The Science of Applied Behaviour Analysis

ABAI LogoWhat is Applied Behaviour Analysis?

The science of Applied Behaviour Analysis is often referred to as ABA. Technically, it is defined as: "... the science in which procedures derived from the principles of behaviour are systematically applied to improve socially significant behaviour to a meaningful degree and to demonstrate experimentally that the procedures employed were responsible for the improvement in behaviour".

More simply, ABA makes meaningful changes in people's lives through the use of procedures that have been demonstrated to work. The goal of an ABA teaching environment is to build socially significant behaviours in a meaningful way and to a meaningful degree. Generalisation, spontaneity and fun are essential components of successful intervention. Other definitions offer similar explanations.

To help improve your understanding of ABA, we'll look at addressing some of the myths and misunderstandings of ABA. Unfortunately, too many people are simply misinformed on what ABA really is. ABA is not a teaching method, instead it is the science behind the use of several methods of changing behaviour. 

Misconceptions of ABA

Myth 1: "ABA is a one-size-fits-all approach"

Fact: ABA is child-centred and highly individualised, starting with an assessment of an individual's skills and the development of learning objectives. By observing a person's behaviour and collecting objective data, behaviour analysts are able to monitor progress and adjust interventions on a daily basis.

Myth 2: "There is evidence that other approaches are just as effective, or more effective, than ABA".

Fact: ABA is the only approach with substantial, documented evidence of its effectiveness for learners with autism.

Myth 3: "ABA needs a one-to-one pupil/teacher ratio".

Fact: ABA makes no reference to staffing levels required to deliver a student's IEP. This is determined by the student's needs.

Myth 4: "ABA is limited to one or a few specific strategies, such as Discrete Trial Instruction".

Fact: ABA incorporates many strategies to improve people's abilities and quality of life. Essentially, ABA is "content free", and includes the following methods:

  • Motivation
  • Reinforcement
  • Shaping
  • Prompts
  • Modelling (imitation training)
  • Discrete Trial Instruction
  • Verbal Behaviour (VB)
  • Natural Environment Training (NET)
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Incidental Teaching
  • Pivotal Response Training
  • Task Analysis and Chaining
  • Token Economy
  • Activity Schedules
  • Precision Teaching
  • Functional Assessment and Analysis
  • Antecedent-based Interventions
  • Positive Behaviour Support

Organisations & Sources of Information

The Association for Behaviour Analysis International membership organisation for behaviour analysts
Behaviour Analyst Certification Board Accepted regulator for the professionals
Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis Research Publication   
Association for Science in Autism Treatment  Scientific research on education and treatments  
Organisation for Autism Research Renouned source of applied research information 
Psychological Society of Ireland Professional body in Ireland  
European Association for Behaviour Analysis European membership organisation for behaviour analysts
Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies  Evidence-based applications of behavioural science 

ABA IrelandABA Ireland is a Facebook group which has been set up for the ABA community in Ireland. The aim of this group is "to act as a forum for discussion for everyone interested in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) in Ireland. It will allow us to keep each other informed about interesting conferences, seminars and workshops as well as relevant news articles, documentaries etc."

Their website is

Why ABA? 

There are many interventions on which scientific research has been undertaken. So why do people have such a preference for ABA? Advocates will state simply that research evidence shows it is the most effective  - "years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behaviour and in increasing communication, learning and appropriate social behaviour". Says who? The United States Surgeon General, in 1999.

There is a large number of significant, respected publications that restate this recommendation. We list just a few here:

What are the ABA qualifications?

A person who holds a BCBA is one who has satisfied the Behaviour Analyst Certification Board, and can therefore call him or herself a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA). Requirements include a prerequisite number of hours worked under the supervision of a BCBA and passing the required written exam. Those who hold a doctorate qualification can use the title of BCBA-D.

A BCaBA is a lower level of qualification, standing for Board Certified Assistant Behaviour Analyst. (Previously, the term "associate" was used instead of "assistant"). Details of their work circumstances can be reviewed here.

University qualifications include primary and post-graduate Masters degrees in Behaviour Analysis. Some but not all behaviour analysts study psychology for their primary degreel. At the moment, colleges in Ireland providing courses include:

A number of people working in Ireland have also attended Bangor University in Wales who have a significant ABA Department.

The BACB maintain an up-to-date list of certified practitioners, who must also satisfy continuing education requirements to maintain their registration. Qualification, experience and supervision are key elements in the CV of every behaviour analyst. 

Parent Courses in ABA

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Recommended Reading Material

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