Applied Behaviour Analysis

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is the application of scientific principles to change the behaviour of an individual to a meaningful degree. Many children with autism do not learn from the environment as naturally and as easily as their typically developing peers. However, when the environment is set up in a way that is conducive to learning, children with autism are able to learn the same skills as their peers.

Learning to copy actions, with swinging as his reinforcer

ABA programmes are highly individualised, flexible, and comprehensive, in which all skill domains are addressed. All skills are broken down into small components and sequenced developmentally, or from simple to complex. Each component skill is taught via many learning opportunities, each comprising of a specific antecedent, response and reinforcer, referred to as a discrete trial. The child is given prompts to help them to respond correctly which are then faded over time until the child is able to respond independently.

Example of a Discrete Trial:

Intervention is intensive i.e. between 20-40 hours per week of structured sessions, plus formal instruction and practice throughout the rest of the day.  All aspects of the instructions are tailored to the individual and data is used to continually evaluate progress and ‘fine tune’ teaching procedures.

The Verbal Behaviour Approach

The Verbal Behavior Approach uses the principles and procedures of ABA, but emphasises and prioritises the application of Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior and Motivating Operations. The Verbal Behaviour Approach focuses on using the child’s motivation to teach them to cooperate and learn. Motivation is captured through positive interactions between the child and their tutor, so that the child experiences that learning is fun. Learning is child centered and takes place where and when the child is motivated (e.g. at the table, park, garden, playroom etc).

Verbal Behaviour programmes also focuses on using specific teaching procedures such as:

  • Errorless learning – providing prompts to help the child respond correctly from the outset. Prompts are then faded over time.
  • Mixing and varying task demands so that learning remains fun and interesting.
  • Mixing and varying easy task demands with more difficult task demands
  • Teaching to fluency so that the child is able to respond quickly and accurately
  • Teaching in the natural environment

Functions of Language

Skinner defined language in terms of its functions. Verbal Behaviour Therapy focuses on teaching these functions:

  • Mand – A request e.g. asking for a book
  • Tact – Verbal behaviour that is evoked by nonverbal stimuli e.g. a child says ‘book’ when they see a book
  • Receptive – Following instructions or following other people’s requests e.g. when presented with an array of pictures and asked ‘Give me the book’, the child will select the picture of the book.
  • Intraverbal – Verbal behaviour that is controlled by the verbal behaviour of others e.g. answering questions such as ‘What do you read?’
  • Echoic –  Repeating the word of another speaker e.g. Say ‘book’
  • Imitation – Point to point correspondence between physical movements e.g. a child copies the actions of others