Applied Behavior Analysis for Autism: How Does ABA Work?

Therapists have relied on applied behavior analysis (ABA) since the 1960s to help children with autism and closely related development disorders. Positive reinforcement is an essential facet of ABA, but the therapy has evolved over the decades to become a key element in the treatment of autism. Another important aspect of ABA is that it can be individualized for each client.

The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis specializes in the treatment of ABA. While there are many therapies designed for the treatment of autism, ABA is an evidence-based therapy that has the support of the medical community. Here, we’ll explore what this therapy is, how it works, and how it can help children with autism.

children with autism

What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied behavior analysis is a treatment approach for autism and related disorders. This therapy relies on positive reinforcement to promote skills related to communication, social interaction, self-care habits, and academic learning while discouraging unhealthy behaviors. ABA takes into consideration how one’s environment affects behavior. ABA therapists use many different techniques for practicing this therapy. The treatment can be delivered in a clinical setting, at school, or in a patient’s home. Therapists use positive reinforcement to encourage patients to repeat positive behaviors. Over time, new, healthy patterns of behavior develop.

children with autism

Who Is Applied Behavior Analysis for?

Applied behavior analysis is designed for children with autism and related disorders. Therapists employ it to suit each patient’s unique developmental needs. In fact, therapists will develop a curriculum to suit the behavioral needs of each client. Through a variety of interventions, therapists work to support their clients’ independence and positive behaviors.

10 Steps of Applied Behavior Analysis for Autism

Therapists who treat autism rely on many different steps to support their clients / patients. Typically, they apply
the following steps:

Mother and child autism at Cardinal Center

Select the behavior for analysis

First, therapists will select a behavior for analysis. Therapists should define the behavior to be analyzed. They should also establish their goals, objectives, and top priorities of the analysis. These behaviors may relate to skills that parents, teachers, or clinicians want the child to master.

children with autism spectrum disorder

Measure the behavior

Measuring the behavior is a key step in the ABA process. Clinicians will outline measurement steps to follow so they can gauge the behavior as well as improvements in behavior. To that end, they will evaluate a behavior baseline and then continue to collect data on a routine basis.

childrens autism therapy

Select procedures of treatment

Clinicians will also design procedures for applying the treatment. These procedures will necessarily involve the setting and any necessary equipment or materials.

Textures, tastes, and trying times are important.

Initiate the treatment procedures

Upon initiating the ABA treatment procedures, therapists will modify the procedures as needed. They’ll also monitor treatment effects while collecting data. They may also choose to change the procedures if necessary.

Boy having a tantrum

Evaluate treatment effects

The evaluation step of the process helps clinicians to determine if they should consider continuing the procedures, changing them, or even ending them to move onto a different behavior focus. 

There are some basic steps associated with ABA procedures. These steps include:

Breaking steps into parts

When focused on certain behaviors, clinicians will break the behavior into parts. These are the components of the behavior or task at hand. The client may struggle with the behavior but when it’s broken into components, clinicians can more easily identify where the specific problem is occurring.

One example might relate to tying shoes. The child might not have any difficulty choosing the shoes or placing them on the proper foot, but their difficulty might relate to how to begin the tie or how to complete it. Once the component is known, clinicians or parents can focus on the precise issue.

children with autism


The concept of chaining refers to the breakdown of a behavior or task into parts. For instance, breaking down tasks like tying shoes, washing hands, or making a bed can be broken down into steps using chaining. Anyone teaching the task will focus on each chaining stage to ensure the child optimally focuses on each step of the task.

Center based ABA therapy near wake forest

Prompting and support

Parents, teachers, or clinicians can prompt children during certain behaviors in order to support or guide them to complete the task/behavior successfully. A well-timed prompt can prevent the behavior from derailing. For instance, when forgetting a step of a chore, a child might become frustrated and abandon the task.

A well-timed prompt helps keep the child focused and on track for completing the task as directed. For instance, when putting on shoes, the child might pause after sitting down with the shoes. The therapist might guide the shoes to the right/left foot, encouraging the child to place the right shoes on their feet.

ABA Therapist and child at Cardinal Center

Prompt fading

It’s important for therapists or parents to offer prompts, especially when initiating new behaviors or tasks, but over time, this prompting should fade so that children shouldn’t rely too much on them. Knowing when to remove prompts is just as important as knowing when to offer a prompt.

how common is autism

Shaping with positive reinforcement

When performing new skills, the therapist will offer some type of positive reinforcement when the child performs well. These positive reinforcement might be a verbal word or phrase such as “great job.” They might clap as a sign of their positive reinforcement.

In some cases, the reinforcement might come as a small reward. These rewards and positive reinforcement encourage the child to keep performing well and to continue to enjoy their learning process.

Other Therapy Considerations for Autism

Therapists rely on many types of therapy to support children with autism. For example, applied behavioral analysis is a behavioral approach. However, there are also developmental approaches. For instance, physical therapy may be beneficial for some children who need improved motor skills. Sensory integration therapy can help children who may become easily disturbed by sensory disturbances. In some situations, children may require pharmacological interventions to relieve certain symptoms or improve their focus.

Providing other therapies in addition to ABA depends on the child’s needs. Not all children will require a pharmacological approach. Some children will need physical therapy, but many will not. Some kids with autism can benefit from a social skills group or a certain educational approach. Tailoring therapy to the child’s needs is ideal.

childrens autism therapy

Get Applied Behavior Analysis and the Support You Need from The Cardinal Center

The Cardinal Center specializes in applied behavior analysis. We offer individual therapy, group therapy, and education in the form of our academic classroom. We offer customized support for every child and their family. Our positive environment is ideal for promoting learning and development. We rely on the best ABA practices designed to promote learning through positive reinforcement.

If you are in need of autism treatment for your child, visit us for a consultation. We can discuss how individual and group therapy can support your child’s needs. You may also be interested in our educational classroom where children with autism achieve their educational milestones, learning in a safe and positive setting that’s in tune with their needs.

Contact us to learn more about our treatment philosophy and how we can support your child. Call us to schedule your consultation.

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