How Does Behavior Analysis Work?

Behavior analysis is, in effect, focused on the principles that explain the different ways learning takes place. Applied behavior analysis – often called ABA – relies on clearly defined procedures to specify how to change behavior. ABA research tends to focus on children suffering from behavioral issues brought on by autism or other neural disorders that impair social interaction.

Much of ABA is based on the core ideas developed by the American psychologist and behaviorist, B.F. Skinner. In short, the theory proposes that when a behavior is followed by some sort of reward, the behavior is more likely to be repeated. This principle, when refined, has turned into ABA techniques for increasing useful behaviors and reducing those which harm or disrupt learning.

Today, ABA is recognized as an effective, ethical, and safe treatment for autism, with endorsements from the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health. ABA principles foster basic skills such as looking, listening, and imitating, as well as complex skills such as reading, conversing, and understanding different perspectives. In fact, some methods of ABA, such as the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), have been shown to not only improve autism symptoms, but actually normalize brain activity and improve social behavior.

Behavior analysis began based on a theory called Behaviorism developed in the 1930s by B.F. Skinner. After the 1968 debut of The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, the term “Applied Behavior Analysis” first came into widespread use. Despite the early research and theories of B.F. Skinner, autism researcher Ole Ivar Lovaas is widely considered the grandfather of Applied Behavior Analysis. Lovaas developed standardized teaching interventions based on behavioral principles, devoting nearly a half-century to research aimed at improving the lives of children with autism and the lives of their families.

Due to the experimental nature of much of Lovaas’ work, some of his methods for treating the autistic may seem primitive or unethical today. Lovaas was cited for using low dosages of electroshock therapy to children extremely prone to self-inflicted injuries, though he was dismayed to discover the subjects all eventually reverted to their pre-intervention behaviors.

Over time, Lovaas came to believe that implementing early intervention and therapy in the family’s home, rather than in an institutional setting without the use of aversives like electroshock, would yield the most effective results for children with autism. Throughout his life, Lovaas was a strong and dedicated advocate for people with autism, and even co-founded the Autism Society of America, an organization that exists to this day.

In recent years, the Early Start Denver Model has garnered a great deal of publicity for its effectiveness in dealing with a number of factors, including:

  • Naturalistic applied behavioral analytic strategies
  • Sensitive to normal developmental sequence
  • Deep Parental involvement
  • Focus on interpersonal exchange and positive affect
  • Shared engagement with joint activities
  • Language and communication taught inside a positive, engaged relationship

Thus far, the ESDM is the only comprehensive, early-intervention-model approved for use with autistic children as young as 18 months of age. It has also been found to be effective for children across the autism spectrum – children with drastically different levels of comprehension.

One experiment conducted at the Academic Unit of Child Psychiatry in Sydney, Australia, found marked and quantifiable results among children. The study included 26 children, mostly pre-school aged with a DSM-IV-TR diagnosis of Autistic Disorder. In this diagnosis, the children are found to be socially impaired and attached to restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests.

In ESDM, there is a group component with preschool-specific learning activities designed to help the participating kids achieve targeted goals. All interventions are delivered by therapists formally trained in ESDM by accredited trainers. The ESDM teaching principles involve play-based engagement with an emphasis on functional communication, social interaction, cognition, and positive behavior.

In testing, parents reported significant increases in their child’s receptive communication and motor skills, and a decrease in autism-specific features. The study suggests that group-oriented intervention is a very effective form of treatment and recovery. Researchers claimed that a greater accessibility to ESDM techniques in child care settings could lead to significant clinical and economic benefits for people living or working with autistic children.

For parents of autistic children and the children’s educators, this ESDM research suggests there are effective approaches to treating the symptoms of autism; methods which can be practiced daily by engaging one-on-one with an autistic child. Rather than monitoring a child’s behavior from a position of authority, the practice encourages sitting on the floor, playing with the child, and developing a social relationship.

Unlike other approaches to autism and comparable disorders, the core tenets of behavior analysis, and particularly the ESDM model, can be taught to parents in only a few hours. Furthermore, many of the activities can be practiced anywhere; simply through positive and active engagement with the child.

While there is not yet a cure for autism, the research-based breakthroughs are on the rise. The signs of autism can be evidenced earlier than ever, and by using ABA techniques, parents, medical professionals and therapists can see the tangible effects of therapy in a child’s ability to communicate and their changing brain waves.

Parents are encouraged to continue their own research on websites like Autism Speaks, Autism Partnership, and SARRC. These programs include various exercises that parents can practice with their children – all of which are designed to aid in building relationships with autistic children. The social energy and care put into improving the life of an autistic child will always do a tremendous amount of good.