Autism Consulting and Educational Services

Lorin McGuire, MA, BCBA

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?


" Lorin makes the child and the parents comfortable, which is extremely important. She takes the time to get to know her clients which helps tremendously when developing support plans. We were extremely lucky to have Lorin early on in our child's therapy. She set the bar high and we have not settled since. Our son is doing so well. We have Lorin to thank for his early and continued success. "

- Dana, Parent

    ABA is a field of science that applies decades of research on effective behavior-change methods to socially significant behaviors. What does this mean? It means that ABA uses tested and proven strategies to change the behaviors that are important to you!

     ABA is useful for increasing desired skills, such as communication, social interactions, play, self-help and academics using proven teaching strategies and systematic reinforcement. It is also highly effective at determining the function of unwanted behaviors, such as tantrums, aggression, and escape, to decrease these behaviors and/or provide replacement behaviors that meet the same need for the child in more appropriate ways.

What kind of ABA do you use?

    There are many methodologies that fall under the umbrella of ABA…all of which incorporate data-driven research-proven principles of behavior change. Some examples you may have heard of are Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT), Pivotal Response Teaching (PRT), Natural Environment Teaching (NET), Positive Behavior Support (PBS), Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and Self-Management.

     I place a strong emphasis on individualizing programs based on the specific strengths and needs of your child. No two children are exactly alike, so "one size fits all" programming is often ineffective at meeting all the needs of an individual child. I prefer to utilize naturalistic, play-based ABA methods, as these have research supporting increased generalization of skills, increased child participation and motivation, easier fading of adult support, and decreased challenging behaviors during teaching sessions. They are also more developmentally appropriate for young children. However, most programs also include some structured adult-directed teaching as well. The balance of structured versus play-based teaching is determined by your child's learning style, the goals being taught, and the overall rate of progress.

What does a session look like?

     In a play-based ABA session, your child has fun while the therapist systematically targets skills within the play routines. To the untrained eye, it just looks like play! But it's actually very purposeful, effective teaching. This approach facilitates your child's engagement with age-appropriate toys and activities while teaching necessary skills utilizing his or her natural interests to reinforce new skills and desired behaviors. It also more closely replicates the way children often learn…through play!

   As an example, the therapist might offer a choice between 2-3 highly preferred toys. Your child makes a choice and is allowed to play with the chosen toy briefly. The therapist takes a turn with the toy, returning it after a few seconds of your child waiting and watching. After a brief time of your child playing with the toy, the therapist takes the toy again, withholding it until your child asks for it. The toy that your child has chosen is the natural reinforcer for 3 desirable skills in this scenario: making a choice, tolerating turn taking, and making requests…and it all looks natural and fun!

Do you use punishment?

   I implement Positive Behavior Support, which is an application of ABA that utilizes environmental control to increase behaviors we want to see more of and to prevent or replace the behaviors we don't want to see. Punishment is generally effective at decreasing behaviors, but it doesn't teach the child what to do instead, so other behaviors often emerge to replace the original behavior, and these are often equally or more undesirable! Therefore, I emphasize reinforcing good behaviors and teaching skills to replace unwanted behaviors. I only recommend punishment when clinically necessary (generally with behaviors that harm the child or others that have to be changed rapidly). Any punishment is discussed with and approved by the parent prior to incorporation into the program…and again it's rarely used.

Will my child become "robotic" or will he only learn "rote" responses?

   This is one of the widest criticisms of ABA; however, it is based on outdated and ineffective programming. Because I emphasize using naturalistic teaching, the therapist will ask for responses from your child in a wide variety of ways, so that he or she understands many different types of questions and directions. The therapist will also teach your child to respond in a variety of ways, so that his or her behaviors are versatile and fluid. I spend time observing how typically developing children talk, play and interact with each other, so that I can target those natural behaviors in my clients' programs. It is my goal to help your child be as much like his or her same-aged peers as possible.

Is ABA just for Autism Spectrum Disorders?

     No! The field of ABA is a very broad field, and its principles are effective at changing all kinds of behaviors, including work performance, addictions, animal behavior, and exercise to name a few. It is often thought of in relation to autism due to its success at addressing behaviors in all of the domains affected by the disorder: communication, social skills, and repetitive or restricted behaviors or interests. The work of Dr. Lovaas in the early 80s using ABA methods with children with autism was ground-breaking. Over the last 3 decades, the application of ABA techniques has continued to evolve. It has been and continues to be the only therapy that is scientifically proven to be effective at addressing the needs of the disorder. However, I use ABA with all kinds of kids, including those with autism, speech delays, behavior challenges, and other needs.

Can you cure my child?

     Most individuals with autism continue to demonstrate impairments to varying degrees throughout their life. For all children with autism, though, the degree of impairment can be significantly improved with early intensive behavioral therapy. In some cases, children may lose their diagnosis; unfortunately this is the exception rather than the rule. Teaching communication and social skills, increasing independence with daily self-care, and reducing repetitive behaviors improves the long-term prognosis for the child and should be the focus of intervention. Therapies claiming to cure or recover kids have not been proven through scientific research and should be carefully evaluated. More research is needed to provide a better understanding of the causes and best treatments for this disorder. ABA continues to be the only scientifically proven method effective at addressing the needs of children with autism.