ABA Basics

• What is ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis is a field of psychology that focuses on the application of learning theory to the reduction of problematic behaviors (e.g., aggression, tantrums, self-stimulation) and to the teaching or acceleration of delayed behaviors (e.g., language, academic skills, social skills). ABA has been applied to many psychiatric, educational and community issues. However, within the field of autism, the term has recently (if somewhat inaccurately) become synonymous with the intensive early intervention model developed by Ivar Lovaas and his colleagues at UCLA.

• What is discrete-trial teaching?

The technical definition of discrete-trial teaching is beyond the scope of this FAQ. However, in practical terms, discrete-trial instruction involves one-to-one teaching sessions in which: 1) all irrelevant language and stimuli are removed, and 2) artificially strong and immediate rewards are added. 

A good discrete trial involves a clear, concise instruction (e.g., “Sit down.”) and an immediate and unambiguous consequence for the child’s response (e.g., the tutor says, “Excellent!” and gives the child a sip of a favorite drink.). 

A poor or non-discrete trial might involve a lengthy instruction with irrelevant verbal content (e.g., “O.K. I know you know how to do this. Let’s show Mom and Dad. Have a seat. Yeah, sit down. Just like you did yesterday. Come on.”) and weak, delayed or ambiguous consequences for the child’s response (e.g., “That’s not bad,” paired with no tangible rewards).

• Why teach discretely?

Discrete-trial procedures clarify and simplify the teaching situation for both children and tutors. Children with limited communication and attention skills acquire skills more easily when taught discretely, and staff can more readily maintain consistency in teaching procedures. 

It should be noted that the discrete-trial setting is an artificially idealized learning environment, and skills taught discretely must be generalized to real-world environments. 

• Is EIBT only good for high-functioning children?

No. Early Intensive ABA has been proven to have significant and long-term benefits for children at a wide range of functioning levels.

• Is EIBT only good for low-functioning children?

No. See above.

• Why should I be interested in a Lovaas/EIBT/BIEI program for my child?

Currently, Early Intensive ABA is the only intervention that has been scientifically proven to have a measurable and long term impact on the functioning levels of children with autism. 

• What results should I expect from an EIBT program?

Research indicates that some children show significant benefits (e.g., 30-40 point IQ increases; independent, age-appropriate academic functioning), while others may show no measurable long-term gains on standardized measures of cognitive, communication or social functioning. Parents and caregivers should be prepared for a broad range of potential outcomes. 

• Who should receive a Lovaas/EIBT/BIEI program?

Current research suggests that most children diagnosed with autism, PDD-NOS, or Asperger’s Syndrome, should be provided with an intensive early intervention program on a trial basis, initiated before the age of 42 months. Continuation of the program should be based on quarterly or biannual reviews of progress that indicate measurable, significant benefits that exceed the benefits of alternative community supports.