ABA: Not just for Autism!

ABA: Not just for Autism!

Most people do not know what ABA is, and usually, the ones that do think it is a therapy specifically for children with autism. And while ABA is the only scientifically proven therapy for children with autism (and a very popular method of treatment),  it is not just for children with autism.

Applied behavior analysis is the science of understanding and changing human behavior. ABA is an extremely broad field of study and has been applied to many settings. ABA has been used in weight loss, smoking cessation, and rehabilitation programs, sports, work environments, and classrooms.

I have often wondered why ABA is not more mainstream. Given its success with changing behavior, you would think that more people would be making use of this marvelous behavioral science!

Here are examples of how ABA can be used in other settings:

Hospital Settings

At XYZ Medical Center, rates of infection are increasing because staff is failing to consistently follow proper hand washing procedures. One of the hallmarks of ABA is that it offers a systematic method for determining the function of behavior (why people do what they do). Interviews and observations would be done to figure out the reason staff are rejecting such a paramount hygienic practice. Dry hands? Too inconvenient? Does staff not understand the importance? An ABA practitioner would determine the main reasons for lack of hand washing, provide training programs, reinforce hand-washing, provide feedback, and arrange the work environment so that hand washing is easy to do (e.g. signs, strategic location of soap and sinks) and take data on compliance.

At Home with Typical Children

Parents everywhere can attest to this fact: it’s not just children with autism who engage in disruptive behavior in order to get something or to get out of something! All parents can benefit from learning the basic principles of behavior. It is very easy to reinforce negative behavior if you are not aware of the way behavior is shaped. For example, say your child is constantly interrupting you when you are speaking with other adults. When she does this, you stop to explain why interrupting is not nice. But you are wondering why she keeps doing it! If you understand that attention (even negative attention) is a powerful reinforcer for most children, you will know how to stop reinforcing this inappropriate behavior.  

Organizational Settings

This is a unique field of ABA called organizational behavior management (OBM). It is the application of ABA to employee behavior within an organization. As simple as it seems, ABA interventions such as specific goal setting and immediate feedback have proven extremely effective for increasing productivity at work. Also, ABA consultants are often hired by organizations to train managers on more effective methods of evaluating and reinforcing employees.


More and more schools are adopting “positive behavior support” strategies based on ABA as a means of dealing with students with behavior problems. Also, many classrooms are starting to incorporate ABA principles and teaching strategies. ABA has a plethora of research touting the effects of reinforcement (as opposed to punishment) to teach appropriate behavior. Other ABA techniques proven successful in classrooms include discrete trial teaching (a very specific form of teaching involving a clear/simple/specific instruction, and immediate feedback), student performance charts, and card/color systems for behavior management.

Exercise/Weight Loss Programs

Ever done an exercise program where you logged your exercise time or weight and got to see a graph of your progress? That’s ABA! Feedback has been proven to be a useful behavior change strategy. Setting goals, placing your jogging shoes right next to your bed, utilizing alternative behaviors to eating, and social support systems all have roots in applied behavior analysis.

The general principles of ABA can relate to just about everything that humans do! ABA can treat any observable behavior. Studying, yelling, exercising, cleaning; pretty much anything! It’s all about goal setting, teaching skills systematically, changing the environment, and reinforcing positive behavior.