What Is ABA Therapy for Autism & How It’s Done

By Brad Fenton | 7 February, 2024
For Parents - What Is ABA Therapy for Autism

If you’re feeling overwhelmed about where to start with autism treatment, you’re not alone. This article takes a closer look at ABA therapy, a key method for helping children with autism that many parents find invaluable and is recommended by the government health services. 

We’ll guide you through how it works, from the basics introduced by Dr. Ivar Lovaas to today’s latest methods, and tackle some of the big questions and hurdles along the way. Plus, we’ve got some handy tips on dealing with ABA insurance.

Ready to start? Let’s dig in!  

ABA Therapy: Meaning and Main Elements

There are plenty of definitions and studies, but let’s say the simplest ABA definition goes like this: 

Applied Behavior Analysis, commonly known as ABA, is a scientific discipline with a practical focus on improving social, communicative, and learning behaviors. 

Emerging in the 1960s, ABA therapy has since evolved into a well-regarded and widely used approach, particularly beneficial for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The key elements of ABA therapy, which we will discuss in greater detail in the following sections, are: 

  • Behavioral analysis: Based on behaviorism, ABA dissects how behavior is influenced by the environment and how learning occurs as a result of these interactions.
  • Practical application: The therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s adapted to each individual, and focuses on improving social and emotional skills and mitigating harmful behaviors.
  • Broad application: While particularly effective for ASD, ABA’s flexible nature makes it applicable for conditions like ADHD, Down syndrome, and anxiety disorders.
  • Reward-based system: Its methodology is based on positive reinforcement. Success in ABA often hinges on rewarding desired behaviors, thereby encouraging their repetition.
  • Family involvement: ABA success rates increase when caregivers are actively involved in the process and provide consistent and adequate support outside of therapy sessions. Therefore, your participation is immensely important for your kid’s well-being.

Who Does ABA Therapy?

ABA therapy services are typically provided by board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs), who are trained and certified professionals in behavior analysis. 

The Scope and Effectiveness of ABA Therapy

As you look for the best way forward, it’s encouraging to see how ABA therapy has helped so many children improve their skills and independence. Recognized by the American Psychological Association for its efficacy, ABA therapy extends its benefits across various age groups, from children to adults. 

While it is best known for its impact on children with autism, its principles are also effective for adults, helping to improve communication, social skills, and independence.

Its impact is particularly evident in academic development, as highlighted by Swallows and Graupner’s 2005 study, which found that 48% of individuals on the autism spectrum experienced rapid improvements in learning and test scores following ABA therapy. Additionally, a different study showed that children who participate in at least 25 hours of ABA therapy per week demonstrate significant advancements in their studying and learning abilities.

While these findings are promising, ongoing research continues to explore the full scope of ABA’s effectiveness across various aspects of development and behavior. It’s not just about the numbers; it’s about real families, maybe just like yours, finding hope and progress. At Abacus Therapies, we witness the success of ABA therapy for children with ASD in our everyday practice.

How to Start with ABA Therapy 

Starting ABA therapy can be a big step for your family. Rest assured, each move is taken with your child’s best interests at heart. 

The beginning of the therapy process is vital because it lays the groundwork for a personalized ABA treatment program, and you can imagine your role as a parent like that of a superhero sidekick. It includes the following steps: 

  • In-depth assessment: Therapists closely observe the child’s behavior in different environments to understand their unique challenges and strengths.
  • Creation of treatment plan: Based on these observations, a treatment plan is developed and objectives are set, including the duration of the sessions and the use of different techniques.
  • Treatment and ongoing assessment: Collaborating with parents, other caregivers, and educators makes it easier to apply these techniques consistently in different environments, track progress, and plan future steps.

The intensity and duration of ABA sessions vary, and often range from 10-40 hours weekly for children, to accommodate extensive learning needs. For adults or in ongoing phases, therapy might be reduced to focus on specific skills.

The Crucial Role of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves rewarding desired behaviors to reinforce their recurrence. Think of how a smile spreads across your child’s face when you praise them. In the context of ABA, this practice takes on a structured form, and helps your child understand and repeat behaviors that lead to positive outcomes. 

Basically, focusing on what a person does right and providing tangible rewards such as praise or a favorite activity creates a more encouraging and effective learning environment.

Major ABA Techniques

ABA therapy uses a variety of techniques that are designed to address specific developmental needs and learning processes. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Early Start Denver Model (ESDM): ideal for toddlers with autism, this strategy, for children aged 12 to 48 months, consists of playful, engaging activities to improve cognitive, social, and language development. You’ll see your child participate in playful tasks that improve their skills and also bring out their brightest smiles.
  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT): this technique breaks down complex behaviors or skills into smaller, more manageable units. It operates through a three-step process: presenting a cue (antecedent), prompting the child’s response (behavior), and offering appropriate feedback or reinforcement (consequence).
  • Natural Environment Teaching (NET): moving beyond the controlled setting of a therapy room, this strategy helps children apply skills learned during therapy in their everyday environments.
  • Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI): this approach is especially beneficial for young children. It’s a rigorous, yet thorough program focusing on foundational skills in communication, social interaction, and adaptive behaviors, specific to your child’s unique developmental stage.
  • Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT): the PRT method encourages children’s active involvement in learning. It promotes self-initiation in learning tasks, improving engagement and addressing key areas of development.

Which of the above applied behavior techniques are going to be combined or used by our therapist(s) depends on each individual case.

Implementing ABA Therapy in Different Contexts

Application-wise, ABA therapy is flexible and adaptable to different settings. This means that whether at home, school, or in the community, ABA therapy adapts to fit your child’s world. You can choose between:

  • Comprehensive ABA treatment: this involves intensive therapy sessions that span across multiple environments, and it’s designed to address a broad range of behaviors and skills.
  • Focused ABA treatment: here, the therapy concentrates on specific behavioral challenges or skills. Typically conducted in one-on-one sessions, it allows for intense focus on particular areas needing improvement.

What Does ABA Therapy Look Like?

In practice, ABA adapts to real-life situations with structured, personalized strategies. Seeing ABA therapy in action can really bring to life how these strategies support your child’s progress and learning. Some examples of this are:

Scenario 1: In a therapy session, a child who struggles with verbal communication is encouraged to use words to ask for a preferred toy. The therapist presents the toy (antecedent), waits for the child to request it verbally (behavior), and then immediately rewards the child with the toy and praise upon successful verbalization (consequence).

Scenario 2: In a school setting, a child who has difficulty staying seated during lessons is involved in a behavior plan. The teacher uses a timer (antecedent) to signal sitting time. When the child remains seated until the timer goes off (behavior), they receive a token that can be exchanged for extra recess time or a preferred activity (consequence).

Potential Disadvantages of ABA

Why is ABA therapy considered harmful by a number of therapists and autism rights and neurodiversity activists when there are thousands of studies in favor of ABA? This is somewhat rooted in the early ABA beginnings. Its historical roots, particularly in the work of its founder, were in methods that combined positive reinforcement with more controversial punitive measures. This early approach to ABA has sparked concern about its potential negative consequences.

However, current ABA practices have evolved to address these concerns:

  • There’s a shift towards balancing behavior modification with nurturing individual strengths.
  • Modern ABA is more conscious of neurodiversity, moving away from forcing normative behaviors.
  • Contemporary ABA offers more adaptable, engaging, and less repetitive methods.
  • There’s an increased emphasis on respecting and valuing individual differences.

Consequently, ABA therapy is one of the preferred treatments for kids with ASD. As a matter of fact, the introduction of state insurance mandates for ASD has caused a spike in the number of ABA therapists.

ABA Costs and Insurance

Is ABA considered a healthcare service? Indeed, ABA is primarily considered a healthcare service, and therefore often covered by insurance. 

To access ABA therapy, first review your insurance plan, as coverage varies by provider and state. Private health insurance often includes ABA therapy, but the specifics depend on your policy’s details. For children under 21, Medicaid generally covers ABA therapy if deemed medically necessary.

For those without adequate insurance coverage, exploring state-funded programs or grants specifically designed for autism-related therapies can be beneficial.

If you have any questions or concerns about your health insurance for ABA therapy, feel free to reach out to us via email or phone.

Final Thoughts

Wrapping up our exploration of what is ABA therapy for autism, it’s clear that this approach is about enabling each person with autism to reach their fullest potential. At the end of the day, what we all want is to see our children thrive and carve out their place in the world, and we at Abacus Therapies are committed to this vision. We create custom ABA therapy plans that are as unique as your child. 

If you’re considering ABA therapy, our team at Abacus Therapies is ready to guide and support you every step of the way.


What does ABA do for autism?

ABA therapy in autism primarily focuses on improving life skills and reducing (self)harming behavior. It involves reinforcing positive behaviors to aid communication and social skills, and breaking down complex tasks to make learning more manageable for individuals with autism.

What is an example of ABA therapy?

An example of ABA therapy using Discrete Trial Training might involve the following: the behavior therapist begins with simple, clear instructions or questions. The patient/child gets time and possibly cues to respond. Over time, as the patient improves, these cues are phased out. Correct responses are reinforced with positive praise, and initially, strategies are used to guide the client to the right answer.

What are the pros and cons of ABA therapy?

Pros of ABA therapy include its effectiveness in skill development and its personalized approach to each individual’s needs. On the other hand, cons involve the sometimes intensive nature of the therapy, and potential ethical concerns regarding behavior modification. For these reasons, it’s very important that your communication with the ABA therapy provider is open and detailed.

How long does a child need ABA therapy?

The timeframe can vary depending on the child’s age, the severity of their autism symptoms, and their individual response to the therapy. ABA therapy sessions often start with a higher intensity, involving 20-40 hours per week, and may gradually reduce as the child shows progress. At Abacus Therapies, we take a fully individualized approach with each child and create a program that matches their exact needs and abilities.