The most widely accepted definition of Applied Behavior Analysis as described by Baer, Wolf & Risley is “the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior(1).
To quote one of my favorite little kiddos, “What does that even mean?”. Basically, Applied Behavior Analysis is an empirically validated, long-standing method for changing human behavior. Clinicians utilize the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis to teach a variety of skills to people including but not limited to: verbal communication, academic skills, self-help skills such as toileting and dressing, feeding skills, social skills, and so much more. Clinicians rely upon these same principles to reduce unwanted behaviors such as: crying, screaming, yelling, echolalia, self-injury, verbal and physical aggression, or refusal to comply with instructions. Applied Behavior Analysis is useful in treating a wide variety of skill deficits and challenging behaviors.
You might be thinking “How do clinicians trained in Applied Behavior Analysis accomplish all of these things?”. The answer is simple: science. Behavior Analysts utilize their knowledge of human behavior combined with careful assessment of the individual in order to determine why a behavior occurs or fails to occur. Then, they create a treatment plan that modifies the environment in order to increase or decrease specific skills or behaviors. It doesn’t stop there! Throughout the treatment process, Behavior Analysts carefully measure those skills or behaviors in order to gain valuable information that informs ongoing treatment decisions.
Applied behavior analysis has a longstanding large body of research supporting its efficacy especially as it relates to the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This body of research is so large that I do not have the space to present all of the research in this blog. And, if you are the parent of a child recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, you most likely do not have the time to shower let alone read through decades of research. Well, lucky for us, the nice people at the National Autism Center realized this and took care of the leg work for us.
The NAC compiled a review and comprehensive analysis of research on treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder. The report classifies treatments into one of four categories: Established, Emerging, Unestablished, and Effectual/Harmful based upon a thorough review of the research literature for each treatment. Not surprisingly, the 11 established treatment approaches are almost entirely based upon the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. Here they are as listed in the National Standards Report.
Comprehensive Behavioral Treatment for Young Children
Joint Attention Intervention
Naturalistic Teaching Strategies
Pivotal Reponses Treatment
Peer Training Package
Story-based Intervention Package
I encourage every parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder to read through this document. It is absolutely worth the time and will save you countless hours filtering through the myriad of treatment for ASD and prevent you from wasting valuable time, money, and efforts on ineffective treatments. Unfortunately, there are people out there only interested in making a buck. Historically, families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder have been the victims of countless scams based on pseudoscience. The National Standards Project is a document that every parent of a child with ASD should keep handy on their desktop for reference when evaluating treatment options. To request a copy of the National Standards Report, follow this link: http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/national-standards-project/
In additional to the National Standards Report compiled by the National Autism Center, there is another very informative and reliable report on treatment for ASD’s by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I prefer the UNC Frank Porter Graham report to the National Standards Report for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that it was created by Tar Heels and, therefore, clearly superior to any other report (Go Heels!). In all seriousness, the two reports resulted in very similar findings with the exception that a few of the treatments classified as “emerging” in the National Standards Report fell into the “evidence-based” category in the UNC FPG report. Spoiler Alert! Most of these treatments again based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis! To download a copy of the UNC FPG Report “Evidence Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder”, click here: http://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/sites/autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/files/2014-EBP-Report.pdf
(1) Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991
(2) Wilczynski, S., Green, G., Ricciardi, J., Boyd, B., Hume, A., Ladd, M., Ladd, M., Odom, S., and Rue, H. (2009). National Standards Report: The national standards project— addressing the need for evidence- based practice guidelines for autism spectrum disorders. The National Autism Center.
(3) Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., Schultz, T. R. (2013). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Evidence-Based Practice Review Group.