What is ABA Therapy?

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  • Written By: Donn Saylor
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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ABA therapy is a type of therapy that employs the principles of applied behavioral analysis (ABA). Applied behavioral analysis focuses on the connection between individual behavior and the environment and aims to regulate and predict behavior based on this relationship. Therapy based on ABA is a form of behavior modification and is one of several options for autism treatment.

The principles of ABA therapy revolve around a system of negative and positive reinforcement. When an ABA therapist recognizes positive behavior on the part of the client, the therapist will reward that behavior. Conversely, when he or she witnesses behavior deemed inappropriate or unhealthy, a consequence will be initiated. Consequences may be viewed as punishments, though they are not severe in any way, shape, or form; they are simply reminders that a certain ingrained behavior is not appropriate and must be curbed.

There are several concepts guiding ABA therapy; these include behavior, environment, operant reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Behavior encompasses all of an individual's thoughts, feelings, and actions, while the concept of environment is the collection of circumstances surrounding that individual. Operant reinforcement is defined as the active process of assigning a reward or punishment as a way to indicate positive and negative behaviors. Punishment is the process of instituting a consequence for a negative behavior, which differs from extinction, the act of withholding any kind of reinforcement for a previously-reinforced behavior as a way to eliminate negative behavior.


Early intervention with ABA therapy has been shown to be a highly effective treatment for autistic children. Those with autism spectrum disorders have a challenging time differentiating positive and negative behavior and will often act out on impulses. With ABA therapy, those impulses are regulated and controlled through the reward system as well as through observations about the client's environment. Studies have shown that creating environments conducive to learning without excess external stimuli have greatly benefited children with autism spectrum disorders.

In addition to its role as a treatment for autism, there are other conditions and circumstances that can be aided by ABA therapy. The concepts behind ABA are applied to a variety of situations, including education, child rearing, certain mental health issues, exercise and physical health, the prevention of HIV and AIDS, and even in animal care. The punishment-reward system, when applied by a therapist or other trained professional, can make significant strides in eradicating or lessening unwanted or dangerous behavioral patterns in both children and adults.


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