“If they can’t learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn.” - Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas

What is ABA Therapy?

ABA stands for applied behavioral analysis. It is a therapy based on the principles of learning and behavior first developed in the 1960s and 70s. The goal of ABA is to systematically teach skills and decrease problem behaviors using positive reinforcement. 

ABA therapists break down skills into small, achievable steps. Desired behaviors are rewarded to increase their frequency. Unwanted behaviors are discouraged by removing rewards. Data collection and analysis guides which behaviors are targeted and how progress is measured.

Over time, ABA aims to build up complex behaviors by reinforcing simple skills. The highly customized therapy can address social, communication, cognitive, adaptive, motor, play, and self-care skills.

ABA is considered the “gold standard” treatment for autism spectrum disorder. Research shows it can improve language, social, behavioral, and adaptive functioning in autistic individuals. It’s also used for other neurodivergent conditions like ADHD, anxiety disorders, and intellectual disabilities.

The Origins of ABA Therapy

ABA therapy has its roots in the principles of behaviorism established in the early 20th century. Behaviorism focuses on objectively observing, measuring, and modifying behavior. 

Pioneers like B.F. Skinner developed operant conditioning, which uses rewards and punishments to change voluntary behavior. ABA applies these same principles of reinforcement and punishment to shape real-world behaviors. 

In the 1960s, psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas began using operant conditioning to treat autism at UCLA. His 1987 study claimed nearly 50% of children who received 40 hours per week of ABA for multiple years achieved normal functioning.1

Lovaas’ early approaches were very rigid and sometimes punitive. They focused on extinguishing autistic behaviors to make children “indistinguishable from peers.”2 This “normalization” rather than acceptance remains controversial.

Over time, ABA has evolved to be more play-based, naturalistic, and respectful. But it still aims to increase socially acceptable behaviors over autistic behaviors.