Friday, February 3, 2012

The ABCs of ABA in the SLP world

We speech-language therapists have a lot of acronyms in our little speechy world. We are SLPs (speech-language pathologists) who have our CCCs (Certificates of Clinical Competence) from ASHA (the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association). When I graduated with my M.S. (okay, you all know that one) in speech-language pathology, I was pretty sure I'd mastered the alphabet soup of our profession.

Until I fell in love with kids with autism, that is. That's when I was introduced to the world of ABA. If you've loved a child with autism, you've no doubt run smack into this term, too, and probably very early along the journey you took. Despite the fact that this word swirls around the autism world with great furiosity, it is often misused and a bit misunderstood. Some people love it with a passion; others hate it with the same intensity. Me? I think it both extremely valuable and sometimes overused.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. My goal today is to begin to define the term for those who don't know it well. Later, when I've laid the groundwork just a bit, we'll delve into the true complexities that exist with what appears, at first glance, to be a very simple concept.

ABA stands for Applied Behavioral Analysis.  It's based on the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who focused on operant conditioning, or the study of observable behaviors and the events that cause and reinforce those behaviors. The applied part of ABA means that we take this system of looking at the way behaviors are shaped and apply it to everyday life; we use it to shape behaviors that are important to the lives we lead. When we peer at the world through the eyes of ABA, we find ourselves looking at three main things.

The Antecedent: What happened in the environment before the behavior occurred?

The Behavior: This part involves describing the overt behavior that you see or want to see. Not the motives, not the intent, not the feelings behind the behavior. Simply the behavior as you can observe it in front of you. Those who study and use the principles of ABA believe in describing the behavior as clearly and objectively as possible. For example, instead of saying "Sally got mad," a behavior analyst would say "Sally screamed and hit the door with her fist."

Consequence: What happens after the behavior? Does this thing that occurs after the behavior (the consequence) increase the chances the behavior will occur again, making it a reinforcement? Or does it decrease the chances the behavior will occur again, making it a punishment?

To help explain, let me share a couple examples.

Say you are teaching a child to say "cookie." The steps behind teaching the word might go a little something like this:

Antecedent:  You hold up a cookie and say, "cookie"
Behavior: The child imitates "cookie"
Consequence: You give the child the cookie. (This would be positive reinforcement, assuming that giving the child the cookie increases the chances he will say the word again in the presence of the the cookie. Or, in plain English, assuming the child actually wants the cookie--although behavior analysts would probably shy away from describing it this way, as it reflects the child's internal state, rather than his behavior).

Or, perhaps you are teaching your child to walk. 

Antecedent: You hold out your hands and say "come here!"
Behavior: Your child takes his first step toward you.
Consequence: You cheer and throw your child in the air as he giggles. (Again, this is only reinforcement if it actually increases the chances your child will take a step toward you the next time you hold out your hands and say, "come here!" It wouldn't be a reinforcement if he hated being thrown in the air- in this case, it might decrease the chances that he'd come to you and would, then, become a  punishment*. Consequences are different for different people- the exact same action that is a reinforcement for one person can be a punishment for another).

These three things- the antecedent, behavior and consequence (Or ABCs of ABA, if you will...yes, another acronym), make up the core of ABA. Those who live in the world of ABA focus very carefully on the ABCs behind any and all behaviors. They graph and chart and study these elements of life and plan interactions around them.  

ABA is much more complex than this, of course; I took four full graduate level classes about ABA when I completed my graduate certificate in Behavioral Intervention in Autism.  There are those that study ABA all their life and still don't have all the answers, and there are entire, complex, and well-graphed treatments for autism that are based the concepts behind ABA.  It is not nearly as simple as I am making it at the moment. And yet, if you understand the ABCs behind ABA, you can begin to understand the world through the eyes of an applied behavior analyst.

How, then, does ABA fit into the world of SLP? As an experienced applied behavior analyst once told me, we all (parents, teachers, speech-therapists, all of us) use ABA in one form or another.  SLPs are no exception. We use the principles of ABA to teach children first words (Antecedent: "Say, Ball!" Child's Behavior: "Ball!"  Consequence: Child is rolled the ball). We use ABA methods to teach children how to behave and understand language (Antecedent: "Sit down please." Child's behavior: sits down. Consequence: "Here's your snack.").  We call on ABA to help us figure why children behave in certain ways, so that we might help them find a better response and eliminate challenging behavior. For example, we might look at what comes just before a child hits another child (the antecedent), discover that it happens whenever another child obstructs the way, and then give the  child a new behavior (saying, "move please") by teaching and reinforcing this new behavior.

So yes, we all use the concepts behind ABA, intuitively and frequently, to teach, motivate, and shape our children's behaviors. And yet, controversy behind these methods exists. Why so? Because there are significant differences in how and when we apply these methods, in how stringently we define the behaviors we expect, in how we select and apply consequences, and in how strongly we believe that the ABA lens is the only one through which we can view the world.

That's a post for a different day though.  For now, we'll just be happy that we've learned our ABCs.


  1. Nice intro to ABA! I am a first year SLP grad student and currently working as a behavior therapist under the guidance of a BCBA (another acronym...Board Certified Behavioral Analyst). ABA is complex and I have found it is often misunderstood. I'm interested to see what you have to say next!

    1. Hi Jenna! Thanks for the comment! I love the combo of SLP and ABA. (Of course, I'm biased. ;)) What type of program do you work under? (Is it mainly DTT/Lovaas?).

  2. Great explanation. I agree with the idea that ABA really just equals teaching in general, and when people are thinking of ABA often they are thinking more of treatments like discreet trial and other stricter applications of ABA. Can't wait to see the follow-up!

    1. Yes, agreed that in many people's mind, ABA = DTT; but in reality, ABA is very broad! Better get working on the follow up. ;)

  3. Nice post! I've been planning a post on ABA for a while but haven't gotten around to it... I have my Certificate in ABA! LOVE IT!!! And it is SO misunderstood!!!

  4. Great article , I am so glad that I have visited your site. Thank you for useful information.

  5. Hi-I apologise for the very belated comment, however I wanted to thank you for this very balanced commentary. I started my career as a behavior therapist/BCBA and have more recently qualified as a speech pathologist, and currently work as an SLP specialising in children with ASD or related disabilities. I have encountered many negative attitudes towards ABA within the speech pathology profession, however, I find that these are mostly borne out of a misunderstanding of what ABA is. Too often it is thought of as rigid or robotic, and that it is purely 'table-based'. In fact, a well-trained ABA practitioner should be able to apply the core behavior principles to teaching any skill, in any environment, much as a well-skilled speech pathologist would when teaching a new sound or addressing a language goal, or even as a skilled parent would when addressing a behavior problem. Some of the most effective speech pathologists I have seen have also been the best 'behavior analysts', i.e. they are able to identify strong motivators for the child, break down skills into teachable parts and present them in a clear way to the child.

    Great work on the site-interesting and informative. I'll keep reading :)

  6. Hi Kristin,
    I am WAY behind in responding to comments (as in years behind!). But I completely agree. I think there are so many ways we can use the principles of ABA within context.