ABA is an intensive, structured teaching program which simplifies complex sets of behaviors and skills into simple components. Children learn each component through trials which tests to see how they respond to a stimulus (e.g. sound or object) – correct responses are rewarded and incorrect responses ignored.
At the start, the therapists use physical rewards such as food and toys until they become paired (i.e. associated) with these rewards. Gradually, the therapists would also use social rewards such as hugs and praise in conjunction with physical rewards.
Over time, the therapists raise the difficulty for earning the rewards and eventually replace the physical rewards with the social ones. As the child learns more and more components, they can be generalized and then combined into useful skills.
ABA is the only therapy for autism endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General. ABA programs often require up to 40 hours per week of one-to-one training over a continuous period of 2 or more years.
Based on groundbreaking research published by psychologist B.F. Skinner and his colleagues, it was successfully used in 1967 to treat autism. It became popular in 1993, after extraordinary gains were documented (“Long Term Outcome for Children With Autism Who Received Early Intensive Behavioral Treatment” by McEachin, Smith, & Lovaas) as well as the publication of Catherine Maurice’s book (“Let Me Hear Your Voice”) about her two children’s recovery from autism.
“What’s in it for me to speak with other people?” – This is the question that ABA-VB aims to help children understand using the principles of ABA.
Unlike traditional ABA which tends to get the child to sit through an otherwise boring lesson to achieve a reward, the Verbal Behavior Approach to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA-VB) aims to demonstrate to the child the value of communicating in words. This makes sense when we observe that children’s initial language use usually serves their desire to obtain something from someone.
In ABA-VB, the child starts by learning to mand – requesting for desired items, information and activities. Care is also taken to teach the child to mand the desired object only when they are naturally expressing interest, such as manding for snacks when they are hungry. This is unlike traditional ABA which does not care if the child is interested or not.
As the child becomes more motivated and competent with language, other aspects of language are also introduced and reinforced while maintaining his motivation:
Receptive repertoire: following instructions non-verbally
Intraverbal: verbally responding to other people’s speech
Tact: Describing, naming or labelling objects
Echoic: Repeating other people’s speech
Imitation: Copying observed behaviour
Textural: Reading skills
Transcriptive: Writing skills
Going beyond memorizing definitions and correct patterns of behaviors (which traditional ABA considers sufficient), the end result is a child who understands words and uses speech actively in his daily life. This provides a firm foundation for him to eventually lose his diagnosis of autism and enter the mainstream educational system.
Of all forms of therapy and education that are available for children with autism, ABA is the most established with 40 years of research backing it. It is the only treatment whose benefits have been consistently validated by independent scientific research. It has been endorsed by many organizations including (but not limited to) the following:
We provide a more advanced version of ABA, which focuses on helping children with autism develop and use language skills. You may also like to read a New York Times’ article to learn more about the effectiveness of ABA therapy.