Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a popular intervention approach for individuals with disabilities, especially young children with autism. Unfortunately, however, there are widespread misconceptions regarding what ABA really entails. Many people associate ABA with a narrow set of practices rather than understanding the wealth of applications it offers and the ways in which ABA can be used to improve children’s behavior and lives. The purpose of this article is to define ABA in practical terms, helping families to seek the best and most appropriate applications for their children.




What is ABA? Applied behavior analysis was defined as a field in the late 1960s after years of preliminary research (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968).

The overriding goal was to extend scientific principles of human behavior beyond highly-controlled or laboratory environments to resolve real life problems. The key features of ABA were, of course, that it was applied, behavioral, and analytic.

Applied means that interventions are geared toward achieving socially-important goals, helping people be more successful in natural settings such as homes, schools, and communities. Behavioral means that ABA focuses on what people say or do, rather than interpretations or assumptions about behavior. And analytic means that assessments are used to identify relationships between behavior and aspects of the environment (e.g., screaming occurs most when Johnny is given a difficult task and allows him to delay or avoid that activity) before proceeding to intervention.

In addition to these basic characteristics, behavior analytic interventions are expected to be defined clearly so they can be used consistently and to only include behavioral strategies that are sound in both theory and in practice. ABA involves ongoing data collection to evaluate whether behavior is changing in the desired direction and the goals are being achieved. The expectation is that outcomes ‘generalize’ across people, situations, and settings and continue over time.

How is ABA used? Over the years, a variety of practices have evolved out of ABA. These practices are based on something called the “three-term contingency” – antecedents-behavior-consequences. In essence this means that behavior occurs in response to events or conditions in the environment (i.e., antecedents) and continues due to its results (i.e., consequences). For example, a child may whine when asked to do a lengthy or difficult chore and that whining may result in delaying its completion as the parent cajoles the child to finish.