Understanding The Role Of ABA Therapy For Autism

In the years before the 1960s, when medical interventions and research in the field of autism spectrum disorders were limited, most children with mild symptoms were treated with talk therapy solely. The ones with severe symptoms or learning differences were bound to institutions and had a grim future from there on.

As research and the scope of medical interventions grew, different forms of support and care treatments for autism emerged. Against the backdrop of a history of ancient care practices, the introduction of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy was a miracle in the field of autism. ABA therapy is a form of medical intervention that aims to help individuals with autism by making them learn new behaviors and skills. Along with this, it also helps reduce negative behaviors that are counterproductive to the whole process. 

But how does ABA therapy actually work? Is it even the right treatment process for a child person with autism? What are the potential benefits and risk factors associated with it?

In this post, we will dive deeper into the working of ABA therapy. From understanding its types, effectiveness, and criticisms – we have got you all covered. Let’s get started.

ABA Therapy

What is ABA therapy?

ABA is one of the most widely used forms of therapy for children with autism. It aims to build important and desirable skills and behaviors using positive reinforcement tactics. The common aims of ABA therapy include the following:

  • teaching communication and social skills,
  • improving language and speaking skills,
  • reducing negative or distressing behaviors,
  • improving academic performance, and
  • teaching practically essential life skills. 

ABA theory uses a reinforcement model to internalize these skills in children. Positive reinforcement simply means rewarding appealing behaviors while discouraging negative ones. 

ABA therapists collaborate with families and educational staff to help children with autism build important life skills. Apart from autism, it is also used in other conditions, including: 

  • anxiety disorders,
  • borderline personality disorder,
  • developmental disorders,
  • obsessive-compulsive disorders, etc. 

Different Types Of ABA Therapy

There are various approaches to using ABA therapy, including the following:

1. Discrete trial training (DTT)

Discrete trial training was the first form of ABA to be officially used. This approach breaks down different skills and behaviors into small, discrete steps. Each step of the skill is practiced multiple times. Every time the child performs the step correctly, the therapist rewards them. If not, the therapist might try repeating the question or prompt to get better results.’

2. Incidental Training

This method is similar to DTT in the reward-prompt approach. However, incidental training aims to teach a child the skills that are part of their regular life, like at playschool, or dining table, etc. Therefore, unlike DTT, these skills can be taught by parents and educational professionals even without the therapist.

Read more: World Autism Awareness Week 2023 – Busting The Myths

3. Pivotal response training (PRT)

PRT focuses on teaching children fundamental skills like initiating conversations, taking turns, etc. These basic skills serve as a framework for building other social skills and developing healthy relationships. Therefore, they are highly crucial for children in their lives.

4. Natural environment teaching (NET)

Natural environment training is the next step after DTT. In this step, the child practices the skills learned in DTT in natural environments like home or classrooms.

5. Early start Denver model (ESDM)

ESDM is one of the newest approaches to ABA therapy. It can follow both play-based and traditional instruction-based formats. Unlike DTT, which focuses on one skill at a time, a therapist will try to teach multiple skills using one exercise in ESDM.

Now that you know about the basic working and models of applied behavior therapy, it is important to understand its various criticisms and drawbacks.

Criticisms for the ABA approach

As the use of ABA has expanded within the medical field, there has been staunch criticism of the model from different sections of people. The most important controversies surrounding ABA therapy include the following:

1. Being extremely tough and demanding for children. 

While the use of aversion or punishment in ABA has largely been removed, it is believed that the ABA approach is tough and demanding for children. At the initiation of ABA, it was taught for about 40 hours a week to all children. While the number of these hours has been significantly cut down, the concerns still prevail.

2. Being too focused on eliminating neurodiversity. 

It is complained by multiple people say that ABA is too focused on eliminating the behaviors and quirks of neurodivergent individuals. It discourages autistic traits without being concerned about the emotional state of the children involved. It makes children believe they must be ashamed of their autistic traits. It is often directed toward eliminating the differences between kids with autism and others instead of understanding the reason behind these behaviors. 

Read more: World Autism Awareness Day 2023 – Parenting A Child With Autism


Both the supporters and critics of ABA therapy can come to the middle ground – accept the usage of ABA until it is effective and healthy for people with autism. This means using ABA to build essential life skills rather than using it to eliminate the differences between people. 

We hope this post will help you understand the basics of ABA therapy.

The criticisms of ABA therapy for autism shed light on how important it is to generate acceptance for neurodivergent individuals within society. To learn more about moving from awareness to acceptance, click here.

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