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What Actually is ABA?

27 Apr 2022 9:00 AM | Claire Connolly (Administrator)

What Actually IS ABA? 

Author: Erin Leif, BCBA-D

I often have people ask me, ‘What actually IS ABA?’ And sometimes, I find this a hard question to answer! While most likely best-known among the public as a therapy for children with autism and developmental disabilities, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) has diverse far-reaching applications. It’s important to note that ABA isn’t a single type of intervention for a specific population (for example, autism). Rather, it’s a branch of science concerned with the application of basic principles of behaviour and learning to solve socially important problems and teach new skills.

Behaviour analysis is a natural science approach to understanding behaviour, learning, language and cognition. As a science, it’s conceptually similar to the disciplines of psychology, biology, chemistry and medical science. It’s comprised of four branches that together form the foundation for research and clinical practice. The first is radical behaviourism, or the philosophy of the science. This attempts to understand all human behaviour, including thoughts, feelings, emotions, cognition and complex language, in terms of person-centred historical variables (i.e., learning) and biological endowment. The second branch is the experimental analysis of behaviour, a natural science approach to the study of basic behavioural processes. The third branch is applied behaviour analysis, in which basic behavioural processes derived from the experimental analysis are applied to improve socially significant behaviour in real-world settings. The scientific method is used to show that behaviour change and learning is due to the careful and specific implementation of the intervention or teaching strategy, rather than an uncontrolled variable. The fourth branch, the professional practice of applied behaviour analysis, involves the delivery of applied behaviour analytic interventions in a range of real-world settings, such as classrooms, clinics, and homes.

I wanted to share some thoughts on what the professional practice of Applied Behaviour Analysis is (since that is what most of us do!), and how we might define it when talking to people who are unfamiliar with our field. I like to talk about ABA as a framework for delivering a variety of teaching and behaviour support strategies. The different strategies that are used within an ABA-based program have all been evaluated in published research and have an evidence-base. However, simply delivering an evidence-based intervention is not enough. Applied behaviour analysis practitioners must be well-versed in the process of evidence-based practice and must be able to draw on peer reviewed published research, their own clinical judgement and expertise, and the values, preferences, strengths, goals, and needs of the person they are supporting when designing a therapy program or intervention. When used in clinical and educational contexts, the ABA framework consists of several important components:

Assessment – First, we seek to understand why, when, and how behaviours do (or do not!) occur by exploring the interactions between behaviour and the environment 

Planning – Second, we work with the person to identify their unique strengths, preferences, goals, and needs, and use this information to develop an individualised plan to help the person achieve their goals 

Teaching – Once the plan is agreed upon, we teach new skills that will help the person move closer to achieving their goals and living the life they want, using a variety of evidence-based teaching and behaviour support strategies

Monitoring – At all stages of assessment, planning, and teaching, data are collected to help us evaluate what is working well for the person, and what needs to be changed or improved 

Supporting – Through coaching and feedback, we help others (e.g., family members, educators, therapists) learn to implement teaching and behaviour support strategies and evaluate outcomes


Applied Behaviour Analysis has broad and varied applications. For example, positive behaviour support (PBS) is an approach for supporting individuals with disability who display behaviour of concern that integrates the values of the disability community with the clinical framework of ABA. School-wide positive behaviour support (SW PBS) is a prevention-focused, tiered approach to supporting the social, emotional, and behavioural development of all students in school settings. Early behavioural intervention involves the delivery of comprehensive, evidence-informed early learning and skill building programs to young children with developmental delays and their families. Organisational behaviour management (OBM) uses the ABA framework to assess the effectiveness of various systems to improve employee job performance and create more effective work environments. What these applications have in common is that they use the framework described above to guide the development, delivery, and evaluation of strategies for helping people! 

In our recent survey of ABA practitioners in Australia, we identified the different types of teaching and behaviour support strategies used as part of ABA-based programs. In the graphics below, you can see that practitioners reported using a wide range of strategies, each of which is individualised to meet the needs of the person. 

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In our upcoming blogs and practice briefs, we will share more information about what each of these strategies involves, and when they might be used as part of an ABA-based program. 

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