ABA – Myths and Misconceptions

10393171_372381742934454_2695308392166283698_nABA services are relevant only to individuals diagnosed with autism or PDD/NOS.

ABA is a methodology, which is not aligned with any specific treatment and therefore is not limited to servicing only individuals with a specific diagnosis such as Autism Spectrum Disorder/Pervasive Developmental Disability [ASD/PDD].

It has been used effectively with a multitude of disorders and disabilities as well as aiding in  acquisition of academic skills, smoking cessation, and other socially  relevant skills of humans as well as across species applications. In summary, ABA has successfully been applied to:

  • Environment/Sustainability issues
  • Organizational Behavior Management
  • Speech Language Pathology
  • Addictions
  • Gambling
  • Gerontology
  • Criminal Forensics
  • Health and Fitness as well as others

ABA only works for intellectually delayed ABA cannot work with individuals who know what you are doing.

This misconception is very similar to #1 listed above. ABA works because it is a systematic way to assess, measure and teach discrete skills or behavior chains. It does not work because an individual “doesn’t know what’s going on” or because “they do”. Think about Weight Watchers™ – this program is one that incorporates many successful behavioral techniques, promoting monitoring/measuring and teaching individuals how to adjust food intake or exercise output

ABA is synonymous with Discrete Trial Training (DTT).

ABA is a methodology, guided by the seven dimensions rather than a particular teaching procedure or intervention. On the other hand, Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a procedure (sometimes referred to as the Lovaas Method), based on the fundamental principles of applied behavior analysis (i.e. reinforcement, three-term contingency, prompting, etc.). During DTT:

  • A discriminative stimulus is presented,
  • A response occurs or is prompted to occur
  • A consequence is delivered
  • The instructor pauses before presenting the next instructional demand, also referred to as inter-trial interval.

DSC_9315ABA is antiquated, something from the 70’s.

ABA is alive and well! The number of behavior analysis college programs that exist and the number of individuals certified in the field are signs of the growing awareness and acceptance of behavior analysis. ABA is not just for individuals with autism, but in a significant way autism may have resurrected the broad interest and application of this science. For some, it may be easier to accept other branches of psychology as the “one true way”. But, for many, especially those who have not had success with other methods, ABA is a hopeful science. It promotes the attitude that not only can something be done to improve the situation, but something can be done NOW and the individual can be included in the solution.

ABA can only be applied to behavioral

A common misconception is that ABA services are designed for focusing exclusively on challenging behaviors (i.e. self injurious or aggressive behaviors). However, Behavior Analysts consider behavior to be any observable and measurable act, inclusive of academic behaviors (i.e. writing, computing math problems, learning to read, communicating etc.).

ABA is only effective for young children.

ABA is a methodology often used with children; particularly children on the autism spectrum. Factors such as an early diagnosis, intensity and type of treatments selected can impact improvement. There is emerging information in the medical community suggesting that before the age of 3, a child’s brain is more receptive to creating new neurological connections. However, this should not be viewed as the only “teachable” moments in a child’s life. ABA techniques have been effectively applied to numerous cases (stroke patients, neurotypical children and adults, etc.) well beyond the early stages of childhood as well as outside the realm of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

If a child does not receive intensive ABA by five years of age, the window of opportunity for learning will close.

There is no evidence to support this claim. Conversely, there are published studies documenting the efficacy of ABA with adult learners and for individuals with and without autism diagnoses.

DSC_9413ABA (or DTT) is done at a table top.

ABA is not restricted to one environmental area. On the contrary, it is inherently concerned with an individuals’ ability to generalize information; often accomplished by varying the location and manner in which skills are taught. While it may be common for some activities to occur at a desk or table-top it is typically due to:

  • The skill requires a table-top for easy manipulation of objects and/or for skills which require “school attending” behavior
  • The program is implemented by someone with superficial understanding of ABA principles.

ABA is harmful / uncomfortable for children.

Some people are under the impression that ABA relies heavily on the use of aversives. Whereas a proper application of behavior analytic principles actually focuses on reinforcement and manipulation of the environment, not the individual. If the inclusion of aversives is warranted by the behavior, all parties must be in full agreement and as indicated by the Conduct Guidelines of the BACB obtain written consent after communicating all potential risks, benefits, procedural descriptions, safeguards, timeline, anticipated outcome(s), monitoring system and schedule for oversight of implementation.

Often when people say, “I don’t like ABA” “ABA isn’t for my child”, or “We tried ABA and it didn’t work”, after listening to their story, it would be more appropriate to say, “I have a problem with the misapplication of ABA“…and in response, “so do I”.

ABA produces robotic children

Some parents and caregivers avoid investigating (or selecting) ABA-based treatments because they have heard that ABA is a very strict and rigid program. They may have heard reports of children forced to sit in a chair for hours; with images of crying for both parents and children. They may have also heard that the programs are run very strictly, which may indicate to them that there is not room for the child’s personality to develop. Fortunately this information is old and outdated, or even flat out inaccurate. Current behavior analytic approaches include Incidental Teaching, Interspersal Teaching, Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), Verbal Behavior (VB), as well as others, which vary greatly from traditional application of DTT.

DSC_9638ABA only uses edibles (food) for reinforcers.

Behavior analysts do often consider the use of edible reinforcers for students who:

  • are young
  • have limited repertoire of preferred items, and/or
  • have severe behavior.

Edibles are considered primary reinforcers – that means no one has to teach us that food can be rewarding – we need it to survive. Even for individuals for whom food is an effective reinforcer, quality behavior analytic professionals will take strides to fade out food and introduce other types of reinforcers. This is often done by pairing the new item (e.g., preferred toy, song, etc.) or activity (e.g., high-five, hug, smile, etc.) with the original reinforcer. Over time, the newer item should come to acquire the same reinforcing properties of the food/edible reinforcer. If you have concerns over edible reinforcers for your child, your student or yourself, it is always best to bring this to the attention of your consultant.

Anyone can do ABA.

While it is not uncommon to offer training to students or others who provide direct service there is incredible danger designing procedures without a comprehensive understanding of ABA  principles. It is recommended by the BACB that the “BCBA designs and supervises behavior analytic interventions. The BCBA is able to effectively develop and implement appropriate assessment and intervention methods for use in familiar situations and for a range of cases“. The Board also states that BCBA’s supervise BCaBA’s and others who implement behavior analytic services.

Only BCBAs are qualified to provide treatment to individuals receiving ABA services.

Typically BCBAs serve as consultants and program managers. BCBAs often assume responsibility for supervising therapists who provide direct treatment to clients.

All BCBAs / BCaBAs ability to provide competent treatment are equal to one another.

Each individual’s experiences and education differ from one another as does their ability to apply these skills to the populations they serve. All clinicians [BCBAs included] should be evaluated on an individual basis. For more information please refer to the most recent copy of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board [BACB]’s Task List for a current list of items a competent BCBA and BCaBA should be able to demonstrate proficiently.

40 hours of therapy are needed for positive effect.about page-our approach

Following a comprehensive review of research, the National Research Council (NRC) recommended that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) need active engagement in intervention for at least 25 hours a week. The NRC noted that the most important areas of focus must include:

  • Functional, spontaneous communication
  • Social instruction in various settings (not primarily 1:1 training)
  • Teaching of play skills focusing on appropriate use of toys and play with peers
  • Instruction leading to generalization and maintenance of cognitive goals in natural contexts
  • Positive approaches to address problem behaviors
  • Functional academic skills when appropriate



The above information has been written by Amanda N. Kelly, PhD, BCBA-D and taken from her website.