Is ABA Evidence-Based?

Applied Behavior Analytic (ABA)treatments, such as Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) may be among the best examples of evidence-based behavioral health care.  In contrast to some reports in the media, independent reviews consistently agree that ABA and EIBI treatments for autism are effective, and that the extensive body of research meets high standards of evidence.

For further reading: Analysis of the Evidence Base for ABA and EIBI for Autism by Eric V. Larsson, Ph.D., L.P., BCBA-D (2012)

FAQs

Is there scientific evidence that ABA works?
Haven’t some reviews concluded that ABA doesn’t work?
What factors are important to consider in evaluating complex ABA interventions?
Are there studies on PECS?
Do studies with single subject experimental designs “count” as evidence?

Is there scientific evidence that ABA works?

We list 45 independent and systematic reviews and meta-analyses of research on ABA interventions in a bibliography.  Every review cites the obvious positive results of ABA and EIBI and notes that such results have been replicated in many studies.  

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Haven’t some reviews concluded that ABA doesn’t work?

No. In none of the 45 reviews in our bibliography [link] do the authors systematically refute the published evidence for ABA treatments of autism.  The reviews are critical evaluations – in many cases, other non-ABA treatments are assigned to categories such as “insufficient evidence,” “unproven,” or even “potentially harmful.”
Yet the most “negative” conclusions that are offered are:

  1. ABA does not cure all children of autism
  2. ABA has not been compared to other treatments
  3. Research has not yet identified who benefits most from ABA intervention.

However, it should be noted that the above conclusions can be drawn about any treatment. More information.

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What factors are important to consider in evaluating complex ABA interventions?

One review that offers a useful framework is by Odom, Boyd, Hall and Hume (2010). These authors examined 30 comprehensive treatment models (CTMs). Four of the five CTMs judged to have the strongest scientific evidence were based on applied behavior analysis. Twenty of the 30 models reviewed were identified as behavioral. More Information

Odom, S. L., Boyd, B., Hall, L., & Hume, K. (2010). Evaluation of comprehensive treatment models for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 425-436.

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Are there studies on PECS?

There has been a steady growth of PECS-related research over the years, a trend that has markedly increased of late. Over 100 publications, including book chapters and literature reviews concerning PECS have been published, of which over 60 involve case studies or other data-based work. There are now at least six reviews of the literature, each leading to somewhat different emphases, depending in part upon which publications have been included. However, they all agree that studies provide evidence that PECS is effective. More Information

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Do studies with single subject experimental designs “count” as evidence?

Studies with single subject experimental designs (SSEDs) involve conducting repeated observations to compare an individual’s behavior during a baseline period when the individual receives no intervention to the behavior in one or more intervention phases. Some reviewers exclude SSED studies from their evaluation of the evidence for ABA interventions. They argue that, although SSED studies useful only for initial demonstrations that an intervention procedure might be useful, studies with larger numbers of participants are needed to identify evidence-based practices. However, SSED studies are important because they provide a powerful test of whether introducing an intervention reliably leads to a change in behavior. More Information

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