ABA and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Despite its popularity with the Autism population, behavior analysis did not begin as a treatment for autism. Actually, it didn’t start as a treatment at all. As with other psychological concepts behavior analysis began with scientists attempting to explain behavior. People like Thorndike, Watson, Pavlov, and especially BF Skinner contributed to behaviorism with their experiments involving animals and humans. This research led to operant conditioning as an explanation for behavior (operant conditioning states that all behavior is shaped by events that occur before and after that behavior), which then led to behavior analysis.

ABA can be used to modify any behavior, and over the years has been used in many scientific experiments. Just in the past 5 years ABA has been used to teach internet skills to older adults, decrease the use of cell phones by adolescents, reduce nervous behaviors during public speaking, smoking, gambling, addiction, teaching lockdown drill procedures to kindergarteners, and eating disorders.

ABA and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Even though ABA has been successful in treating such a wide variety of behaviors and different disorders and illnesses, it continues to receive the most recognition for its effectiveness with the Autism population. Why?

It began in the 1960s with a man by the name of Dr. Ivar Lovaas. He was using ABA to help people who engaged in extreme self-injury, including some patients with autism. This was at a time when people with autism were usually institutionalized. Dr. Lovaas believed that children with autism could avoid an institutionalized life with treatment based in ABA, and he started the Young Autism Project at UCLA. He spent years conducting research and working extensively with children with autism. In 1973 he published a paper stating that the most successful outcomes involved 3 factors:

  • ♦ Intensive treatment
  • ♦ Involvement of the child’s family
  • ♦ The age of the child

He continued to work with children with autism, and documented his findings. Through his work he demonstrated that when children began treatment before the age of 4, and participated in 40 hours of ABA treatment per week for 1 to 3 years, they could achieve long lasting, positive results. He used IQ tests, school placement, and social-emotional assessments to compare the children’s performance before and after treatment. He also compared scores to those of typically developing children and reported that approximately half of the children with autism scored within the same range as their typically developing peers. Some no longer met the crieteria for autism at all These results were achieved time and again.

The work by Dr. Lovaas inspired many others, and ABA as a treatment for those with autism continued to gain popularity. All major agencies now recognize ABA as the most effective treatment for autism spectrum disorder. To name a few:

  • ♦ Autism Society of America
  • ♦ American Psychological Association
  • ♦ US Surgeon General
  • ♦ American Academy of Pediatrics
  • ♦ Mayo Clinic
  • ♦ National Institute of Mental Health
  • ♦ US Agency for Health Care Research and Quality
  • ♦ US Centers for Disease Control

Although Dr. Lovaas passed away in 2010, his method continues to be implemented around the world. ABA has evolved over the years, but models based on the 7 principles of applied behavior analysis continue to prove effective in people with autism spectrum disorders. Research is conducted throughout the world, and ABA’s effectiveness continues to remain strong. For this reason ABA is considered the standard treatment for children with autism.