The ABA Method of Therapy and How It Works

The ABA method is a promising alternative kind of therapy. Would you like to know what it is and what results are being obtained with it? In this article, we explain.
The ABA Method of Therapy and How It Works
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 02 March, 2023

The ABA method is a therapy modality that focuses on developing social, learning, and communication skills. It’s usually applied in cases of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, it’s also a common therapeutic alternative in children with other issues.

In fact, in recent years, the ABA method has been applied to a wide variety of conditions. For example, addictions, dementia, eating and anxiety disorders, anger management, and post-traumatic stress, among others. It’s the kind of therapy that, in order to produce results, demands a firm commitment on the part of the affected individual.

This model was designed based on several investigations carried out by Dr. Ivar Lovaas, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Los Angeles, in 1987. He demonstrated that the behaviors of children with autism could be modified with the ABA method. Since then, its use has expanded.

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude .”

-William James-

Boy with back autism

The ABA method: a facilitator of autonomy

ABA is an acronym for Applied Behavior Analysis. Each of these elements corresponds to a principle of this type of therapy:

Analysis. This corresponds to the principle of experimental behavior analysis. It refers to the fact that progress is evaluated from recorded and measured interventions.
Behavior. The model is based on the principles of classical and operant conditioning. In other words, behaviorism.
Applied. This refers to the fact that the principles are applied to observed behaviors, in contrast to the models that refer to inferred behaviors.

The objective of the ABA method is to facilitate the development and autonomy of patients. It does so by designing a specific and personalized program of the skills that each individual requires to advance in their development.

ABA emphasizes the skills that are necessary to acquire new learning such as attention, cooperation, and imitation. In addition, it promotes the development of basic social skills and communication skills that guarantee proper interaction.

The characteristics of the ABA method

In addition to the principles of the ABA method, there are also seven characteristics that define its application. They’re as follows:

Education is based on success. The necessary tools are provided to achieve successive successes, avoiding unnecessary frustration. This motivates and strengthens self-confidence.
Structuring. The procedure is structured and divided into achievable steps. They start from the simple, progressing to the complex until the individual develops the skill.
Registration. This is daily and systematic. It includes evaluations to measure progress and collect objective information on progress. Furthermore, if necessary, the program can be restructured to make it more functional.
Individualization. Each program must be adjusted to the specific characteristics of the individual. For this reason, a thorough initial evaluation is necessary.
Generalization. Therapeutic education begins in the home. As it progresses, it must be applied to other, ever-wider settings.
Coordinated action with parents. The work is coordinated with the parents. They must take an active part in the intervention to reinforce and complement it.
Scientific support. The actions and the therapy as a whole are supported by scientific evidence.

Psychologist applying the ABA method to a child with autism

How does it work?

The application of the ABA method begins with a detailed evaluation of the child or adult patient. This initial review makes it possible for the therapist to design a personalized intervention program. It’s aimed at the specific development of the skills that each individual patient requires. They should dedicate around nine hours a week to the plan.

The therapist dealing with the case will identify or discover investigative evidence that supports their intervention. They’ll also improve their own therapeutic skills in this process. In the case of children, a training process is carried out with the parents in which their role within the therapy is explained to them.

As a rule, the more detailed a program is, the better it works. It must contain the actions, divided into steps, to be carried out. When this part is complete, the four basic actions of the ABA method apply:

  • The discrete trial.
  • Presentation and withdrawal of support.
  • Searching for effective reinforcements.
  • Systematic registration.

Available data indicates that the ABA method tends to achieve its objectives. This involves the development of cognitive, social, and communication skills. However, the relevant data isn’t conclusive. In fact, in some cases, it offers magnificent results, while in others its implementation is hardly noticeable. Therefore, it’s clear that more and better research is required in order to perfect this method of therapy.

The controversy surrounding the ABA method

In recent years, there’s been much debate regarding the relevance and effectiveness of this method. As a matter of fact, many people with autism and their advocates oppose ABA-focused interventions. On the other hand, there are those who favor its usage. Let’s take a look at the arguments for and against.


One of the reasons why many people are against ABA is that it’s a behavioral intervention. As such, it seeks to extinguish behavioral patterns that don’t conform to the standards of social normality. Therefore, those who are against ABA claim it’s detrimental to people with ASD, as they’re encouraged to hide their autistic traits.

“Forcing a child to stop these calming behaviors is largely harmful and pointless. We hypothesize that the only reason ABA tries to ‘extinguish’ such behaviors is, in general, to make neurotypical people feel more comfortable.”

Sandoval-Norton, et al. (2021)

ABA therapy has been labeled as abusive, not only for the above reason but also because it can end up being traumatic. A study published in Advances in Autism found PTSD symptoms in almost half of the participants exposed to ABA. On the other hand, those who didn’t receive the intervention had a 72 percent chance of being asymptomatic. The authors of this study noted that:

“Based on clinical observations, ABA-exposed children demonstrated fight/flight/freeze reactions to tasks that would otherwise be considered pleasurable to an unexposed peer, and those responses increased in severity with a duration of ABA exposure”.

More anti-ABA sentiments

Another reason this method has been criticized is that, according to research, it reduces motivation, increases dependency, and lowers self-esteem in people with high-functioning autism. Based on these findings, individuals don’t improve, they get worse.

In this regard, Sandoval-Norton, in an article published in Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, cited two studies that questioned the efficacy of ABA in treating autism. The first of these points out that 76 percent of people treated with ABA demonstrate little or no change, while nine percent worsen. However, the second study didn’t find a significant correlation between the number of hours of intervention with ABA and the results obtained.

“The observed positive changes were ‘small and may not be clinically significant’, and the vast majority of those receiving services experience no change in the one thing that ABA is intended to treat.”


There are also conflicts of interest in various investigations that support the effectiveness of ABA. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology states that there’s an extremely high rate of conflicts of interest in researchers who approve the use of ABA.

The study also noted that conflicts of interest could skew studies. This means researchers might claim that their interventions demonstrate positive effects when, in fact, they’re not effective.


The arguments of people and professionals who are in favor of ABA to treat autism spectrum disorders are generally based on studies that support its application. Here are some of them.

A meta-analysis notes that ABA is effective for socialization, communication, and expressive language. That said, the researchers found no significant effects on receptive language, adaptive behavior, daily living skills, IQ, verbal IQ, nonverbal IQ, and restricted and repetitive behavior.

The Association for Science in Autism Treatment endorses ABA as an effective intervention for many people with autism spectrum disorders. It also maintains that it’s effective in increasing behaviors and teaching new skills.

Also in favor is The National Autism Center. It conducted a review and an analysis of interventions for autism spectrum disorder. This study highlighted the ABA method as an intervention with sufficient evidence of its effectiveness.

More studies in support of ABA

In line with the above, another study on ABA applied to the treatment of autism also supported its effectiveness, classifying it as a state-of-the-art treatment. This study, published in the newsletter of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, claims that:

  • All people who have autism receive some degree of benefit from ABA.
  • No other treatment for autism meets the ABA’s standard of scientific evidence. Moreover, there are no other scientifically approved interventions that produce similar results.
  • More than 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles on autism described the successes of ABA.

The same publication points out that early intensive behavioral intervention through applied behavior analysis improves the development and intellectual performance of children with autism.

An article published in Cogent Psychology argues that ABA stems from high-quality, well-controlled studies demonstrating its efficacy in populations with autism. Furthermore, according to several researchers, it demonstrates some of the best results in the treatment of ASD.

As you can see, the debate is an extremely close-run race. Indeed, both perspectives have research to support their positions on the use of ABA. These controversies provide a really clear message: the fact that it’s essential to develop new research to close the gap that’s opened up.

Final considerations

There’s neither unanimity nor widespread agreement regarding the use of this intervention for people with autism. In fact, there are an increasing number of voices against it, despite the fact that several investigations and institutions endorse its application.

However, all of these controversies and tensions are necessary. They promote spaces for dialogue that allow the improvement and development of interventions that favor neurodiversity, inclusion, and respect for all autistic people.

Finally, we hope that this article has inspired you to reflect and discover more about the ABA method and its application in autism spectrum disorders.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.