Behavioural interventions are grounded heavily in learning theory, built on the premise that most human behaviour is learned through the interaction between an individual and their environment. Behavioural interventions aim to teach and increase useful behaviours and reduce or eliminate harmful behaviours or those that interfere with learning. Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and Discrete Trial Training (DTT) are generally the core features of most behavioural intervention programs.
A bit about ABA
ABA is the term generally used for programs which teach according to the principles of BF Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. In a nutshell, this means that children will do more of the things they find rewarding and less of the things that have negative or neutral consequences.
When an ABA program is delivered intensively it is often called Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI).
In IBI programs, each child’s strengths and weaknesses are assessed and a comprehensive program is created for the child. Things the child needs to learn — like saying words, learning non-verbal gestures, playing with toys and then peers, washing hands, eating etc — are broken down into tiny steps and then taught systematically, little by little.
Children’s difficulties are also approached using a gradual but steady approach. Many children hate having haircuts or fear supermarkets and these issues can be addressed slowly but surely.
An IBI program requires the child to receive 20–40 hours of therapy each week, with the family using the same methods and working on the same activities in non-therapy hours.
While this sounds intimidating often the teaching is done in play, so the child doesn’t know they are learning at all.
More about ABA theory
ABA is an intervention in which the principles of learning theory are applied in a systematic and measurable manner to increase, reduce, maintain, and/or generalise target behaviours.
ABA and DTT can be used to:
- teach play, academics, social skills, communication and daily living skills
- encourage desirable behaviours, such as paying attention to the teacher and completing set tasks
- reduce undesirable behaviours, such as self-injury or ‘stims’
- generalise desired behaviours to different settings (home, school etc).
Since the 1960s, therapists have been using ABA methods to help children with autism and there is a substantial body of research-based evidence to support its effectiveness.
Contemporary or ‘naturalistic’ ABA programs have a reduced reliance on DTT and greater emphasis on spontaneity, incidental teaching, and learning in real-life settings, such as the home or preschool. Other autism interventions, such as Early Start Denver Model and Pivotal Response Treatment are examples of programs that incorporate naturalistic ABA methods.