ABA Therapy:  What Is It? Does My Child Need It?

What is ABA Therapy?

ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis is a scientific methodology that applies techniques which are based upon the specific principles of learning to change behavior along with social interactions.  Some people may refer to ABA as behavior modification.  ABA Therapy is widely recognized as the most effective evidence-based treatment for autism.  ABA fosters basic skills as looking, listening, requesting, imitating as well as higher level skills such as reading, speaking and understanding another person’s perspective.  

Therapists work closely with families and education professionals in order to apply the principles of ABA to teach language, social, self-help, academic, daily living and life skills.

ABA is a type of therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors such as communication, reading, overall academics, social skills, as well as fine motor dexterity, hygiene, job competence as well as responsibilities involving holding down a job.  ABA is effective for children and adults with varying psychological disorders that are present within a variety of settings.  Some of these settings include school, home and the workplace. 

It has been proven that ABA can significantly improve behaviors and skills and therefore decrease the need for special support services.

Who can benefit from ABA Therapy?

ABA is commonly used as a therapeutic intervention for individuals with autism.  However, ABA is a fantastic therapy to be used with individuals that also have been diagnosed with severe speech and language disorders like DAS (Developmental Apraxia of Speech).

How does ABA Therapy help?

ABA not only helps the autistic individual learn new skills and maintain positive behavior but also to improve social interactions.  ABA also helps transfer skills and behavior from one situation to another which is integral in controlling or minimizing any negative behavior.

How does ABA Therapy work?

ABA helps people to become more successful in natural settings such as home, school and community.  ABA involves ongoing data collection to evaluate whether behavior is changing in the desired direction and the goals are being achieved.  ABA manages the consequences of behavior by rewarding positive behavior and in some cases uses punishment to deter behavior (child is unable to go the park and play for that day).  The rewards used must be enticing to the child or they will not “work” for it.

ABA uses discrete trial training or verbal behavior training.  This incorporates effective teaching and reinforcement practices to help children with disabilities to learn new skills faster and more efficiently.

When should ABA Therapy be used?

In order for ABA to be the most successful, it should be applied to a child prior to the age of 3 or 4 years old with a  minimum of 20 hours per week.  ABA is applied in 2 hour blocks of time.  Anything less does not allow the individual to receive the optimal results.

Although you do not hear about ABA as much for the elderly, it can be quite helpful with individuals in this age group as it helps them cope with their memory, physical strength as well as relationships.

There are several expectations involved with ABA Therapy:

  1. You need to determine what behaviors need to be changed

  2. Goals and expected outcomes need to be set

  3. Ways to measure changes and improvements needs be set into place

  4. Evaluate the starting point

  5. Learn new skills while avoiding negative ones

  6. Review the progress made

  7. After reviewing the progress, you need to determine if and how much ABA is needed

How long should ABA Therapy be used?

There is no specific time frame as to how long an individual may need ABA Therapy.  This solely depends on the diagnosis and at what rate improvement has occurred.  For the greatest results, ABA requires the therapist to monitor and evaluate constantly.

What is Discrete Trial Training?

A child is given a stimulus or question.  The child is given the correct answer or a very strong hint as what the correct answer would be.  If the child repeats the right answer then he is rewarded for it.  If the answer is incorrect, then it is smoothed over with very little attention given to the fact that it is incorrect.  The same  question is asked of the child for 10 times.  Each time the child gives the correct answer, the clues are removed slowly until the child responds correctly and independently.  Each specific program is worked on until the child has achieved mastery of that program.  This requires 8 out of 10 times correctly and independently over 3 sessions.  The therapist will move on to the next program and trials however will always come back to the programs that have been mastered to alleviate the possibility that the child will regress or would be unable to follow through with what had been worked on prior.

It is important to note that the skills taught in the discrete trials must be practiced and generalized in natural settings.  You must reinforce the wide range of appropriate behaviors in a variety of settings until the level of reinforcement fades to a regular level.

How can I ensure ABA Therapy works?

I began my experience in the education industry 24+ years ago initially as a teacher and ABA Therapist.  Although ABA then was not as prevalent as a choice for therapy, it always worked.  I had then and continue to see now how children have turned into ”miracles” from the intervention and application of ABA Therapy. 

With that said, I have had parents contact me through the years with nightmare stories about how their child was awarded ABA Therapy but the experience was nothing short of a horror story.  If you have made the decision that your child would be a great candidate for ABA Therapy, after speaking with your pediatric neurologist, please make sure that everything associated with your child’s experience is nothing short of fantastic.

Here are some things that you must be aware of:  

1. Cherish the loose leaf binder

A loose leaf binder that the BCBA provides should house all of the programs that are written for your child along with the discrete trials and results.  These programs vary, however must be applicable to YOUR child.  These programs are written by the BCBA who may not necessarily be the individual administering the therapy.  However, the BCBA should meet with you, IN PERSON once a week as well as the therapist to go over the programs, how your child is doing, if changes need to be made and to answer any questions that you may have.

2. Keep Track Of The Timesheets

Within this loose leaf binder should also be time sheets that the therapist needs to fill out and that you need to sign.  However, do not sign the time sheets if they do not reflect the actual times that the therapists have been to your home!  Never give in and always monitor the therapist, BCBA, the binder, time sheets and actual therapy sessions. 

I cannot tell you how many times parents have signed time sheets because they felt that they were obligated to when in fact that was not the case.  For example, the therapist was late or had to leave early or did not show up at all.  ANY AND ALL CHANGES IN REGARDS TO TIME, DAYS ETC. NEEDS TO BE NOTED AND THE BCBA MUST BE MADE AWARE OF THIS WHEN IT HAPPENS.  Only communicate via email when something has to be noted. This way no one can claim that they did not know about it.  Always make copies of every note and time sheet after each session.  When you may not expect it, the binder make go "missing" and your chance to have copies will be no longer existent.  Agencies as well as therapists/BCBA's have a reputation of business practices that are anything but professional.  Cover yourself. 

3. ABA must be done at the table

Not in the child’s room, outside on the patio, etc.  Make sure the sessions are in full view for you to listen.  Too many times, parents have explained to me that the therapist was in the child’s room to do the therapy.  Absolutely not!!!  There must be accountability.  

4. The Therapist Needs To Be Great

Too many times I have heard from parents that the therapist and or the BCBA is not educated and most importantly not experienced.  This therapy like any other MUST be administered by an experienced and effective individual.  If they are not, then they are wasting everyone’s time, especially your child’s. 

Remember: Your child has a window of time and opportunity to gain the skills needed to be successful.  Why would you allow any individual to take that away from them?



It is extremely difficult to find a great agency and even more difficult to find great ABA staff.  As a parent, do not give in and believe when the agency or school says we have no one else.  There are always other options.  There is too much at stake when it comes to your child. 


Need immediate insight into your child’s situation and how to address their current issues? Schedule your Open Opportunity Session for an expert analysis and strategic plan you can implement today.