Applied behavior analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior.

“Socially significant behaviors” include reading, academics, social skills, communication, and adaptive living skills. Adaptive living skills include gross and fine motor skills, eating and food preparation, toileting, dressing, personal self-care, domestic skills, time and punctuality, money and value, home and community orientation, and work skills.


ABA methods are used to support persons with autism in at least six ways:

  1. to increase behaviors (eg reinforcement procedures increase on-task behavior, or social interactions);
  2. to teach new skills (eg, systematic instruction and reinforcement procedures teach functional life skills, communication skills, or social skills);
  3. to maintain behaviors (eg, teaching self-control and self-monitoring procedures to maintain and generalize job-related social skills);
  4. to generalize or to transfer behavior from one situation or response to another (eg, from completing assignments in the resource room to performing as well in the mainstream classroom);
  5. to restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviors occur (eg, modifying the learning environment); and
  6. to reduce interfering behaviors (eg, self-injury or stereotypy).

ABA is an objective discipline. ABA focuses on the reliable measurement and objective
evaluation of observable behavior. Reliable measurement requires that behaviors are defined objectively. Vague terms such as anger, depression, aggression or tantrums are redefined in observable and quantifiable terms, so their frequency, duration or other measurable properties can be directly recorded. For example, a goal to reduce a child’s aggressive behavior might define “aggression” as: “attempts, episodes or occurrences (each separated by 10 seconds) of biting, scratching, pinching or pulling hair.” “Initiating social interaction with peers” might be defined as: “looking at classmate and verbalizing an appropriate greeting.”

ABA interventions require a demonstration of the events that are responsible for the occurrence, or non-occurrence, of behavior. ABA uses methods of analysis that yield convincing, reproducible, and conceptually sensible demonstrations of how to accomplish specific behavior changes.

Source: http://www.centerforautism.com/getting_started/aba.asp

Compared with gentle teaching

We don’t say that ABA doesn’t work and that it isn’t effective. It is, if our goal is to modify the behavior of a person and  not to help the person develop himself as a full human being. With ABA we get a person who is created by others and not a person who is the fulfillment of his own dreams and talents.


The basic assumption in gentle teaching is that every person longs to be connected with others in a safe and loving relationship; even people with autism for whom the nature of autism will make this more challenging than for others. Feeling safe and loved is, next to food and shelter, perhaps the most essential human need. The six ways ABA says to support a person, do not include helping the person to feel safe with, and loved by others. That is the first and most important critics we have on ABA.


Second, ABA is only focusing on the outer appearance of the person; on his behaviors and his skills. And with that ABA ignores the essence of human beings and of human society. Human beings are sensitive beings. We have feelings and through our feelings we are connected with others and  we form our community. If we are not allowed to look at, and speak of the feelings of a person, and if we are not allowed to use our own feelings and emphatic abilities in supporting a person, we don’t only harm the person, but also ourselves. We treat the person and ourselves as robots, who perform what the designer has decided and programmed us for.


This way we might create a person who has skills and competencies which make him acceptable for the community, but we don’t help a human being to become part of the community.

Also in gentle teaching it’s important to help a person develop his skills and competencies. But we don’t start with this. We start with teaching the person to feel safe, loved, loving and connected.


This relationship is the ground for his personal growth in which he can fulfill his dreams and develop his talents. And we can support him by step by step help him develop his skills. There is no principle objection to the use of some kind of material incentives to initiate something new, but the essence of Gentle Teaching is that learning something new and learning to feel connected (doing it together) has to go hand in hand. We also have be make sure that the newly developed skills are based on intrinsic motivation. Otherwise we always need systems of systematic reinforcement to maintain the behavior. This intrinsic motivation has to do with feelings and inner longings. You can read more about this in the articles on quality of life.