Hawai'i Association for Behavior Analysis

To educate, advocate for, and support both providers and consumers 
of Applied Behavior Analysis.


Common Misconceptions of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Download this page as a printable pdf - Shared with permission by Behaviorbabe (Dr. Amanda N. Kelly) 

Common Misconceptions of Applied Behavior Analysis


Chapter 1: November 2008


1. ABA services are relevant only to individuals diagnosed with autism or PDD/NOS The seven dimensions listed on this site are the criteria for which an effective ABA practitioner bases decisions upon. ABA is a methodology which is not aligned with any specific treatment and therefore is not limited to servicing only individuals with a specific diagnosis such as  Autism Spectrum Disorder/Pervasive Developmental Disability [ASD/PDD].  Applied behavior analysis has been used effectively with a multitude of disorders and disabilities as well as aiding in acquistion of academic skills, smoking cessation, and other socially relevant  of humans as well as across species applications.

Applied behavior analysis has successfully been applied to:

  • Environment/Sustainability issues
  • Organizational Behavior Management
  • Speech Language Pathology
  • Addictions
  • Gambling
  • Gerontology
  • Criminal Forensics
  • Health and Fitness as well as others


2. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is synonymous with discrete trial training (DTT)Discrete Trial Training is a procedure (sometimes referred to as the Lovaas Method) which is based on the fundamental principles of applied behavior analysis (i.e. reinforcement, three-term contingency, prompting, etc.).  During DTT: 1) a discriminative stimulus is presented, 2) a response occurs or is 3) prompted to occur (e.g. teacher points to the correct picture card), 4) a consequence is delivered (e.g. token or preferred item), and then 5) the instructor  pauses before presenting the next instructional demand, also referred to as inter-trial interval (Anderson, Taras, & O’Malley-Cannon, 1996; Dib & Sturmey, 2007; Smith, 2001, 2007; Zager, 2005).  As stated above, ABA is a methodology, guided by the seven dimensions, rather than a particular teaching procedure or intervention.


3. ABA can only be applied to "behavioral" problems A common misconception, particularly in public school settings, are that ABA services are designed for focusing exclusively on challenging behaviors (i.e. self-injurious behaviors, aggressive behaviors, etc.).  However Behavior Analysts consider behavior to be any observable and measurable act which is inclusive of academic behaviors (i.e. writing, computing math problems, learning to read, spell. etc.) as well.


4. Only BCBAs are qualified to provide treatment to individuals receiving ABA servicesTypically BCBAs serve as consultants and program managers.  BCBAs often assume responsibility for supervising therapists who provide direct treatment to clients.  For more information regarding BCBAs (credentials, typical responsibilities, etc.) visit http://www.bacb.com/


5. All BCBAs/BCaBAs ability to provide competent treatment are equal to one anotherEach individual's experiences and education differ from one another as does their ability to apply these skills to the populations they serve.  All clinicians [BCBAs included] should be evaluated on an individual basis.  Refer to the most recent copy of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board [BACB]'s Task List for a current list of items a competent BCBA and BCaBA should be able to demonstrate proficiently.  Of additional interest may also be the Behavior Analyst Certification Board Guidelines for Responsible Conduct.


Chapter 2: June 2009 


6. Applied Behavior Analysis is only effective for young children ABA is a methodology which is often used with children; particularly children on the autism spectrum.  Early Intervention is essential.  Factors such as an early diagnosis, intensity and type of treatments selected can impact improvement.  There is emerging information in the medical community (neurologists) suggesting that before the age of 3, a child's brain is more receptive to creating new neurological connections.  However, this should not be viewed as the only "teachable" moments in a child's life.  Applied Behavior Analysis techniques have been effectively applied to numerous cases (stroke patients, neuro-typical children and adults, etc.) well beyond the early stages of childhood as well as outside the realm of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).


7. ABA (or DTT) is done at a table-top:  Applied Behavior Analysis is not restricted to one environmental area. On the contrary, Applied Behavior Analysis is inherently concerned with individuals' ability to generalize information; which is often accomplished by varying the location and manner in which skills are taught.  While it may be common for some activities to occur at a desk or table-top it is typically due to one of two reasons...1) the skill requires a table-top for easy manipluation of objects and/or for skills which require "school attending" behavior or 2) the program is implemented by someone with superficial understanding of Applied Behavior Analytic principles.


8. Anyone can do ABA While it is not uncommon to offer training to students or others who provide direct service (often in a discrete-trial teaching [DTT] format) there is incredible danger designing procedures without a comprehensive understanding of Applied Behavior Analytic principles.  It is recommended by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board [BACB] that the (Board Certified Behavior Analyst or Equivalent) "BCBA designs and supervises behavior analytic interventions.  The BCBA is able to effectively develop and implement appropriate assessment and intervention methods for use in familiar situations and for a range of cases".  The Board also states that BCBA's supervise BCaBA's and others who implement behavior analytic services.


9. ABA is harmful/uncomfortable for children Some people are under the impression that Applied Behavior Analysis relies heavily on the use of aversives.  Whereas a proper application of behavior analytic principles actually focuses on reinforcement and manipulation of the environment, not the individual. If the inclusion of aversives is warranted by the behavior, all parties must be in full agreement and as indicated by the Conduct Guidelines of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board [BACB] obtain written consent after communicating all potential risks, benefits, procedural descriptions, safeguards, timeline, anticipated outcome(s), monitoring system and schedule for oversight of implementation.  Often when people say, "I don't like ABA" "ABA isn't for my child", or "We tried ABA and it didn't work", after listening to their story, it would be more appropriate to say, "I have a problem with the misapplication of ABA"...and in response, "so do I".


Chapter 3: January 2012


10. 40 hours of ABA are needed for a positive effect  Following a comprehensive review of research, the National Research Council (NRC) recommended that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) need active engagement in intervention for at least 25 hours a week. The NRC noted that the most important areas of focus must include:

  1. Functional,spontaneous communication
  2. Social instruction in various settings (not primarily 1:1 training)
  3. Teaching of play skills focusing on appropriate use of toys and play with peers
  4. Instruction leading to generalization and maintenance of cognitive goals in natural contexts 
  5. Positive approaches to address problem behaviors
  6. Functional academic skills when appropriate


11. If a child does not receive intensive ABA by five years of age, the “window of opportunity” for learning will close. There is no evidence to support this claim.  Conversely, there are published studies documenting the efficacy of ABA with adult learners and for individuals with and without autism diagnoses.


12. ABA produces robotic behavior Some parents and caregivers avoid investigating (or selecting) ABA-based treatments because they have heard that ABA is a very strict and rigid program. They may have heard reports of children forced to sit in a chair for hours; with images of crying for both parents and children.  They may have also heard that the programs are run very strictly, which may indicate to them that there is not room for the child’s personality to develop.  Fortunately this information is old and outdated, or even flat out inaccurate. Current behavior analytic approaches include Incidental Teaching, Interspersal Teaching, Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), Verbal Behavior (VB), as well as others, which vary greatly from traditional application of discrete-trial-teaching (DTT)/Lovaas Approach.  Can ABA make children robotic? 


Chapter 4: October 2012 


13. ABA only uses edible (food) for reinforcers Behavior analysts do often consider the use of edible reinforcers for students who a) are young, b) have limited repertoire of preferred items, and/or c) have severe behavior.  Edibles are considered primary reinforcers --that means no one has to teach us that food can be rewarding --we need it to survive.  Even for individuals for whom food is an effective reinforcer, quality behavior analytic professionals will take strides to fade out food and introduce other types of reinforcers.  This is often done by pairing the new item (e.g., preferred toy, song, etc.) or activity (e.g., high-five, hug, smile, etc.) with the original reinforcer.  Over time, the newer item should come to acquire the same reinforcing properties of the food/edible reinforcer.  If you have concerns over edible reinforcers for your child, your student or yourself, it is always best to bring this to the attention of your consultant.  


14. ABA only works for "intellectually delayed" individuals.  ABA cannot work with individuals who know what you are doing.  This misconception is very similar to #1 listed above.  Applied behavior analysis works because it is a systematic way to assess, measure and teach discrete skills or behavior chains.  It does not work because an individual "doesn't know what's going on" or because "they do".  Think about Weight Watchers™ --this program is one that incorporates many successful behavioral techniques.  This is a program that promotes monitoring/measuring and teaches individuals how to adjust food intake or exercise output. 


15. ABA is antiquated (something from the 70's) ABA is alive and well! The number of behavior analysis college programs that exist and the number of individuals certified in the field are signs of the growing awareness and acceptance of behavior analysis.  ABA is not just for individuals with autism, but in a significant way autism may have resurrected the broad interest and application of our science.  For some, it may be easier to accept other branches of psychology as the “one true way”. But, for many, especially those who have not had success with other methods, ABA is a hopeful science.  It promotes the attitude that not only can something be done to improve the situation, but something can be done NOW and the individual can be included in the solution.


Misconceptions as Stated by Others

Click on the links below to read more on the facts and fictions surrounding the science and application of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Connecticut Families for Effective Autism Treatment (CTFEAT)

Kansas City Behavior Analysis: Misconceptions of ABA 

Kathy and Calvin: Oregon Myths in ABA