Exploring why ABA Therapy is or isn’t the best treatment for Autism

ABA Therapy is a hot topic in 2018, having occasionally made local news, and even national headlines for the past several years.

Part of the reason for the recent surge in buzz surrounding the therapy and its namesake field has been increasing Autism awareness.

Insurance covers ABA Therapy by law in most states. In the state of California, ABA Therapy is the only autism therapy covered by insurance. Parents in the state must pay out of pocket if they wish to pursue an alternative treatment besides ABA Therapy.

This leads to an important question:

Is it smart (or effective?) to use ABA Therapy for Autism?

While ABA is currently the most effective way of treating a variety of common but life-disrupting disorders, how effective is it for Autism?

Who is ABA Therapy for?

ABA Therapy can be used for treating many unhelpful behaviors in a variety of types of people.

Everyone from people with bad habits to people with autism spectrum, downs syndrome, or ADHD diagnoses can benefit, however Autism is the most common application. ABA Therapy is also commonly applied to Downs Syndrome, and less commonly, ADD and ADHD.

Autism & ABA Therapy

ABA Therapy for Autism is ideally applied between the ages of 2 and 8. Autism diagnoses generally become possible between ages 18 and 24 months, and Early Intervention is critical for the most effective results. Exact treatment plans will vary based on the child’s unique needs.

Why is ABA Therapy so widely useful?

There’s basic premise of ABA Therapy is fairly simple: Desired behaviors can be taught through simple systems of rewards and consequences. Likewise, harmful behaviors can be phased out through the same simple systems.

Everything from addictive tobacco product use to dysfunctional social habits can be the subject of ABA Therapy.

What is ABA Therapy?

ABA Therapy is a behavior-based therapy that depends on the science of learning and behavior. The field of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)  has taught us a good deal of what we now know about how Learning and Behavior work.

In ABA Therapy, we use what we’ve discovered about Learning and Behavior to treat and reduce harmful behaviors, like those that negatively impact learning. At the same time, ABA Therapy is also used to increase helpful behaviors.

ABA has helped us understand:

  • How behavior works
  • The way environment impacts behavior
  • Learning, and how it occurs

What is ABA Therapy for?

ABA Therapy is used to decrease harmful behaviors and increase helpful behaviors. Harmful behaviors can be as simple as interfering learning, or as dangerous as self-harm.

ABA Therapy can be helpful for:

  • Teaching basic to advanced skills

  • Learning language

  • Instilling the ability to make requests

  • Overcoming skill deficits

  • Eliminating harmful behaviors

  • Training in personal hygiene

  • Social Skills training

  • Integrating children in school

Does ABA Therapy Work?

ABA Therapy’s effectiveness has been shown by several thousand published research studies over 40+ years. ABA for Autism in particular is currently the best treatment. ABA Therapy is also the currently best treatment available for Downs Syndrome, ADHD, and ADD.

How do we know ABA Therapy is Effective?

Decades of well-documented and peer-reviewed research have shown ABA to be effective in treating Autism specifically.

Additionally, research has also shown us that the results observed from ABA Therapy are:

  • Due to the ABA Therapy treatment and not something else
  • Long-lasting, enduring over time
  • Replicable, meaning able to be shown over and over again across different subjects and situations.

No other treatment for autism has endured more research and testing. Furthermore, no other treatment has been implemented successfully over such a timespan.

How does ABA Therapy work?

The goal of ABA Therapy is to reduce harmful behaviors, such as those that negatively impact learning. Additionally, ABA Therapy is simultaneously used to increase helpful behaviors, such as those that promote learning.

We accomplish these goals by using what ABA has taught us about Learning and Behavior to increase helpful behaviors and reduce harmful behaviors.

ABA’s theory of behavior has 3 basic premises:

  1. Antecedent
  2. Behavior
  3. Consequence

The Antecedent

What is the antecedent of a behavior?

  • The Antecedent of a behavior is the thing that precedes the behavior. It is essentially the assigned stimulus of the behavior.
  • In other words, an antecedent stimulates, and is succeeded by, a behavior.
  • Action is to Reaction as Antecedent is to Behavior.

The Behavior

What is a Behavior?

  • A Behavior is the way one acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus.
  • In other words, a behavior is a reaction to an action.
  • Action is to Reaction as Behavior is to Consequence.

The Consequence

What is the consequence of a behavior?

  • A Behavior is either desirable or undesirable. Desired behaviors are those that work toward the outcome the therapist is teaching.
  • Undesirable behaviors are behaviors that aren’t moving toward the desired outcome.
  • Desirable behaviors will be rewarded, and any other behavior is simply not reacted to.
  • Action is to Reaction as Consequence is to Outcome.

Does ABA Therapy Cure Autism?

While ABA Therapy’s effectiveness has been shown by several thousand published research studies over 40+ years, there is no “cure” for Autism at this time. As the research stands, however, prescribing ABA Therapy for Autism is currently the best treatment – having been referred to as the “gold standard” of ABA Therapy.

In addition, regarding the frontiers of a potential cure, research and data on Early Intervention indicates ABA Therapy may be all-but a cure in some cases. Children as young as 18-24 months would benefit receiving an Autism screening.

An Autism Speaks study examined the longitudinal differences in IQ between a group of young children with autism who received ABA Therapy for 25 hours per week, compared to a control group only receiving community based therapy. The results are pretty shocking.

“At the conclusion of the study, the IQs of the children in the intervention group had improved by an average of approximately 18 points, compared to a little more than four points in the comparison group.”

Autism Speaks

What Does ABA Therapy Look Like?

If you were to observe ABA Therapy on a given day, you’d probably see:


  • Basic communication
  • Learning to brush teeth
  • Memorizing people’s names
  • Etc

Reward Systems

  • This might be anything from playtime to candy.

Token Economies

ABA Therapy in Action

An autism parent wanted to share what ABA Therapy for Autism looks like in action. He created and posted the following video to Youtube of his child’s ABA Therapy session.

The therapist in the video is not associated with ABA Solutions or the Tampa ABA Therapy Clinic.

For HIPAA compliance reasons, we can’t release media showing our clients’ faces, only our clients’ parents can. We provided this publically available video as an example.

How Long Does ABA Therapy Take?

ABA Therapy is typically delivered multiple days every week, generally for about 2 hours per session. The specific prescribed Behavior Plan will determine the number of hours and over what time period therapy will take place.. In some cases, ABA Therapy may require as much as 40 hours a week. It all depends on the specific child and case of autism.

Many Different Autisms; One Autism Spectrum

Very Well Health said it well: Many Different Autisms; One Autism Spectrum

There is no one kind of autism, hence there is no one Behavior Plan.

The Lovaas Institute

The Lovaas Institute has led over 40 years of research applying ABA Therapy for Autism.

“Although children may have the same diagnosis of autism, they evidence considerable individual differences necessitating that the treatment be adjusted to each child’s capacity and needs.”

Dr. Ivar Lovaas’ treatment procedures are well documented and have been published in peer reviewed journals with data on long-term outcome data for subjects who’ve been treated with ABA Therapy for Autism.

Where did ABA Therapy come from?

While the science of behavior was founded by B.F. Skinner. Skinner wrote groundbreaking works such as Science and Human Behavior, and Walden Two.

Skinner’s works covered a detailed study of the theory of human nature.

Further, he explored how human behavior might be

  1. Predictable, and
  2. Controllable.

ABA Therapy itself was developed by psychologist O. Ovar Lovaas in the 1960s.

His work under one of Skinner’s original students, Sidney Bijou.

Today, ABA Therapy for Autism is likely the best possible application of the behavior-based therapy.

Even SpectrumNews.org touts it as

ABA, the longest-standing and best-established form of therapy for children with autism”