Skip to main content

What is Applied Behaviour Analysis?

Applied behaviour analysis (ABA), is a branch of the science of behaviour (behaviour analysis). ABA scientists and practitioners seek to understand how we learn things and why we behave as we do. By “learn things” we mean everyday skills such as getting dressed and preparing breakfast, more “academic” skills like reading and writing, and other complex skills (e.g., driving, communicating with other people). The focus is on issues that are of importance to us all, and on teaching skills and building supportive environments that enable positive behaviour change for individuals, groups or society more broadly. The goal of any behavioural intervention is to improve quality of life.

ABA does not refer to a single programme or technique. It is best thought of as an umbrella term for any intervention or activity that is clearly described; is based on principles of learning; results in meaningful, durable and measurable changes in behaviours that are socially significant; and where the intervention can be shown to be responsible for those changes in behaviour. To be socially significant, interventions that are included within the remit of ABA must benefit the individual, group or wider population, and in doing so accord dignity, respect and compassion – ethical practice is of paramount importance to the behaviour analytic field. In addition, interventions need to be based on evidence of their effectiveness. Any decisions taken in respect of an intervention should be based on data routinely collected as part of that intervention. This ensures best practice and individualised support for anyone assisted by a behavioural intervention.

ABA-based interventions have been developed to address issues of concern such as literacy, safety in the workplace, gambling and recycling, and to help specific populations such as those with dementia, addiction, intellectual disabilities, autism and other developmental disabilities. The field has also seen the growth of “packages” which combine evidence-based intervention components. Such packages include the Early Denver Start Model (EDSM) and whole systems approaches based upon behavioural science such as Positive Behaviour Support (PBS).

Even within specific areas or populations, practitioners may choose from or combine several behaviourally-based interventions. For instance, a young child with autism may be supported with an Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (EIBI) or with the EDSM, whereas an adult with autism may be best supported within a PBS framework and using Active Support. Each of these interventions, packages or frameworks in turn are likely to use a range of teaching techniques developed from the field of behaviour analysis (e.g., Natural Environment Teaching (NET), Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) and Pivotal Response Training (PRT)). Individuals with developmental disabilities across the lifespan may, additionally, use other behaviourally-based interventions (e.g., the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to communicate, Headsprout® to learn to read, or behavioural therapies to manage anxiety).

ABA practices both in the care of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as more broadly, are becoming nationally recognised. ABA intervention approaches and its components have been included as recommended practices in at least ten guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) including Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Parent Training, Obesity, Dementia, ASD in adults, the management of ASD in children, and Challenging Behaviour. Internationally, the US Surgeon General, the New York State Department of Health, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Ministries of Education and Health in New Zealand (New Zealand Guidelines Group NZCG, 2010), equivalents in Canada, and now Scotland (Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), 2016) endorse ABA-based services for individuals with autism.

With our stated aim to increase the reach and impact of ABA-based interventions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities and/or autism to support their independence and increased quality of life, the SF-DDARIN is focusing on three areas of ABA-related developmental disabilities research:

Teaching skills including pre-school and academic skills to children and young people, primarily in school contexts

Teaching skills to adults, including health and wellbeing

PBS across the life-span

For further information please click on the above links.