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Applied Behavior Analysis and Communication Services

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a highly systematic instructional approach, grounded in the principles of behavioral theory. ABA can be used to teach new skills or to address behaviors that are regarded as problematic (Demchak, et al., 2020). The ABA approach is individualized to the learner with careful consideration paid to antecedents, behaviors, and consequences (ABC). During instruction/intervention, the antecedents include the directions and prompting provided to the learner. Behavior includes both the specifically defined target behavior and the demonstrated behavior of the learner. Consequences include positive reinforcement (such as verbal praise or tangible reinforcement) and corrective feedback. Other behavioral principles such as modeling, shaping, fading, response cost, and chaining are applied according to the needs of the individual learner in the context of learning a specific concept or skill. Discrete trial training (DTT) may be applied to increase the opportunities to practice a specific skill, although massed and distributed discrete trials have different effects on skill acquisition and generalization. ABA includes a range of interventions, from highly contrived (such as discrete trials) to more naturalistic, such as Pivotal Response Treatment and may integrate the use of technologies to measure attention, speech recognition, engagement and other aspects of dyadic interactions (Heath, McDaniel, Venkateswara, & Panchanathan, 2020). The frequent collection and analysis of data to determine the effectiveness of instruction and to plan any necessary modifications in the individualized curriculum or instructional delivery is an essential characteristic of ABA.

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), grounded in the principles of ABA, is one approach intended to teach early functional communication skills (Bondy & Frost, 2001). It includes six instructional phases that begin with learning to exchange representations with a communication partner to making comments. Often line drawings or pictures are used within the PECS process, but it has been adapted for learners with visual impairments who may use objects, partial objects, or textures in communication (Ivy, Hatton, & Hooper, 2014).  Unfortunately, sometimes any communication intervention using picture symbols is mis-named “PECS”, regardless of whether the structured phases are used.

Descriptions of ABA as an instructional methodology appear throughout the seminal literature of speech-language pathology. Today's practitioners can choose from permutations of ABA that include strict applications of the techniques mentioned above to more naturalistic approaches such as pivotal response training (Schwartzman et al., 2021). The use of ABA methods are not without controversy. These include, but are not limited to who implements the intervention, who receives the intervention, the design of the intervention methods, selection of intervention targets, and analysis of effectiveness toward functional communication. Practitioners using the more traditional applications of ABA must consider common intervention practices to avoid problems with prompt dependency and generalization.

Bottom Line:

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is an instructional approach based on principles from behavioral theory. Behavior specialists may be a member of the interprofessional team, supporting the need for effective collaboration to entail all members’ understanding of the various lenses through which communication may be viewed (Marks, 2018).  SLPs may find application of ABA based interventions within natural contexts to be effective complements to their own communication interventions. 


Asha Leader (2015).  U.S. Education Department Says ABA Is Not the Only ASD Treatment

Bondy, A., & Frost, L. (2001). The Picture Exchange Communication System. Behavior Modification, 25, 725-744.

Demchak, M., Sutter, C., Grumstrupo, B., Forsyth, A., Grattan, J., Molina, L., & Field, C. J. (2020). Applied behavior analysis: Dispelling associated myths. Intervention in School and Clinic, 55, 307-312.

Heath, C. D. C., McDaniel, T., Venkateswara, H., & Panchanathan, S. (2020). Improving communication skills of children with autism through support of applied behavioral analysis treatments using multimedia computing: A survey. Universal Access in the Information Age.

Ivy, S., Hatton, D. D., & Hooper, J. D. (2014). Using the picture exchange communication system with students with visual impairments. Exceptional Children, 80, 474-488.

Schwartzman, J. M., Strong, K., Ardel, C. M., Schuck, R. K., Millan, M. E., Phillips, J. M., ... & Gengoux, G. W. (2021). Language Improvement Following Pivotal Response Treatment for Children With Developmental Disorders. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 126(1), 45-57.

Marks, A.K. (2018).  Interprofessionalism on the Augmentative and Alternative Communication Team: Mending the Divide.  Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups. 3, (12), 70-79.


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