Why ABA Is So Effective At Teaching Children With Autism

ABA therapy is one of the most effective early intervention techniques for children with autism.
ABA therapy is one of the most effective early intervention techniques for children with autism.

Now and then on this blog I like to feature writing from other people. I do like to listen to my own voice but unfortunately I don’t know everything (I’m working on it). New voices are always welcome here. This post is written by Dr Erin Leif.

Erin’s Background

Dr Erin Leif (PhD, BCBA-D) is the clinical director of the Lizard Centre (which Michael attends). She is a board certified behaviour analyst at the doctoral level who has been working with individuals with autism spectrum disorders since 2003.  

Erin received her Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from Northeastern University in 2008 and her Doctoral degree in Behavior Analysis from Western New England University in 2012. While completing her graduate studies, Erin worked as a therapist and Program Supervisor at the New England Center for Children in Boston, Massachusetts.. In 2012, Erin relocated to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to provide early intensive behavioral intervention to UAE national children with autism. 

Luckily for us, she relocated to Australia to join the Lizard team in 2014.  

Erin’s Story

There are so many reasons why I love ABA and have decided to pursue a career in this field. I love making a difference in the lives of the families and children I work with. I love seeing children learn new skills and become more independent.

It is only recently that we as a society have come to understand that children (in fact, all people) with autism and related disorders can learn…a lot! Effective intervention is now possible and accessible.

Why is ABA so important for children with autism?

I thought I would share an excerpt from an interview with Dr Bill Heward, EdD, BCBA-D, from the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (the full interview can be found by visiting http://www.asatonline.org/research-treatment/interviews/interview-with-bill-heward-edd-bcba-d/).

In this article, Dr. Heward perfectly describes the reasons why I love ABA. I especially like his response to the question, “Why is ABA so important for children with autism?” ABA is public, accountable, self-correcting, and optimistic! These are qualities we should expect and demand from any therapeutic or educational intervention for our children.


Q: Why is ABA so important for children with autism?

A: When Don Baer, one of the founding fathers of applied behavior analysis, was asked why ABA was the distinctive treatment for autism, he replied that it’s because, “ABA is the discipline that has most consistently considered the problem of what behavior changes, made in what order and by what techniques, will confer the maximal benefit to the child” (Baer, 2005, p. 6). Like he did when responding to so many other important questions about teaching and learning, Don’s answer hit that one right on the button.

The Seven Dimensions of ABA

It is the way in which the applied behavior analysts working in the field of autism treatment “consider” problems that has made their findings so relevant.

Baer, Wolf, and Risley’s (1968, 1987) seven defining dimensions of the science are that it is:

  • applied,
  • behavioral,
  • analytic,
  • technological,
  • conceptually systematic,
  • effective, and
  • capable of generalized outcomes

These dimensions are at the root of ABA’s importance for autism treatment.

Here are a few other reasons why ABA is ideally suited to help improve the quality of life for children and adults with autism:

  • ABA is public –

everything about ABA is visible, explicit, and straightforward. There’s nothing hidden, ephemeral, or mystical about ABA. There are not metaphysical explanations. ABA’s transparent nature should be valued by all constituencies: consumers, providers and tax-payers.

(my side note: When we were thinking about starting ABA, we went to a Lizard Parents information session. The staff explained the principles to us and told us exactly what to expect. We saw all the children receiving therapy since the walls were all clear, and we skyped most of his early sessions.)

  • ABA is accountable –

Therapists and teachers whose work is informed by ABA focus on environmental variables that reliably influence learning and that can be acted upon. This yields a form of accountability and responsibility that is good for the public and consumers.

(my side note: the important thing about therapies based on evidence, is that you can tell if they are or aren’t working. All therapy is under our oversight. It is either in our home, or we can observe it at the therapy centre. We write down everything so we can analyse it later. It is easy to see trends and what is or isn’t working. The therapists can never claim that something is working if it isn’t – we know exactly how effective his early intervention is.)

  • ABA is self-correcting 

Direct and frequent measurement is the foundation and most important component of treatment based on ABA. It enables practitioners to detect their successes and, equally important, their failures so that changes can be made in an effort to change failure to success.

(my side note: in our therapy with Michael, this has been very valuable. Some programs we have done, have initially been totally unsuccessful. While we do keep trying for a couple of months, our supervisor will always monitor progress. If he isn’t moving forward or keeps having trouble with the same concept, she will start teaching him in a different way. Every time we’ve done this, he has been able to master the skill and move forward quickly.)

  • ABA is optimistic 

Children with autism are among the most difficult of all children to teach. ABA provides their teachers and parents a legitimate sense of optimism.

First, direct and continuous measurement lets us see small improvements in behavior that would otherwise go unseen (and therefore not reinforced and, as a result, perhaps not repeated).

Second, each time a teacher or parent successfully uses a behavioral technique, the more optimistic he or she is about the prospects for future success (positive outcomes are the most common result of behaviorally based interventions).

Third, the peer-reviewed literature in ABA is rich with examples of children, who many had considered uneducable, acquiring life-enriching communication, social, and independence skills.

My Side Note: How ABA Has Benefited My Son

When we started ABA, Michael had no skills. He couldn’t press a button. He couldn’t bang a drum. In fact what was the most heartbreaking thing is that he wouldn’t even attempt anything. Every time I tried to interest him in a toy, he threw a massive tantrum. Even if I left him alone to play as he wished, he threw the same massive tantrum. He ran around and looked at his fingers, and just kept regressing.

After a few months of ABA, we saw him attempt things for himself, and allow himself to be taught. The progress each day was tiny. Miniscule. One day, he would bang a drum a couple of times. The next day, he did that and pressed a button. We wrote it all down, so we could see the tiny improvements. It was so encouraging to see, after two hours of trying, that you were succeeding. But with the data you could see how much he was improving every day.  

Six months later, he did a formal assessment at an assessment centre. He attempted every single thing they asked. He still had a huge way to go. They assessed him at the developmental level of a 14 month old and he was well over two years old. But the important thing to me is that before he started therapy he was functionally a 3 month old and now he was learning, trying things, and much happier overall. Thank you ABA!

Pritchard, J. (2012). It’s Ok to say “I don’t know”: Advice from advisory board member Bill Heward. Science in Autism Treatment, 9(4), 1-3.


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  1. As a parent to a wonderful, unique, non-speaking child with autism, I fully support neurodiversity, presuming competence, and methods like RPM to help kids on the spectrum communicate. With all that in mind, I thought it’d be easy for me to interrogate their antithesis, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy. Here is some reasons why I preferred ABA therapy for my austric child.

    Individualised Programmes
    Firstly, it is important to note that autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that there is a broad range of children with very minimal symptoms of autism to extremely severe symptoms of autism.

    One-to-one teaching
    As mentioned, if children with autism can be so different from each other and require individualized programmes, this will be difficult to be executed in a group setting. Even with the most qualified and trained teacher, he or she is only one person and it will not be possible to teach children with autism effectively in a group in the initial stages of treatment.

    Early Intervention
    We are all aware of children’s ability to learn so much quicker when they are younger, which is why we want our children to learn a musical instrument, dance, sports or even another language because they have the ability to absorb like a sponge.

    Positive Approach of Teaching
    As mentioned in the previous point, we really want our kids to feel successful and have a positive experience of learning. This includes good relationships with their therapists and all our team at EAP are trained to build rapport with each child. This needs to be adapted accordingly to each different child.

    Aspire Early Intervention offers ABA therapists, undergraduate students who study psychology, speech pathology, occupational therapy, or related course work, teachers and parents the opportunity to gain formal training in the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis.
    If you have any questions or would like to discuss about it, please don’t hesitate to contact Aspire Early Intervention in Sydney.


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