There are several ways ABA therapy can be implemented, but some techniques are essential for therapists to know well. These five must-know techniques for ABA therapists use educational theory and specific learning approaches to help people with autism learn new behaviors and get the outcomes they want in their daily lives.

These five must-know techniques are:

  • Naturalistic teaching.

  • Discrete trial training.

  • Pivotal response treatment.

  • Token economy.

  • Contingent observation.

How ABA Therapy Addresses Clients’ Needs to Create & Maintain Behavior Changes

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) relies on understanding a client’s individual needs, setting goals, and objectively measuring the progress toward achieving those goals.

ABA has been shown to be one of the most beneficial approaches to therapy for people who are on the autism spectrum. This form of therapy works to improve communication, socialization, learning skills, and motor skills. This can range from practicing basic hygiene to job competence to understanding subtext in a conversation.

ABA therapy helps to transfer skills to different situations, so positive behaviors are seen to work outside of a classroom, therapist office, or medical practice.

Behavior therapy works best when it is applied intensively, for 20 hours per week or more before the person reaches 4 years old. This doesn’t mean therapy doesn’t work on older individuals. Adults who receive a diagnosis of autism later in life, teenagers who receive less frequent therapy, and older children who receive ABA therapy can all still benefit from these techniques.

An ABA therapist develops and implements a therapeutic structure tailored for each client’s needs. This requires: 

  • Learning which behaviors need to be changed.
  • Setting goals for those behavior changes.
  • Listing expected outcomes of sessions that lead toward the goals.
  • Establishing ways to measure positive changes in an objective way.
  • Set specific times, like the end of a session, to evaluate changes in the client.
  • Note any setbacks or poor outcomes and adjust treatment as needed.
  • Determine the timeline of ABA treatment that is necessary and when the client can graduate out of intensive treatment.

The ABCs of ABA Therapy

There are three basic techniques, the ABCs, which make up the core of ABA therapy sessions. This stands for Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. It is a way for ABA therapists to demonstrate that maladaptive behaviors cause negative consequences, and positive behaviors often lead to positive outcomes.

  1. A stimulus provokes a behavior.

  2. The behavior occurs.

  3. The consequence occurs.

An example in this formula:

  1. A child with autism is asked to clean the table after dinner. 

  2. The child may disobey. 

  3. This leads to a negative result. 

However, things might go differently. 

  1. The parents ask the child to clean the table. 

  2. The child obeys. 

  3. Their parents reward them with extra playtime or a special activity.

The therapist or technician will demonstrate this pattern repeatedly in therapy sessions, and they will teach the parents the ABC pattern as well. This allows parents to reinforce this pattern in daily interactions, helping the lessons from therapy to take hold.

Approaches That Encourage Clients in Behavior Therapy Sessions

There are some major approaches that are used in practical behavioral therapy sessions. 

  • Using reinforcement: This is the consequence from the ABC technique, and they are often referenced as reinforcers in ABA therapy. Reinforcement — like praise, encouragement, or gratitude — can show the child that the behavior they exhibited helps them achieve the outcome they want. Reinforcers should be individualized to the specific client.
  • Identifying setting events: Children in ABA therapy may experience a range of stressors in their daily lives associated with family, school, or other situations. Setting events are essentially events that don’t directly precede problematic behavior, so they aren’t as easily identified, like the antecedent in the ABC technique. Setting events might be environmental, like a crowded room; social, like a disagreement with a parent; or physiological, like being hungry or thirsty. An ABA therapist or technician will work to identify potential setting events, and then help the family to reduce the likelihood that certain setting events will occur. If some setting events are unavoidable, the ABA provider will help the family devise ways to cope with these situations.
  • Collecting data consistently: ABA is a science-based therapy, and the only way to understand improvements or changes is to keep notes on each session. This starts with listing the skills the child needs to learn, like fine motor skills, and then noting changes over each session. This helps the technician and therapist to understand if certain approaches are working or not for that specific client. If they aren’t working, the treatment plan can be adjusted.
  • Providing training for parents: ABA therapists and technicians help children with autism to make measurable improvements so they experience less stress and function well in the world. Parental training is necessary, so parents can reinforce positive behaviors outside of therapy sessions. This helps the child to understand that behavior changes have an impact outside of certain environments. 

The 5 Must-Know ABA Techniques for Therapists

While there are many techniques that are used in ABA therapy, these five strategies are must-know approaches for therapists and technicians. 

  1. Naturalistic teaching: This approach to treatment allows the client to set the pace, within the context of their daily life or routine. The therapist will follow the client’s interests and then coach positive behavior responses as they need to occur. A set therapy regime isn’t forced on the client when naturalistic teaching approaches are used. This teaching style builds on the idea of individualized treatment.

    2. Discrete trial teaching: This is the technical term for breaking down large, complex tasks into simpler, more manageable parts. By taking the ABCs of ABA therapy and using discrete trial teaching, a therapist will prompt their client and then reward a positive response or correct a negative response. This reward helps to reinforce the skill that is learned.

    3. Pivotal response treatment: This technique is grounded in play and instigated by the client. It’s based on the idea that certain behaviors are pivotal to other behaviors. If these specific behaviors are changed, it changes many other behaviors. Pivotal response treatment allows clients to set the pace of growth. The therapist guides the child through implementing and maintaining core skills, such as finding personal motivation, responding to multiple cues, operating inside social structures, self-regulation, and related skills. 

    4. Token economy: This approach to implementing behavior change involves conditional reinforcers, or tokens, which are given for predefined behaviors. For example, if the child makes a good choice, the therapist may give them a sticker. Token economies are roughly equivalent to how money works in the real world. They are based on the idea that positive reinforcement cements behavior change.  

    5. Contingent observation. This approach in ABA therapy is designed to regulate behavior that is disruptive to a family or other group. Contingent observation tends to work best with groups of young children. When clients perform maladaptive behaviors, they are given instructions on how to improve their situation to achieve a positive outcome. They may be asked to step away from the social group temporarily, so they can observe other children in the group who are behaving appropriately. Then, they’ll get feedback from the therapist or technician on these behaviors.

These five must-know techniques can be applied together across multiple ABA therapy sessions, or they can be used individually to see which approach works best for the specific client.

Early Intervention With ABA Therapy Works

While ABA therapy can be helpful for anyone with autism at any age, applying these five ABA techniques earlier in a child’s life will improve outcomes later in life. When they are taught social skills, learning strategies, and communication approaches from an early age, children have the time to practice and grow. They see the impact of positive behaviors in different settings before maladaptive behaviors become deeply ingrained responses.

Despite the clear benefits of early intervention, teenagers and adults with autism who get ABA therapy later in life still benefit from personalized approaches using these five techniques. Immediate rewards, specific coaching, and positive verbal reinforcement are all valid teaching approaches backed by scientific study.

ABA therapists and technicians also work with parents of children have autism, teaching them these techniques. Parents can then reinforce the must-know techniques in day-to-day life. This strengthens the lessons learned in ABA therapy sessions, so the child can see that other people (besides their therapists and teachers) react to certain behaviors in specific ways.

It is important for ABA therapy to be applied frequently and consistently. The overall approach can be adjusted based on which of the five techniques work best for the individual client.

For example, rewards may be a good short-term solution to start the process since receiving a token or some other reward can spark interest and happiness. This approach may not work for translating behaviors into larger social groups, however. Tailored coaching may work better in these situations.

ABA providers should understand all these possible scenarios, observe their clients, and make notes on objective changes. The end result is a therapy approach that is highly individualized and adaptive to the changing needs of each client as they progress in treatment.