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What is ABA?

ABA is the application of the principles of learning, derived from psychology research, to improve socially important behaviours. ABA is an umbrella term for a collection of procedures and interventions designed to increase positive behaviours, teach new skills, generalise behaviours to new environments or situations, and reduce behaviours that are harmful or interfere with learning.

One hallmark of ABA is data collection and analysis to guide clinical decision-making. The effectiveness of ABA-based interventions has been well documented through 40 years of research. Children who receive interventions based on the principles of ABA have been shown to make substantial and sustained gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behaviour, better than those of children who have had no treatment, low intensity treatment, or non-ABA treatment.

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The difference between ABA and early intervention

Early intensive behavioural intervention (EIBI), is an evidence-based, comprehensive intervention for autism spectrum disorder based on the principles of ABA. It has been shown to be associated with the most dramatic improvements in prognosis for children with ASD. It is endorsed by the Australian government:

Autism Research Report (PDF).

Disability & Carers Executive Summary Review (PDF).

The goal of EIBI is to change a child’s learning trajectory so that the child’s rate of learning approaches that of a typically developing peer. EIBI is characterized by the following:



Intervention begins as soon as a diagnosis is confirmed. EIBI may produce the greatest gains when intervention is started before age 2.



Intervention is provided for no less than 20 hours per week, with studies recommending 30-40 hours per week



Intervention is focused on the objective identification of skill deficits and behavioural excesses, and the use of teaching tactics derived from ABA to build functional skills

Does ABA really work?

In Australia, reputable experts have endorsed ABA-based interventions. In 2011, Prior, Roberts, Rodger, and Williams published their report titled A Review of Research to Identify the Most Effective Models of Practice in Early Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

This report was prepared funded by and prepared for the Australian Government of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous affairs (FaCHSIA). ABA was the only intervention to be classified as eligible for funding based on established research evidence:

Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) package endorsed ABA as the only intervention that is eligible for funding based in established research evidence.

In addition, the Raising Children Network gives ABA a firm rating of established, noting that research consistently shows positive effects.

Other organisations that endorse ABA as a safe and effective treatment for autism include:

The findings of the current review support the findings of previous reviews. Behaviourally based interventions, and specifically those that are intensive (often referred to as applied behavioural analysis (ABA) or early intensive behavioural intervention (EIBI)), continue to indicate positive outcomes for some children in a range of areas including cognitive skills, communication, and adaptive behaviour.

Prior, Roberts, Rodger, and Williams
Prior, Roberts, Rodger, and Williams A Review of Research to Identify the Most Effective Models of Practice in Early Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

ABA & The role of speech/occupational therapy

Speech therapy and occupational therapy (OT) are accompaniments to ABA therapy, and should be included in early intensive behavioural intervention programs. Speech therapists address the mechanics of speech, including oral motor and articulation problems.

Occupational therapists address gross and fine motor development and skills related to self-help and personal independence (e.g., dressing, eating, hygiene, and toileting). One problem with speech and occupational therapy are the methods used (some of which lack evidence) and the intensity of the intervention, which often falls short of best practice recommendations (20+ hours per week). All of these skills are included and addressed as part of a comprehensive ABA program.

Running ABA Programs

ABA is public and accountable. Within an ABA program, data are recorded on the child’s level of independence across all skills targeted for increase. Data are reviewed weekly by the senior behaviour therapist and fortnightly by the program supervisor. The data allow the treatment team to decide when a skill has been mastered, or to problem solve if a child is having difficulty learning a skill. ABA programs are highly individualised and dynamic - programs are reviewed on an ongoing basis with parents to ensure continued progress.