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by Dr. Becky Spelman on 07/05/2019

What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?

For those who struggle to understand or apply these behavioural norms, life can be very hard. For example, people with conditions such as autism often find it difficult to interpret social cues and can behave in ways that others interpret as strange or inappropriate. This in turn can lead to difficult situations and hamper their ability to function in social environments and to reach their potential in education or at work.

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), originally developed in the 1960s, is an approach that has been proven to be effective. An ABA therapist works to help people with conditions such as autism to change their behaviour by exploring the relationship between the behaviour in question and the individual’s social environment, and to help them to learn a different behaviour that will be seen as more appropriate. ABA can be used with both adult and child patients and has been demonstrated to be effective in both demographics.

In ABA, “behaviour” is considered to include both actions taken, and less tangible reactions including thoughts and feelings, and the therapeutic approach is tailored specifically to the individual in question—to their interests, their abilities, and their specific needs.

How can ABA help?

ABA is a practical and pragmatic approach to the difficulties posed by issues such as autism. It focuses on behaviours that are causing problems and applies techniques to change these behaviours. For example, if a patient finds it very difficult to look people in the face when talking to them, and this is causing them problems at work, at school, or in their social life, their therapist can work with them to find a way to address and change this problematic behaviour.

ABA can use techniques including positive reinforcement to strengthen or weaken given behaviours. For example, positive reinforcement could involve providing the patient with a reward (which could be as simple as verbal praise) each time they engage in the desired behaviour. Positive reinforcement can be a very useful tool in establishing behaviours that are considered more socially appropriate and, in general, it is a much more useful therapeutic tool than negative reinforcement, which involves working to associate the undesired behaviours with negative stimuli such as punishment. With positive reinforcement, the positive rewards offered to the patient are selected with a view to their personal interests and tastes, and to their age and abilities. For example, for a child with autism, a reward could be an extra visit to the playground, or the opportunity to watch a video they love, etc. Whatever the age of the client, positive reinforcement works by giving them a tangible reason for continuing with the desired behaviour. When the patient engages in undesired behaviour, they receive no feedback at all unless it is necessary for someone to intervene to diffuse a dangerous situation. Over time, the desired behaviour can become their default reaction.

Therapists using ABA also analyse and explore the social environments that their client has to navigate. For example, patients with autism may find very noisy, crowded environments stressful to be in, and their stress can lead to an exacerbation of their more difficult behaviours. Gradually, they can learn how to manage more challenging environments better, and when their own sense of being overwhelmed is telling them that they need to take a break to regroup.

ABA can help patients to develop more effective skills in the areas of language and communication, to improve their social skills and ability to focus, and to reduce and more effectively manage behaviours that have been problematic for them in the past. In this way, it can lead to much greater levels of autonomy, and to much greater engagement with education, work, and social relationships.


Baer, D.M.; Wolf, M.M. &Risley, T.R. (1968). “Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis”. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 1(1): 91–97. doi:1901/jaba.1968.1-91. PMC 1310980. PMID 16795165.

Peters-Schefferab, N., et al. (January–March 2011) “A meta-analytic study on the effectiveness of comprehensive ABA-based early intervention programs for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Volume 5, Issue 1, , Pages 60-69.

Weiss; Mary Jane Delmolino Lara (2006). “The Relationship Between Early Learning Rates and Treatment Outcome For Children With Autism Receiving Intensive Home-Based Applied Behavior Analysis”. The Behavior Analyst Today. 7 (1): 96–105. doi:10.1037/h0100140.

How can I get Applied Behaviour Analysis in London?

If you would like to talk to someone about autism or applied behaviour analysis, please get in touch with us at the Private Therapy Clinic by telephone at: +4402038820684 or by email at:



      Counselling Psychologist in Doctoral Training

      Children, adolescences & adults