Applied Behavior Analysis and Early Intervention

Sarah FerryResources, Therapy Options

What is ABA and what makes it different from other approaches?

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is a field of science that studies behavior. The study of ABA is a widespread field that looks at how behaviors (actions and skills) develop and change within a specific environment (the social or physical surroundings). The practice of ABA seeks to determine the “who, what, where, and why” of behaviors in order to develop methods to both teach new skills and replace problem behaviors with positive ones. ABA is used to teach a wide variety of skills such as play skills, communication, self-help skills, and social skills. What makes ABA different from other approaches? Ongoing research! ABA methods are supported by extensive research to insure that the methods being used in the field are effective across people and environments.


What does ABA look like in early intervention?

Parents and caregivers make these connections between their child’s behavior and environment every day. Take the example of a child “covering his eyes.” If a parent is playing a game of peek-a-boo with their child and the child covers his eyes, the parent keeps playing peek-a-boo.  But, if there is a scary monster in a movie and a child covers his eyes, the parent turns off the movie. The behavior looks the same, but the environment changes how a parent will respond to the behavior to meet their child’s needs.

In this example, the parent’s response is reinforcement, a major concept in ABA. The child is covering his eyes to communicate a need to the parents, so when parents react to meet that need, the child is reinforced to use this behavior again to communicate the same need in the future.  Similarly, a child may continue to use disruptive behaviors if these behaviors have been reinforced to meet their needs. For example a child may scream to gain parent attention, or climb on furniture to reach a cabinet with cookies.

In early intervention ABA therapy, therapists will work together with families in their homes and community to identify these behavior and environment relationships by answering the “who-what-where-when-and why” questions of behaviors.  By doing so, parents and therapists can work together to teach the skills needed to bring about positive changes in behavior. For early learners, ABA methods are implemented in a child’s natural surroundings and daily routines and can be used to teach play skills, social skills, communication, and self-help skills.


If you are interested in learning more about applied behavior analysis, talk with your child’s therapist or teachers about local resources. ABA therapy should be taught by those who have a solid education in ABA methods and experience implementing these methods in practice. A board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) is an expert on designing and implementing ABA-based programs.

For further reading on ABA or to download a tool kit for parents, visit the Autism Speaks website at: