Applied Behavior Analysis and Previous Research with Individuals Diagnosed with Developmental Disabilities

By Eric W. Maier

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the science devoted to the understanding and improvement of socially validated human behavior through objective means.  Specifically, it is the application of procedures based on the principles of behavior to issues that are socially relevant to produce practical change.  Baer, Wolf, and Risley, (1968) describe the relevant dimensions that constitute applied behavior analysis as applied, behavioral, analytic, technological, conceptually systematic, effective, and having generality.  These are the seven dimensions that constitute ABA described by the founding fathers in their 1968 seminal article, Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis.  Procedures based on the principles of behavior have been applied to many different domains with many different populations.  Specifically, early intensive behavior interventions (EIBI) have been documented to produce effective changes in children diagnosed with autism (Cohen et al., 2006; Eikeseth et al., 2007; Howard, 2005; Lovaas, 1987; Perry et al., 2008; Sallows, 2005.)

Intensive behavior analytic treatments that are directly delivered to children with developmental delays have been shown to produce better results than eclectic treatments that are typically provided in school settings as indicated by numerous studies (Cohen et al., 2006; Eikeseth et al., 2007; Howard, 2005; Lovaas, 1987; Perry et al., 2008; Sallows, 2005.)  Significant lasting functional improvements as a result of early intensive behavior analytic interventions have been observed in many children with autism (Cohen et al., 2006; Eikeseth et al., 2007; Howard et al., 2005).  Lovaas’ (1987) landmark publication documented substantial improved functioning in 47% of the participants who received a 40 hour per week behavior analytic program (i.e., Discrete-Trial Training).  Cohen et al. (2006) systematically replicated the Lovaas study which included a clinical therapist training internship at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA.)  Post-Intervention results on the BSID-R indicated a 25-point gain for the group that received intensive behavior intervention as opposed to an average 14-point gain for the control group that received a significant fewer number of hours per week.  The investigators also reported that 17 of the 21 (81%) children who participated in the intensive behavior intervention group were enrolled in a general education setting while only 1 out of 21 (5%) of the children in the control group received general education instruction.  In yet another similar study, Howard et al. (2005) compared an intensive behavior analytic treatment (IBT) consisting of 25 to 40 hours per week of one-to-one therapy to two eclectic treatment approaches with participants diagnosed with autism and related disorders.  Similar to the previous studies, the participants in this study who received the intensive behavioral treatment had higher mean scores in all domain areas than the children who received other eclectic treatments.

Baer, Wolf, and Risley, (1968) describe a technologically sound intervention as one that has a written description of all procedures used in the study and must be sufficiently complete and detailed so that others may replicate the study in the future.  Unfortunately, without this technological dimension, future researchers cannot replicate previous findings.  In addition, without the technological dimension, it is questionable whether the previous research fits the definition of an applied behavior analysis.   We would argue that this does not only apply to research in a controlled setting (such as a laboratory) but would apply to clinical practices providing services to individuals with developmental delays.

At CUSP, we strive to provide the highest quality treatment to our clients.  Our procedures are based on the principles of behavior and we have applied them to individuals with developmental disabilities as well as to individuals working in organizational settings (please refer to the OBM section of our website.)  We are able to accomplish this by maintaining a tight control over the training we provide to our staff.  In addition, we provide technologically tight descriptions of the treatments we provide so that anyone trained in behavior analysis can apply them.  Ultimately, this allows us to control for treatment integrity (i.e. we are able to maintain treatment consistency across all team members) and data reliability issues (i.e. everyone is collecting data in the same manner) so that we can make data-based decisions that allow us to assist our clients in achieving their goals.


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Baer, D. M. Wolf, M. M. & Risley, T. R. (1987). Some still-current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 313-327.

Cohen, H., Amerine-Dickens, M., Smith, T. (2006). Early Intensive Behavioral Treatment: Replication of the UCLA Model in a Community Setting. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 2, 145-157.

Eikeseth, S., Smith, T., Jahr, E.& Eldevik, S. (2007). Outcome for children with autism who began intensive behavioral treatment between ages 4 and 7: A comparison controlled study. Behavior Modification, 31, 264-278.

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Lovaas, O.I. (1987).  Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 3-9.

Perry, A., et al., Effectiveness of Intensive Behavioral Intervention in a large, community-based program, (2008). Research in  Autism Spectrum Disorders doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2008.01.002

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