Shaping Behavioral Science: Remarkable History of ABA

By Brad Fenton | 5 June, 2024
Abacus Therapies - History of ABA

As we go through the history of ABA, we’re not just tracing the steps of pioneers and practitioners — we’re walking a path that has led to real, impactful changes in lives around the globe. From its controversial beginnings to becoming a pillar in behavioral therapy, especially for autism.

So, let’s start at the very beginning and see how a simple concept evolved into a life-changing practice.

From Foundations to Future: Evolutionary Journey of ABA Therapy

The genesis of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is inextricably linked to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas in the 1960s. Often hailed as the ABA founder, he wasn’t just a clinician but a visionary who saw the potential for behavioral science to transform lives.

His approach was fundamentally different from the psychoanalytically influenced treatments of his time, which often viewed autism and related conditions as the result of poor parenting and didn’t consider them treatable.

Dr. Lovaas’ work was grounded in the principles of behaviorism, a field of psychology that focuses on observable behaviors and the ways in which they are influenced by the environment. 

The Early Work

In the early 1960s, Dr. Lovaas began applying these principles to children with autism, a condition that was poorly understood and often stigmatized at the time. He theorized that through careful observation, precise measurement of behaviors, and the application of reinforcement strategies, it was possible to achieve a significant and lasting change in these children’s behavior. This foresight and methodological innovation marked a pivotal chapter in the ABA therapy history

The Methodology

Dr. Lovaas developed a series of techniques that would become the cornerstone of ABA therapy. This included discrete trial training (DTT), a method where skills are broken down into their simplest components and taught incrementally through a system of cues, responses, and rewards. 

Dr. Lovaas also emphasized the importance of early, intensive intervention, positing that children who receive more hours of therapy per week showed greater improvements in IQ and adaptive behavior.

The Legacy

His work was famously documented in a 1987 study, sometimes referred to as the “Lovaas Study,” which showed that nearly half of the children who received intensive ABA therapy achieved significant improvements in IQ and educational placement. 

The work of Dr. Lovaas also laid the groundwork for what ABA would become — a scientifically validated approach to behavior modification with a wide range of applications beyond autism, including developmental disabilities, cognitive impairments, and behavioral issues.

ABA and the Law

In the history of Applied Behavior Analysis, the 1980s and 1990s were characterized by significant legislative advancements. Notably, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the United States, which recognized the importance of providing children with disabilities, including autism, access to appropriate educational interventions based on ABA principles. 

This era also witnessed the expansion of ABA to address a wider range of behaviors and conditions, further solidifying its standing in the scientific community.

ABA History Timeline: Milestones Along the Way

The evolution of ABA is marked by several key milestones that have shaped its trajectory and broadened its impact: 

1968: Researchers and practitioners establish the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA), creating a dedicated platform for ABA research​​.

1970s: Schools, therapy centers, and homes start widely applying ABA principles, showcasing the approach’s versatility.

1980: The Midwestern Association for Behavior Analysis rebrands itself as the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI), reflecting its expanding global influence​​.

1981: Robert Stein founded the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies to promote behavior analysis through research, education, and applications​​.

1987: The B.F. Skinner Foundation comes into existence, ensuring ongoing dissemination and application of Skinner’s behavior analysis work​​.

1993: Nancy Neef breaks new ground as the first woman editor of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, marking progress in the field’s academic leadership diversity​​.

1994: The US Department of Behavior Analysis is established, recognizing behavior analysis as a unique professional field​​.

1998: The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) launches certification for behavior analysts, promoting professional standards and ethical practices​​​​.

2000: Publication of the European Journal of Behavior Analysis begins, widening the scope of ABA research internationally​​.

2005: The founding of the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts further professionalizes the field​​.

2007: The Association of Professional Behavior Analysts gets established, advocating for ABA practitioners’ interests​​.

2009: Oklahoma and Nevada set a precedent by becoming the first states to license behavior analysts, enhancing the profession’s recognition and regulation at the state level​​.

ABA and Autism: A Special Connection

The relationship between ABA and autism marks a significant chapter in the history of ABA therapy. Since its beginnings, ABA has been vital in unlocking the potential of individuals with autism, offering hope for families navigating the challenges of the spectrum. The methodology’s core principle, that behaviors can be taught and modified through structured reinforcement, has been especially effective in helping autistic people manage and improve communication, social skills, and overall behavior.

ABA’s impact on autism therapy became particularly evident in the late 20th century, as studies and real-world applications began to showcase significant improvements in children receiving ABA-based interventions, as well as adults.


The story of Applied Behavior Analysis and its history is one of remarkable progress and real-world impact, particularly for those affected by autism. 

ABA’s journey from innovative theory to a key method in autism therapy showcases not just scientific breakthroughs but also a path to hope for countless families. ABA’s practical techniques have opened doors to new possibilities, enabling individuals to lead fuller, more engaged lives. 


What is the origin of ABA?

ABA originated in the 1960s, developed from behaviorism principles. It was pioneered by Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas to modify behaviors through structured interventions.

How has ABA changed over time?

ABA has evolved from primarily autism-focused interventions to a broad application across various behavioral issues, incorporating technological advancements and personalized techniques.

When did ABA therapy become popular?

ABA gained prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, following research and documented improvements in children with autism.