Autism Therapy Terms You Should Know

ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is, by any measure, the most popular and widely used autism therapy. ABA can be used to teach appropriate behaviors or skills, and it's often provided to autistic children through no-cost early intervention and school programs. While it's not a terribly complex process, it can seem that way because ABA therapists often use special terms to describe what they're doing. Once you know the terms, you'll find it easy to understand what they're doing and how they're doing it.

A child going through therapy

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How Does ABA Work?

ABA is built around traditional behaviorism. Behaviorism assumes that both animals and people learn to behave appropriately because they are responding to potential rewards or consequences.

On the simplest level, dogs do tricks because they are expecting a treat, and they avoid pulling on a leash because they don't like the feeling of a collar choking them. On a much more sophisticated level, employees work harder when they expect a bonus for their extra effort, and they avoid stealing from their employer because they don't like the idea of going to jail.

ABA is a therapy which uses behavioral theory to teach people with autism how to respond appropriately, make requests, and behave as typically as possible. Over the years, ABA researchers have discovered that consequences for non-compliance are not only ethically questionable but are also unnecessary. Thus, in the vast majority of situations, ABA therapists do not use consequences or punishment; instead, if a child fails to comply, he or she does not receive a reward.

The most basic form of ABA therapy is actually quite simple:

  1. You start by determining, through conversation or experimentation, what reward is most interesting to the child. While some children respond best to a smile and praise, others are more likely to respond to a treat such as a favorite food or an opportunity to do something they enjoy.
  2. Next, you ask the child for the desired behavior. That behavior can be something as simple as "pick up the spoon", "repeat this word", "name this object," or as complex as "have an appropriate conversation with a classmate."
  3. If the child responds as desired, he or she receives a reward. If not, there is no reward. In some cases, the request is repeated until the child complies.

It's important to know that the very simple form of ABA described above, called "discrete trials," is by no mean the only available form of ABA. In fact, there is a wide range of newer ABA techniques with names like "pivotal response" and "natural environment teaching" which are much less regimented. All ABA techniques, however, are based in behaviorism and use rewards to reinforce positive behaviors.

Terms Used by ABA Therapists to Describe the Therapy

ABA itself is not terribly complicated. But as in many technical fields, behavioral therapists use special terms (jargon) to describe what they're doing. Here are just a few of the terms you're likely to hear from your child's ABA therapist:

  • Positive Reinforcer: the treat or reward offered for a job well done
  • Negative Reinforcer: removing a negative event or stimulus for a job well done (for example helping a learner to unzip his heavy jacket only when he asks for help)
  • Mand: the request for a desired behavior
  • Echo: an imitated sound or word (the therapist says "say spoon" and the child says "spoon")
  • Tact: a verbal label (the therapist says "what is this?" and the child responds "spoon")
  • Intraverbal: a correct conversational response (the therapist says "what do you want?" and the child replies "a cookie")
  • Deprivation: withholding a reinforcer prior to giving a mand or because the learner does not comply with a mand
  • Extinction: the point at which the learner is able to comply with a mand without a reinforcer
  • Consequence: usually refers to a natural negative consequence rather than a punishment; for example, the natural consequence of refusing to stand in line for the slide is that the child doesn't get a turn on the slide
  • Generalize: helping the learner to use new skills in multiple settings and situations

In practice, then, the therapist shows the learner a reinforcer, then gives a mand requesting a tact or intraverbal. If the learner is able and willing to comply, he or she receives their reinforcer and they move on to the next mand. If not, they may experience a consequence and the mand is repeated. Once the learner has learned the new skill and no longer needs a reinforcer, extinction has been achieved and the skill can be generalized.

Or, in layman's terms, the therapist offers a child a cookie as a reward for correctly labeling a spoon. The child says "this is a spoon" and receives the cookie. If the child doesn't say "this is a spoon," she doesn't receive the cookie. The therapist then tries again until the child gives the requested response. After a while, the child is able to label the spoon without getting a cookie, and it's time to practice labeling spoons of different kinds in different locations so the child understands that there are many kinds of spoons.

How ABA Differs From Ordinary Parenting or Teaching

So what's the difference between a mand and a request, or a reinforcer and a prize? For example, if you say "Janey, if you say spoon I'll give you a cookie," are you doing exactly the same thing as an ABA therapist would do?

The difference, according to Amanda Reed, BAppSc, MA, is fairly small. "A mand is essentially a request, but it's all about what comes before and after the request. Prior to the mand comes some kind of deprivation or aversive."

For example, a therapist, knowing that a child particularly likes Oreo cookies, might hold an Oreo in her hand and show it to the client. This is the deprivation or aversive. While it isn't a consequence, it's a way of communicating the idea that "you'll lose something you want if you don't comply."

When the client correctly uses a mand by requesting the cookie using words, picture cards, signs, etc., the therapist responds by handing over the cookie. If the client simply grabs, the therapist withholds the cookie and instructs the client to use the appropriate mand.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Anderson, L. K. (2022). Autistic experiences of applied behavior analysis. Autism. 2022;13623613221118216. doi:10.1177/13623613221118216

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Treatment and intervention services for autism spectrum disorder.

Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.