How Does ABA Therapy Work?

Behavioral Therapy Katy

Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy, known as ABA Therapy, is a type of therapy for autism that helps reinforce desired behaviors and discourages undesirable behaviors. Therapists use rewards to encourage communication, language, and other skills to help people with autism live a full life. ABA therapy can be done in several ways, depending on the patient’s age and therapy goals.

Some of the types of ABA therapy are:

  • Discrete Trial Training
  • Pivotal Response Training
  • Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) breaks down lessons into simple tasks. This method is much like a ladder: Therapists work with the patient on one task, then work upward until they achieve the skill. Each task is rewarded with positive reinforcement for desirable behavior. 

This method was first applied to autism by Dr. Ivar Lavaas. His idea was that behavioral symptoms of autism could be modified or “extinguished” with reinforcement. Back then, ABA included punishments for negative behaviors, but in modern times, punishments are considered morally unacceptable. ABA therapists only use positive reinforcement for desired behavior. They teach kids how to cope with challenges and do not provide a reward for undesirable behaviors, which encourages patients to want to change.

ABA therapy is not, and never has been, a cure for autism. The goal of ABA therapy is to help patients with autism live a fully independent life. This is what most parents want for their children, and ABA therapy may be the solution.

ABA Therapy Begin Done By Therapist

How ABA Therapy Works

Most ABA therapy treatments begin with DTT. An ABA therapist will give the patient instructions, such as pick up a block, and if the child does the task, he receives positive reinforcement. This reward could be words of affirmation, a high five, or even a celebratory cheer. Anything positive that will encourage the child to repeat the task. If the task is not completed, the trial is repeated until the child accomplishes the task.

If the child seems to be struggling, then the task can be broken down into steps that are easier to accomplish. Maybe the child doesn’t know what a block is, or how to pick something up. ABA therapists will be able to pinpoint where a child is struggling using this method and will come up with goals to help a child complete the task.

ABA therapy methods depend entirely on the age of the patient. Children with autism under the age of 3 will receive a modified form of ABA therapy that more closely resembles play therapy. Children learn best through play, after all. Older children can also be treated with ABA therapy. The skills they will learn include social skills, play skills, communication skills, and other skills that will help them become independent adults.

What Does an ABA Program Involve?

The goal of any ABA therapy program is to help each person work on skills that encourage independence and success. ABA therapy is not a one-size-fits-all method, as some patients will show remarkable changes, while others show gradual improvement over a longer period of time. The results show that ABA therapy does work.

Treatment goals will be determined by a trained behavior analyst. Behavior analysts use a detailed assessment to determine exactly what skills the patient already has. The assessment will help the analyst write realistic goals that work for the patient and their family.


Autistic Child ABA Therapy

Some of the goals involved in ABA therapy are:

  • Social skills
  • Self-care Skills
  • Play Skills
  • Motor Skills
  • Academic Skills

ABA therapists will work on these goals one-on-one with the patient, utilizing some of the methods mentioned above to do so. The patient will have many opportunities to learn and practice these new skills each day, which is the best part of ABA therapy. ABA therapy is effective for patients with autism at any age. It can be used for children and adults alike.

Timeline of ABA Therapy

Your ABA therapist will work directly with you to set realistic, achievable goals for your child. At your intake appointment, you and a therapist will discuss your child’s current challenges and what you would like them to achieve. Session length will vary depending on the skills your child needs to learn. The number of therapy hours can range from 10-40 hours per week, and ABA therapy treatment usually lasts for 1-3 years. Patients are evaluated every few months to make sure they are on track to meet their goals. 

ABA therapy will come to an end in a few instances: If your child has met the goals of the program, doesn’t meet the criteria for autism, or isn’t making any progress, ABA therapy may not be the solution and services can be terminated. However, many patients with autism have shown significant improvements with ABA therapy.

Evidence that ABA Therapy Works

ABA therapy is considered “evidence-based” by the US Surgeon General and by the AAP. Evidence-based means ABA therapy has passed scientific tests that prove its usefulness, quality, and effectiveness at treating autism. More than 20 studies have determined that using ABA therapy for the long-term improves outcomes for many children with autism. Long-term ABA therapy is anywhere from 1-3 years and should be 25-40 hours of therapy each week. With the help of ABA therapy, children with autism have shown significant improvements in intellectual functioning, language development, life skills, and social functioning.


ABA therapy is a Great Treatment Option for people with autism. It is an evidence-based practice that has shown significant results in patients. ABA therapy is the best way to teach patients with autism the skills they need to live a full and independent life!

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