at home, such as the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the garden or on the playground, in the supermarket or at the public pool). All skills should be generalized so that they are functional for the child. Only if the child can show them repeatedly in different situations, with different people and materials, he/she can actually benefit from the acquired skill.
A functional behavior analysis is used to identify variables, which maintain frequent inappropriate behaviors (e.g. aggressive behaviors, screaming, tantrums, elopement behaviors, etc.). The goal is to modify the consequences, which are currently maintaining the inappropriate behavior, and to teach the child a more appropriate alternative behavior. Most of the time, the first step is to assess the child’s communicational skills and to improve those. Inappropriate behaviors might already decrease as soon as the child is able to express his/her needs in an appropriate manner (e.g. through language, sign language or picture cards).