Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is utilized in home and school environments as a behavior intervention system for children with autism spectrum disorders. This article presents a brief introduction to the history of ABA and its inception. Further discussed are ways ABA is utilized in a public school setting through education strategies and roles and impacts on certain groups that include students, teachers, and administrators. Solutions for new teachers designing programs or working with autistic children are offered to help them develop the most effective programs through partnerships and collaboration.
Keywords Adaptive Behavioral Function; Autism Spectrum Disorders; Behavioral Intervention; Early Intervention; Educational Function; Intellectual Function
Overview of Autism Interventions
Autism spectrum disorders is an umbrella term for a family of neuro-developmental conditions characterized by early-onset social and communication disabilities, challenges with imagination, and restrictive behaviors that range from stereotyped movements to accumulating vast amounts of information on specific topics (Volkmar, Lord, Bailey, Schultz, & Klin, 2004). Impairments in social interaction is one of the main factors typical of autism disorders, and these disorders also cause multiple deficits in language, play, eye contact, and gestures (Kanner, 1943). According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), other characteristics of autism include “irregularities in communication, repetitive movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences” with the added restriction of the capacity for abstract thought, especially as the individual ages (Hardman, Drew, Egan, & Wolf, 1993).
Autism is a life-long impairment with multiple impacts. Early intervention is central to overcoming many of the difficulties resulting from autism. Despite evidence that autism disorders can be identified as early as 18 months, many children are not identified until much later. As of 2007, children will be screened for autism during well baby checks twice yearly. Given these advancements in early diagnosis, advancements in early intervention programs at earlier ages have also been made (Centers for Disease Control, 2007). Theoretically, many of the interventions developed and offered to autistic children remain highly questionable and untested in terms of long-term research and impact. According to Reed, Osborne & Corness (2007), "It should be noted that it is not clear to the degree to which any program has fidelity to the manual in the face of specific demands of individual children…, and [they] vary from individual-to-individual, and from day-to-day within individuals" (p. 432).
Available treatments for autism vary significantly in terms of "context (e.g., school vs. home), intensity, and theoretical underpinning." Many children receive a variety of treatments, and it should be noted that parents and professionals face difficulty in determining the most appropriate programming for children in accordance with their age, severity of impact, and philosophy (Sheinkopf & Siegel, 1998, p. 15). Before children are placed in a school environment, home programs are typically developed and are used to prepare children for school and community environments. Most behavioral treatment protocols require highly structured, time consuming, and intensive programs. Applied Behavior Analysis has been recommended as a treatment option for autism spectrum disorders (McIlvane, 2006).
Background of Applied Behavioral Analysis
Reed, Osborne and Corness (2007) explain that Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is based on the behaviorist approach of altering behaviors through systematic, extrinsically reinforced behavior modification and training originating from the philosophies of B. F. Skinner, and there are a number of different ABA approaches that have been outlined in a variety of sources. In general, these approaches involve:
• The one-to-one teaching of children with autism by adult tutors;
• A discrete-trial reinforcement-based method; and
• An intensive regime (up to 40 hours a week, for 3 years, in some instances) (p. 419).
One such favored approach operating from this methodology was developed by Lovaas and was entitled the Early Intervention Program or EIP. Lovaas is considered to be the founder of the ABA approach, and his philosophies, program overview, and findings will be examined.
The Lovaas Method
The Lovaas method of ABA that is central to the UCLA Young Autism Project was first developed to maximize behavioral gains made by children during every waking minute. The complete outline for treatment was described in Lovaas' (1981) book entitled: Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children: The Me Book. For the most part, the model is based partially on the principles of operant learning. The primary teaching method is based on discrete trial discrimination learning and compliance with simple commands. Simple commands include: "sit down," "put here," and "look at me." All negative and aggressive behaviors initiated by the child are ignored or punished, and positive behaviors are reinforced. In some cases physical punishments or verbal reprimands are used to extinguish negative behaviors. These punitive reprimands can be represented as a loud "No!" or a slap on the thigh.
The most significant hallmark of the Lovaas program was the duration of time spent in program and program development. According to Lovaas (1987), the program was designed to occur over a 3-year time frame for 365 days per year with a minimum of 40-hours or more a week of initiation. The program outline mandates that for the first year, the majority of attention is focused on the reduction of self stimulatory and aggressive behaviors, increasing imitation responses, generating appropriate toy play, and extending treatment into the family. In the second year of the program, expressive and abstract language is taught as well as "appropriate" social interactions with peers. The third year of the program emphasizes the teaching of appropriate emotional expression, pre-academic tasks, such as reading, writing, and math, and observational learning of peers involved in academic tasks. The average cost of an Applied Behavioral Analysis program based on the Lovaas' model costs an estimated $60,000 per year per child ("Alternatives to Lovaas' Therapy," 1996).
After the conclusion of Lovaas' 1987 findings based on his original study and results, he wrote and published a paper outlining his findings. Initial results reported by Lovaas (1987) concerning the effectiveness of the ABA approach seemed to be miraculous in their results. According to Lovaas' research regarding his designed treatment, children who underwent this approach “made gains of up to 30 IQ points (a finding noted in some children with autism spectrum disorders undergoing special educational programs) (Gabriels et al., 2001). Just less than half of these children appeared to recover, that is, they were not noticeably different from normally developing children after 3 years of the intervention” (Reed, Osborne, & Corness, 2007, p. 419). Despite these amazing results, Lovaas' critics have noted numerous problems with the original study.
Criticism of Results
Firstly, critics allege that one significant problem with Lovaas' 1987 study revealed that Lovaas selected verbal, relatively high functioning participants who might have performed well with reasonable input (Reed, Osborne, & Corness, 2007, p. 419). Secondly, many of the questions surrounding Lovaas' study are centered around the fact that the study was clinical rather than school or community based, which raises questions about generalizability from the clinic to school and community settings (p. 419). Thirdly, all of the “significant number of critiques of Lovaas' original piece of research (i.e., Lovaas, 1987) have focused on problems both with the internal and external validity of the study (e.g., Connor, 1998; Gresham & MacMillan, 1997; Mudford et al., 2001)”(Reed, Osborne, & Corness, 2007, p. 419). These problems create confusion about the actual results of the study and whether the results justify the costs of the program.
In their recent study, Reed, Osborne, and Corness (2007) examined three different autism interventions in a community setting. The three interventions studied comparisons between the ABA model, the portage model, and a special nursery placement. Several findings resulted from this study that both support the ABA model in some instances, as well as other interventions that were less costly and time consuming, yet still offering some features of the ABA model including one-on-one tutoring and overlaps between home and educational environments. Program impacts examined results on stereotyped behaviors, communication difficulties,...
Many master’s degree programs in applied behavior analysis require completion and successful defense of a thesis project in order for the degree to be conferred. The master’s research project is intended as a capstone to the degree program, providing the student with an opportunity to investigate a behavioral science topic of their choosing and develop independent thinking and research skills in the process.
Your master’s thesis project is expected to involve significant independent research on a behavioral science subject that you will choose in concert with your faculty thesis advisor. The project should represent novel research or ideas in the field of behavioral science, although it need not be groundbreaking research. Expectations for subject matter and scope of the research are scaled to the level of the student so you are not competing with full-fledged academic researchers.
If you undertake a thesis project, it will typically be in the final year of your program. You will select one of your professors to serve as your thesis advisor and confer closely with them in the course of choosing a topic, conducting the necessary research, and writing the thesis paper.
Despite the input from your advisor, however, you will be expected to take the initiative in all aspects of the thesis project and maintain your own motivation in developing the topic, creating a research program to study it, and writing a scholarly document to substantiate your theories.
The Thesis Process
The thesis process is very formalized and has a large number of required steps that involve a considerable amount of paperwork and presentation. The steps will vary from school to school, but typically fall into these general categories:
- Acquire an academic advisor for the project and file a formal notice of intent with your department chair
- Select an acceptable research topic and file a thesis proposal with your department
- Select a thesis committee to review and approve the project
- Conduct the necessary basic research on the subject
- Write the thesis paper according to university and department style guides
- Present and defend the thesis paper before the thesis committee
You will have to conduct all of these steps while still attending classes and conforming to other requirements for your program.
The Thesis Proposal
Developing your formal thesis proposal will require a significant amount of work and writing before you can even begin the primary research on the topic.
Together with your advisor, you will select a suitable subject and write a proposal document to support the selection. You will have to outline the process you intend to follow in the course of your research and state the elements that will be required to either prove or disprove the thesis statement. The proposal will include:
- An overview of the topic
- A review of existing literature that discusses the topic, including any previous research projects
- An outline of the methods and procedures you intend to use while conducting your own research into the subject
Many students operate under the common misconception that thesis research should be on a topic never before explored. Although it is true that research is expected to be original, it’s a mistake to interpret the requirement to mean it should be ground-breaking. According to a 1990 article published in The Behavior Analyst journal, an appropriate thesis topic should fit systematically into the existing literature. That is to say that it should logically extend existing investigations in a novel manner, such as researching the effects of Pivotal Response Training (a widely-implemented ABA treatment technique) as applied during a specific environmental scenario with a particular category of patient, as one recent thesis paper did.
This approach to selecting a thesis topic helps the student in extending their understanding of a broader subject area, but also furthers the science of ABA generally by testing its applications in specific areas in a way that more innovative research cannot always do.
Some recent ABA master’s thesis subjects have included:
- Peer-implemented pivotal response training during recess with an ASD patient.
- Video modeling and feedback in a gymnastics skills program.
- Implementing behavior contracts with runaway youth.
- Functional skills teaching with video prompts for developmentally disabled students.
As a field that was founded relatively recently and remains small and somewhat unexplored, potential applied behavior analysis thesis topics are not difficult to come by.
Creating the proposal will take several months and involve a considerable amount of research and discussion with your advisor. Once you have completed the proposal, you will have to present it to your thesis committee before actually beginning the project. Their review will be intended to validate that the proposed research methods and procedures could actually serve as a legitimate investigation into the subject matter. This way, regardless of the outcome of the research, they will be able to assess the project on the merits of your conduct and analysis.
The Thesis Research Project
The greater part of the time you spend on your thesis project will be in the research phase.
It will be important to closely follow the procedures you outlined in your proposal. Because applied behavior analysis relies heavily on observation, your protocols for observing and recording the object of study will be heavily scrutinized. The consistency of your observations will be crucial to establishing accurate data for analysis.
In addition to conducting your own investigations, you will probably spend a great deal of time analyzing data generated by other research projects. This will both shape your own research and provide input beyond data you could generate on your own.
Once the research and analysis has been completed, you will have to write the thesis paper itself.
Many schools and departments have very strict rules for the organization of your paper. Most require the following components:
- An introduction to the topic
- A review of the existing literature relating to the topic
- The methodology with which the research or investigation was conducted
- The results of that research
- A discussion of the results and their bearing on the thesis statement and conclusions that can be drawn from them
- An overall summary of the paper
- Citations and references
This generally is wrapped up into around 100 pages of clear, focused, informative writing. Getting to the final product will require a number of drafts, each reviewed closely by your advisor. Only when the advisor believes that you have achieved a version that will be acceptable to the thesis committee will you be allowed to make your presentation.
The Thesis Defense
The final step of the thesis process is known as the thesis defense. This involves presenting the results of the research to your thesis committee and going in front of them to demonstrate your grasp of the research and conclusions.
Many graduate students shrink at the prospect of having to articulate original research and defend their ideas and conclusions in front of a thesis committee, but the experience is intended to be about learning and will naturally push you out of your comfort zone a bit. Very few thesis papers are ever rejected outright.
The process begins by distributing copies of the thesis paper to all the committee members several weeks before the final presentation. This gives the committee time to familiarize themselves with your work and conclusions and formulate any questions they might have about it.
During the formal presentation, you will have to speak for an hour or more to present your project and findings to the committee. Committee members may include faculty from your department and outside experts in the field, depending on the requirements of your department.
You can then expect to spend another couple of hours fielding questions from the committee members. Their goal will be to establish to their own satisfaction that you have genuinely understood the material and that your facts are accurate and your conclusions well-reasoned and supported.
Even the best thesis papers are usually not accepted outright. The thesis committee is likely to have a number of revision requests they feel will be necessary, based on issues raised during the defense, before the paper can be accepted.
Your thesis project will be an enormous undertaking as part of your ABA master’s degree, but it will also serve to provide a tremendous foundation for your career in applied behavior analysis by giving you a depth of insight into the field that would not otherwise be duplicated.
Back to Top