Can Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Improve Autism?

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The research for intensive, early behavioral treatment which resulted in some children testing within the normal range on IQ, adaptive skills, and social skills, had children start treatment typically between the ages of two and three-and-a-half. On the other hand, there have been over 100 research articles documenting the use of applied behavior analysis principles to teach new skills to children with autism over the age of five. Most of these studies were not comprehensive programs but rather focused on one issue (e.g., one skill to develop or one behavior to change). Research shows, by the way, that applied behavior analysis procedures have been used effectively in many intervention programs to address the needs of a variety of populations and diagnoses (e.g., teaching children to read, helping adults quit smoking, increasing the productivity of a business, etc.).

The National Research Council’s 2001 book "Educating Children with Autism" discusses interventions for adolescents and adults. The book points out, “A number of interventions have demonstrated that adolescents or adults with autism can be taught purchasing skills and other community living skills, such as ordering food in a restaurant (Haring et al., 1987). However, most applications of instruction in community living skills have been developed for children and adults with mental retardation. Daily living skills targeted have ranged from appropriate mealtime behaviors (O’Brien et al., 1972; Wilson et al., 1984), to eating in public places (van den Pol et al., 1981). Proactive approaches to promoting community access include instruction in clothing selection skills (Nutter and Reid, 1978), pedestrian safety (Page et al., 1976), nondisruptive bus riding (Neef et al., 1978), vending machine use (Sprague and Horner, 1984), and coin summation (Lowe and Cuvo, 1976; Miller et al., 1977; Trace et al., 1977).

Additionally, procedures for teaching leisure skills have targeted independent walking (Gruber et al., 1979) and soccer (Luyben et al., 1986).

The vast majority of these interventions are behavioral interventions. Most citations are from the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. While much attention has been paid to the young children who made phenomenal progress in early, intensive behavioral treatment, such research does not exhaust the benefits of such treatment. Therapy utilizing applied behavior analysis is primarily meant to improve the quality of life of an individual with autism. This can be accomplished in early childhood, adolescence, and even later in life.

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