Psychology in the early twentieth century was dominated by the study of an individual’s mental processes. Psychoanalysis was the leading theory of choice which looked at states of consciousness and introspection of one’s own thoughts and feelings.
Psychologist John Watson questioned this approach and determined that the subject of psychology should focus on the direct observation of an individual’s relationship with the environment. Following Watson’s work, B. F. Skinner expanded on his theories and became known as the father of behavior analysis.
Skinner determined the stimulus response (S-R) model commonly used by psychologists to be incomplete and began looking at consequences to behaviors in the environment. This model developed in to what currently is known as the three-term contingency (antecedent, behavior, consequence).
This three-term contingency is the foundation for Applied Behavior Analysis, ABA and guides the approach to the behavior change process as well as all learning. Any behavior that is followed by reinforcement will increase, while a behavior followed by punishment will decrease.
To determine if a consequence is a reinforcing or punishing consequence, we only need to look at what happens to the behavior. If behavior increases, the consequence provided was reinforcement, if the behavior decreased, the consequence was punishment.
In 1968, two significant events occurred, which lead to the creation of what is known as the science of Applied Behavior Analysis, ABA. The first event was the publishing of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis; the second, the publication of the article Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis by Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968). In the article, Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968), the authors, outline the seven tenets of ABA:
In the hard sciences, scientists have developed objective measures/laws with regards to their field of study. There is no need for a personal opinion as scientific findings have identified these laws. The science of behavior is no different.
When past behavior is analyzed, we are able to predict if a behavior is going to increase, decrease or remain stagnant when variables in the environment are manipulated. If the behavior does not respond as predicted, the intervention can be revised or a new intervention can be applied.
Using the scientific approach to looking at behavior allows us to focus only on factors that are important to the intervention for the same behaviors. When B.F. Skinner’s Science and Human Behavior (1953) was published, it introduced a different view on why humans behave and changed the field of psychology completely.
He suggested that all behaviors are controlled by events that follow the behavior (operant behavior) rather than determined by the antecedent (respondent behavior).
It introduced the need for “standards of proof” when looking at human behavior thus allowing for an objective view on behavior and more effective methods for changing behaviors.
Psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas started using behavior principles to teach children with autism in the early 1960’s. Behavior principles had previously been used to demonstrate significant behavior changes in individuals with severe disabilities, but Lovaas laid the groundwork for what has become known as Applied Behavior Analysis, ABA therapy or Lovaas therapy.
He was the first to create a systematic framework for intensive interventions with children on the autism spectrum. Lovaas dedicated his life to helping families and today “ABA-therapy” is considered the only effective method for treating autism.
The Lovaas method, or “ABA-therapy” consists of breaking every skill a child with autism needs to master into small, teachable units. Then, applying the principles of ABA and the three-term contingency, appropriate behaviors and correct responses are reinforced while inappropriate behaviors and incorrect responses do not lead to reinforcement.
Typical ABA therapy or early intensive behavior interventions (EIBI) begin as soon as a child is diagnosed and consists of 30-40 hours per week of intense one-on-one therapy. Lovaas published the results from his initial work in a 1987 article “Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children” (Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 55(1), Feb 1987, 3-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.55.1.3).
Over the past 30 years, EIBI, Lovaas therapy or Discrete Trial Training (DTT) has become standard practice in the treatment of autism. Parents who previously saw little hope when receiving a diagnosis for their child, now look to ABA as a reliable and successful treatment option.
More detailed description of different applications of ABA for children with autism can be found at Autism Speaks.