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 the Lovaas Method?
Ivar Lovaas is a behavioral psychologist who has conducted pioneering research in the field of autism treatment over the course of four decades. In 1987, Lovaas published the first study to demonstrate that some children with autism, with early and intensive behavioral therapy, could achieve normal IQ’s and academic functioning. Key components of the Lovaas Method include: early intervention (starting at 42 months or younger), intensity (up to 40 hours per week of direct instruction), and breadth of focus (language skills, self help skills, academic skills and social skills are taught across multiple environments). This intervention model was initially provided only by Lovaas at UCLA, and was consequently dubbed the “Lovaas Method.”

What is Early Intensive Behavioral Therapy (EIBT)?
EIBT is a generic term for behavioral services based on the research conducted by Ivar Lovaas and his colleagues at UCLA.

What is Behavioral Intensive Early Intervention (BIEI)?
BIEI is another generic term for behavioral services based on the research conducted 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.

Are discrete-trial teaching and EIBT the same thing?
No. Discrete-trial teaching is one component of an effective EIBT program. However, the quality and education of EIBT providers varies dramatically, and many EIBT programs inappropriately provide only discrete-trial instruction.

Is EIBT only good for high-functioning children?
No. EIBT 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, EIBT 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 an intensive early intervention 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.

What should I do if I receive conflicting advice from professionals regarding what kind of program is right for my child?
Ask all professionals what the scientific basis is for their recommendations. Unfortunately, there are many psychiatrists, psychologists and educators who are willing to give strong recommendations despite limited or no knowledge of current research on autism intervention. And of course, familiarize yourself with current research on autism intervention (see “Books and Publications” on our Resources page.

Do all intensive early intervention programs use the same procedures?
No. EIBT is still a new field. As noted above, prior to 1987, EIBT was exclusively practiced at the UCLA Clinic for the Behavioral Treatment of Children. The past few years have seen hundreds of behavioral service agencies established throughout the country. This boom has been the product of increased demand for services, not an increase in skilled services providers. Consequently, the education and experience of services providers varies dramatically across agencies. Some service providers measure their experience in decades, while others’ “professional” training is limited to weekend seminars. As a result, program content and quality varies drastically.



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