Home Speech-Language Pathology The ABCs of ABA in the SLP World

The ABCs of ABA in the SLP World

by Becca Jarzynski
written by

Literacy Stations: ABC Order

Photo by Chrissy Johnson1

We speech-language therapists have a lot of acronyms in our little speechy world. We are SLPs (speech-language pathologists) who have our CCCs (Certificates of Clinical Competence) from ASHA (the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association). When I graduated with my M.S. (okay, you all know that one) in speech-language pathology, I was pretty sure I’d mastered the alphabet soup of our profession.

Until I fell in love with kids with autism, that is. That’s when I was introduced to the world of ABA. If you’ve loved a child with autism, you’ve no doubt run smack into this term, too, and probably very early along the journey you took. Despite the fact that this word swirls around the autism world with great furiosity, it is often misused and a bit misunderstood. Some people love it with a passion; others hate it with the same intensity. Me? I think it both extremely valuable and sometimes overused.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My goal today is to begin to define the term for those who don’t know it well. Later, when I’ve laid the groundwork just a bit, we’ll delve into the true complexities that exist with what appears, at first glance, to be a very simple concept.

ABA stands for Applied Behavioral Analysis.  It’s based on the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who focused on operant conditioning, or the study of observable behaviors and the events that cause and reinforce those behaviors. The applied part of ABA means that we take this system of looking at the way behaviors are shaped and apply it to everyday life; we use it to shape behaviors that are important to the lives we lead. When we peer at the world through the eyes of ABA, we find ourselves looking at three main things.

The Antecedent: What happened in the environment before the behavior occurred?

The Behavior: This part involves describing the overt behavior that you see or want to see. Not the motives, not the intent, not the feelings behind the behavior. Simply the behavior as you can observe it in front of you. Those who study and use the principles of ABA believe in describing the behavior as clearly and objectively as possible. For example, instead of saying “Sally got mad,” a behavior analyst would say “Sally screamed and hit the door with her fist.”

Consequence: What happens after the behavior? Does this thing that occurs after the behavior (the consequence) increase the chances the behavior will occur again, making it a reinforcement? Or does it decrease the chances the behavior will occur again, making it a punishment?

To help explain, let me share a couple examples.

Say you are teaching a child to say “cookie.” The steps behind teaching the word might go a little something like this:

Antecedent:  You hold up a cookie and say, “cookie”
Behavior: The child imitates “cookie”
Consequence: You give the child the cookie. (This would be positive reinforcement, assuming that giving the child the cookie increases the chances he will say the word again in the presence of the the cookie. Or, in plain English, assuming the child actually wants the cookie–although behavior analysts would probably shy away from describing it this way, as it reflects the child’s internal state, rather than his behavior).

Or, perhaps you are teaching your child to walk. 

Antecedent: You hold out your hands and say “come here!”
Behavior: Your child takes his first step toward you.
Consequence: You cheer and throw your child in the air as he giggles. (Again, this is only reinforcement if it actually increases the chances your child will take a step toward you the next time you hold out your hands and say, “come here!” It wouldn’t be a reinforcement if he hated being thrown in the air- in this case, it might decrease the chances that he’d come to you and would, then, become a  punishment*. Consequences are different for different people- the exact same action that is a reinforcement for one person can be a punishment for another).

These three things- the antecedent, behavior and consequence (Or ABCs of ABA, if you will…yes, another acronym), make up the core of ABA. Those who live in the world of ABA focus very carefully on the ABCs behind any and all behaviors. They graph and chart and study these elements of life and plan interactions around them.

ABA is much more complex than this, of course; I took four full graduate level classes about ABA when I completed my graduate certificate in Behavioral Intervention in Autism.  There are those that study ABA all their life and still don’t have all the answers, and there are entire, complex, and well-graphed treatments for autism that are based the concepts behind ABA.  It is not nearly as simple as I am making it at the moment. And yet, if you understand the ABCs behind ABA, you can begin to understand the world through the eyes of an applied behavior analyst.

How, then, does ABA fit into the world of SLP? As an experienced applied behavior analyst once told me, we all (parents, teachers, speech-therapists, all of us) use ABA in one form or another.  SLPs are no exception. We use the principles of ABA to teach children first words (Antecedent: “Say, Ball!” Child’s Behavior: “Ball!”  Consequence: Child is rolled the ball). We use ABA methods to teach children how to behave and understand language (Antecedent: “Sit down please.” Child’s behavior: sits down. Consequence: “Here’s your snack.”).  We call on ABA to help us figure why children behave in certain ways, so that we might help them find a better response and eliminate challenging behavior. For example, we might look at what comes just before a child hits another child (the antecedent), discover that it happens whenever another child obstructs the way, and then give the  child a new behavior (saying, “move please”) by teaching and reinforcing this new behavior.

So yes, we all use the concepts behind ABA, intuitively and frequently, to teach, motivate, and shape our children’s behaviors. And yet, controversy behind these methods exists. Why so? Because there are significant differences in how and when we apply these methods, in how stringently we define the behaviors we expect, in how we select and apply consequences, and in how strongly we believe that the ABA lens is the only one through which we can view the world.

That’s a post for a different day though.  For now, we’ll just be happy that we’ve learned our ABCs.

 (This post originally appeared on Child Talk)


Becca Jarzynski, M.S., CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist in Wisconsin. Her blog, Child Talk, can be found at www.talkingkids.org and on facebook at facebook.com/ChildTalk.

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Sarah February 8, 2012 - 12:14 pm

Interesting stuff! Thanks for the resource.

George February 8, 2012 - 3:41 pm

Becca some thoughts-
I think the “ABA lens” often leads to tunnel vision by many professionals for a number of reasons in treatment of 0-3 year olds diagnosed with PDD-NOS EI home programs. First, many of these children are given 20 hours of ABA even if they are not ready (oh, right we condition them to tolerate it) because of a number of reasons (mostly too young, misdiagnosed) or don’t need it because they would do just as well with other methods employed (play, direct teaching, indirect teaching, natural environment) by special ed teachers. Secondly, many teachers are not certified in ABA and are taught a watered down version and/or follow the Maurice book like a bible. I find using a combination of methods such as Discrete Trials, play, FloorTime, Hanen Program principles, etc. to work best with the PDD-NOS younger children, many which are probably really expressive language delay/disorder. Too much money is being wasted in these cases when ABA should not be used, oh but it works for all? Lastly, knowing when to move the children forward or letting go. I guess as a SLP I was trained if one method doesn’t work move on to another. My experience is that most ABA specialists are to rigid or too conditioned (and they wonder why the children are not flexible later) to accept another methodology. Perhaps, we need to remember that teaching a child is as much science as art based.
Presently, I am trying to have one of the children placed in a Early Intervention Center Based Program because the next logical step is to get him with peers for social skills development. You know because research and professional experience agree this is a skill that is a problem area in the future for these children. You know how well that goes when you are one and there are two teachers who very well may be experiencing some type of “separation anxiety” from the child or wallet? Oh, and who would the agency back, keh ching!
If ABA works so well then why can’t it be successful with reading problems, prison reform, etc. ? We should be in Nirvana, if we used it every day. Oh, wait how about a national law we all must receive ABA certification and we will have a Utopia! We need to find new approaches and not buy into this ABA being good for all.
Too much money being inappropriately wasted on cases that do not need it and due to stricter criteria for those with expressive language delays getting services early (2 years old) they continue to be at risk for language based learning disabilities in the future.

Shumaila February 29, 2012 - 1:55 pm


It is probably true that many parents of many children may be told to go for 20hr/wk ABA when they either may not need it, or other methods may work. However, as far as the research shows, behavioural treatment for individuals with autism has certainly indicated large improvements in functioning and life skills. There is also certainly far more research in the use of ABA being effective for individuals with autism than there is for other, alternative therapies. As scientists, we should always be seeking knowledge and research to verify what we know and discover new technologies that we may be unaware of, for the benefit of our clients and community. Given current research, ABA definitely has such support from science.

As far as the use of a combination of methods goes – yes, there is most certainly a benefit in doing so, which is why most credible and successful programmes recommend a combination of Speech, ABA, and OT to maximise the benefits from each specialty.

It is unfortunate that you may have met inflexible ABA therapists who refuse to accept or consider other methodologies; but as a BCBA, I would try to convince you in that being a minority. ABA is based on scientific principles and research that continuously encourages adapting to individual needs, changing environments and working with other fields.

Finally, just as with any other field, there are those who implement the science to the best professional and ethical standards possible, and those who falter. There are many people who claim to practice ABA but are not certified nor meet professional guidelines – just as with other scientific fields. That doesn’t mean the science is at fault – it is the person implementing it.

And yes, principles of ABA can be implemented and have been proven to be successful for reading problems (refer to Project Follow Through and Direct Instruction)

Mary Valentic November 30, 2013 - 9:50 pm

I find that the repetition associated with ABA is all that is necessary to teach children with autism and that operant conditioning does not acknowledge or respect the child’s innate intelligence.

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