What is ABA Therapy

What is Applied Behavioural Analysis

Put simply, ABA therapy is great teaching.

Applied Behavioural Analysis or ABA is an umbrella term for many different techniques with added emphasis on collection and analysis of data. Children have different types of learning styles, but years of research has shown that learning is easier, more effective, and longer-lasting if behavioral strategies are used to assist the learning process in a systematic way.

What Does That Mean?

Step 1

In applied behavior analysis (ABA) we break down skills into manageable steps. Your child builds on small improvements over time to achieve real world results.

Step 2

We use well-established behavioral principles of reinforcement and shaping to teach skills and improve challenging behaviors.

Step 3
We measure your child’s progress at every step, assessing the plan and updating as necessary. We love data and use it to inform all our decision-making around your child’s program.
Step 4

Over time, small successes grow. Your child masters new skills and reduces challenging behaviors to meet his or her full potential.

All of these techniques focus on antecedents (what happens before a behavior occurs) and on consequences (what happens after the behavior). When a behavior is followed by something that is valued (a reward), that behavior is more likely to be repeated.

Let’s work through an example.

Imagine a scenario where a child cries to get a cookie. When they cry, the child is given a cookie. In this example, the crying is the antecedent that precedes the behavior of you giving a cookie. Getting the cookie is the positive consequence of that behavior.

All of these techniques focus on antecedents (what happens before a behavior occurs) and on consequences (what happens after the behavior). When a behavior is followed by something that is valued (a reward), that behavior is more likely to be repeated.

By shaping the antecedents and consequences, we can change behavior. If the crying is associated with a positive consequence like receiving a cookie, the child is more likely to cry the next time they want a cookie.

If crying becomes associated with a negative consequence like not receiving a cookie, over time the child will stop crying in an attempt to gain access to a cookie and begin to find new ways, like communication, to receive the cookie.

Who Do We Teach

ABA therapy has almost become synonymous with the treatment of autistic patients. That said, ABA-based treatment approaches are effective in reducing problem behavior and establishing appropriate skills with children and adults with other types of intellectual and developmental disabilities, like the following:

Our focus is helping change behavior, not on a “diagnosis”. We don’t stop at buzz words or get caught up on the “labels” often used in diagnoses, our focus is on what each individual needs in order to bridge any gaps in development.

What We Teach

Just about anything! You name it and we will develop a plan to help you and your family achieve your goals.Typical areas of development that are addressed include:


  • Engaging in social routines & games.
  • Giving & taking items with eye contact.
  • Using gestures or words to gain adult’s attention.
  • Identifying other’s emotions based on specific situations.
  • Inviting peers to play, taking turns & cooperating with peers to achieve a certain outcome.


  • Responding to his/her own name.
  • Asking for preferred items or activities across settings & people.
  • Identifying family members & items important to him/her.
  • Following instructions.
  • Asking questions to gain information and asking for attention of others.


  • Attending to & exploring toys.
  • Matching shapes, colors, identical & non-identical pictures.
  • Perform sorting, block designs, puzzles.
  • Learning patterns, sequences & seriation.
  • Trial and error approach to problem-solving.

Behavior & Adaptive Skills

  • Washing hands.
  • Sitting at the table, eating a wide variety of foods & feeding oneself.
  • Independent dressing & toileting.
  • Hair brushing & hair cutting.
  • Reducing behaviours of concern including  self-injurious behaviors, aggression, tantrums, etc.

How We Teach

Depending on your child’s needs, we incorporate many different Evidence-Based Practices as part of your child’s treatment plan:

Natural Environment Teaching

In Natural Environment Teaching (NET) clients acquire new skills through fun and reinforcing play activities. Goals are taught directly by inserting “trials” into natural and fun play.

Discrete Trial Instruction (DTI):

DTT is particularly effective for early intervention as it simplifies and isolates concepts that the child has not yet learned. Complex skills are taught to children by first teaching the sub components of a skill. ABA techniques such as shaping are also utilized to teach sub components of more complex skills. Once a child masters the subcomponents of a complex skill, they are then linked together so that the child learns the functional use of the complex skill. DTT teaches basic concepts as well as play, communication and daily living skills. 

Verbal Behaviour Training

Verbal Behavior Training focuses on motivating the learner to use language by connecting words with their purposes and creating opportunities to use words. The goal is to teach the learner that using words appropriately helps them obtain needed and desired objects, people and activities, make meaningful comments and reciprocally communicate rather than simply labeling objects. 

Fluency-Based Instruction

Fluency building is a teaching model, that encourages educators to teach specific elements of behavior over and over again until the behavior becomes fluent. Children without autism can learn these behaviors automatically, whereas children on the autism spectrum often need to learn these skills in a repetitious way. Some activities that may necessitate fluency building include bathing, eating with utensils, brushing teeth, picking up toys when finished and peer interactions.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

A powerful therapy for those with little-to-no vocal communication skills, PECS is an approach that allows clients to communicate a wide variety of requests, thoughts, and feelings through the use of images.

Video Modelling:

Some children are very good at imitating and learn better from seeing a skill in action than by explaining it.  Video modelling is a teaching strategy in which the learner watches a video of other people engaging in a desired behaviour and then copies this behaviour.  For example, a child can watch a video of other children playing “Duck, duck, goose” and then be able to play the game. 

ABA Videos

Videos demonstrating some of these methods can be found here

What Does a Typical ABA Therapy Session Look Like?

ABA therapy is commonly a balanced blend of structured, table-based instruction with learning materials along with more natural, play-based learning opportunities. 

Each individual child’s therapy session will be uniquely designed to meet his or her optimal learning style.

Step 1

The therapist will spend approximately 15 minutes to set up their data and materials needed the session.

Step 2

Your therapist/clinician will greet you and your child and check in. After the greeting, your therapist will collect the child and take him/her to our purpose built therapy areas.

Step 3

When session is ready to begin, your therapist/clinician will start with something fun (a game, a song, an interesting activity, etc.).

Step 4

Once the child is relaxed and comfortable, your therapist will start "running trials." What this means is that your therapist will be presenting instruction to help your child/you reach your goals. This may  include  repeating the same commands, or mixing up commands in a variable and unpredictable manner.

Step 5

Sessions last at least 2 hours, depending on what is prescribed for you by your Supervisor. Don't worry, your child will be given regular breaks to relax and decompress in between learning trials. Breaks are a necessary component of productivity.

Step 6

During the last half hour of your child's session, your therapist/clinician will start to wrap up by ending on a positive note. This may include playing a game, or earning something that your child has been working towards throughout the session.

Step 7

Your therapist/clinician will need about 15 minutes at the end of your session to wrap up their notes including reviewing and totaling data and writing session notes.

Understanding ABA Data

Meetings with your service providers will often present you with a lot of data that may not be easy to understand. Your child’s school and therapy services will more than likely collect and assess progress information.

Data is a crucial part of our programming. When we review it, we want all of our parents to feel comfortable with what it is and what it means. Obtaining data is one of the most important aspects of ABA.

Data can show us if your child:

  • Is improving or regressing with a skill.
  • Needs a new intervention.
  • Is ready to move on to more advanced skills.
  • Needs to focus on different skills to become more successful.

BCBAs use data to make decisions for the direction of programs in order to make your child most successful. Without it, we cannot progress onto more difficult tasks and skills to develop.

When we look at the data, your BCBA will be able to explain what the graph means in regards to the progress of your child. Sometimes we want the graph to slope upwards, and sometimes we want it to slope down. This depends on whether the goal is for the behavior to increase or decrease. Either way, a flat line means something needs to change.

When we look at the data, your BCBA will be able to explain what the graph means in regards to the progress of your child. Sometimes we want the graph to slope upwards, and sometimes we want it to slope down. This depends on whether the goal is for the behavior to increase or decrease. Either way, a flat line means something needs to change.

How do we collect data?

ABA utilizes a variety of methods to obtain useful and relevant data, but here are a few to start.

1. Baseline Data:

This data collection method is the first to be implemented. Before any treatment or therapy can actually take place, we must have a better understanding of where the child’s skill levels are.

Baseline recording takes place without any intervention from the therapist. We simply observe and record the behavior in order to have a starting point for comparison. This allows us to see the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of implemented strategies.

2. Frequency Recording:

This method records the number of times a child exhibits a behavior or response. The therapist will tally up every occurrence throughout the session.

3. Rate Recording:

This type of data is the same as frequency recording, except the number of occurrences is measured over time.

For example, if a child spills their milk 4 times over a 2 hour session, the data recorded will show that the child is spilling 2 times per hour. This method is used for consistency over sessions that are different lengths of time.

4. Task Analysis:

If a behavior you are trying to influence is complicated or has multiple steps how do you measure it? With a task analysis!
This method breaks down the behavior into individual steps in order to better understand where progress is being made, and where struggles are taking place.

Here we can see a task analysis for the target behavior “Washing Hands.” It is broken down into 5 steps, and your RBT will record whether the step was completed independently, or if a certain prompt was needed.

This is what a graph for a task analysis might look like. As we can see, the % correct is steadily dropping over time. A BCBA that recognizes this trend will know new implementations are needed in order to help the child better learn the skill.

5. Duration Recording:

This method measures how long a behavior occurs. For some behaviors, it is more beneficial to measure its length rather than its frequency.

For example, if we want to document a child doing homework, frequency may not be the best method. Measuring the duration of homework time can help us show how it has increased or decreased over time. This will let us know whether our intervention strategies are effective.

In Conclusion:

Data can be confusing, but is extremely informative! Keep yourself in the know about your child’s progress and their behaviors. Ask your provider questions about what certain data points mean and what their goals are!

What Progress Can Be Expected?

The progress experienced as a result of ABA therapy is dependent on two main factors.

First, ABA programs should be individualized. Areas that need improvement need to be identified for each child so that an effective treatment plan can be developed in order to ensure progress.

The second determining factor is the amount of time dedicated to therapy. While ABA intervention can lead to incredible results, these results rarely come quickly. Most children benefit from an intensive, ongoing approach to teaching in order achieve the desired results. Additionally, things like age, level of functioning, needs, and what particular skills they need help with determine how fast a child will learn.

Though Autism can create barriers for your child, it doesn’t have to get in the way of a happy and fulfilling life. With an intensive and thoughtful treatment plan, children who receive ABA therapy can see incredible progress in their ability to socialize, learn and display positive behaviors in their day-to-day.

How Long Does ABA Therapy as a Treatment Usually Last?

Each child’s ABA therapy experience is unique; however, there are general guidelines to reference with regard to the therapy experience.  

For early intervention, which tends to be a higher dosage (over 25 hours per week), therapy can reasonably be expected to continue for up to 3 years.  This is commonly known as “Comprehensive” level ABA therapy.

“Focused” ABA therapy, which may be more appropriate for school-aged children or to support specific behavior needs, therapy may be expected to last anywhere from 1-2 years.  Another characteristic of this level of ABA therapy is that the hours per week are typically less than in the Comprehensive level ABA therapy.  

Your child’s Supervisor will work closely with you to develop and monitor your child’s therapy process and progress.  ABA therapy relies heavily on data analysis to guide treatment decisions, so you will continually be involved in the decision-making process to determine when the time is right for your child to transition out of ABA therapy, adjust the intensity of the weekly therapy schedule, or modify the therapy goals based on the development and needs of your child.  

What about the controversy surrounding ABA?

Many of these objections stem from the early history of this technique, in the 1960s when clinical psychologist Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas used positive reinforcement to reward good behavior, but also used averse reinforcement methods to severely impaired patients. 

Like all fields of psychology, ABA has evolved tremendously since it was founded in the early 1900s. Thankfully, harmful and painful negative reinforcement is no longer being practiced in ABA therapy today. 

The ABA of today is person-centered, individualized, and reaches far beyond serving only those with Autism Spectrum Disorders.  Most ABA programs are play-based.  Unwanted behavior is generally ignored by therapists today rather than punished.

Another criticism of Applied Behavior Analysis is its tendency to be repetitive, which might be considered tiresome to the child being treated. This might be true with earlier instances of ABA, but these days, therapists are trained to be energetic, creative,super-animated and fun.  If anything, they’re over the top. Sometimes you do see someone who is just humorless. But that’s just bad teaching, not ABA.

Lastly, some ABA therapists focused too much on eliminating undesirable behavior rather than redirecting children into the tasks that they should be doing. It goes back to Dr. Lovaas’ ideals that children with autism act the same way as their neurotypical peers rather than accepting neurodiversity. Today, the majority of ABA practitioners have acknowledged the early faults of the method and made adjustments to make it more flexible and respectful of each child’s learning and developmental capacity.

If you are concerned that Applied Behavior Analysis therapy might not suit your child, be ready to ask questions and bring up these concerns directly to an ABA specialist to help you come up with your assessment.