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Future of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) – New Research Areas and Findings

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a method of observing and analyzing behavior with the goal of modifying behaviors. Since its inception in the late 1960s, it has become the leading recommended treatment for autism spectrum disorder. Beyond that, however, many new research areas and findings are showing its usefulness in other areas. 

ABA therapy focuses on learning from observable behavior and using that information to create individualized care plans to teach new skills or decrease problem behaviors. The ABA method could integrate with technology and culture to become an invaluable tool in treating individuals with other developmental disorders — and more.

Considering the impact that ABA has already made on the world in the short time it’s been around, one can only imagine the possibilities of different applications of ABA. ABA practitioners are already integrating it into sports psychology, animal training, and corporate settings, so it is important to stay up to date on the latest research in this fast-evolving field. 

Historical Context

ABA was born out of the ideas of behaviorism, which came about in the early 1900s.

With the success of Donald M. Baer’s research in the late 1960s involving using behavior modification techniques to teach language to children with autism, applied behavior analysis was established as a discipline and has been used to treat ASD ever since. 

Initially, ABA required patients to adhere to strict and often grueling intervention schedules to modify their behaviors. In 1973, Ole Ivar Lovaas produced a method based on B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning to help students diagnosed with ASD improve their social interactions. 

Over time, advancements in the field led to the principles of ABA that we know today, including methods such as reinforcement, shaping, chaining, and generalization. 

Emerging Research Areas

With what 50 years of ABA has shown us about human behavior and how to change it, there’s no limit to how impactful this practice can be in the future. Let’s take a look at some emerging areas of research involving ABA.

Neurological Underpinnings

One of the most important aspects of ABA as an early intervention strategy is neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and develop new connections over time. Neuroplasticity is at its peak during childhood, which is why early diagnosis and intervention have been so successful in treating ASD. 

Neuroimaging studies are exploring how ABA helps to increase these neural pathways over time. 

Integration With Technology

With the increased sophistication of virtual reality and augmented reality over the last ten years, it could be possible to use these technologies to great effect with patients during ABA sessions. Emerging research is exploring the generalization of a specific behavior, such as helping the patient perform a specific behavior in a variety of different situations. Some research is utilizing virtual reality (VR) to provide many different lifelike settings.

AI and machine learning are two other tools researchers are studying to help create even more personalized ABA strategies for patients.

Broader Application Scope

ABA has become the standard of early intervention treatment for people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. However, many other conditions could benefit from the use of ABA therapy. ABA helps patients learn new behaviors and decrease unwanted behaviors. 

Researchers are studying how people with conditions like ADHD and general anxiety disorders could learn ABA methods to help themselves focus or calm themselves down.

Cultural Adaptations

Early childhood intervention isn’t a requirement of ABA therapy. Adults and even elderly individuals could benefit too. While it’s easier to create new neural connections when you are young, adults can benefit from these methods. ABA has shown promise in treating dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but further study is needed.

An individualized approach is perhaps the main pillar of any ABA program; to learn how to change your behavior, you must first understand how you are behaving and why. In this way, it’s natural to tailor ABA strategies according to different cultures and societies. ABA is the study of learning and behavior, so it can be effective across all cultures and societies since all humans have the capacity to learn.

Ethical Considerations

Over the last 50 years, scientists and practitioners have developed, researched, and expanded upon ABA. Innovation, after all, is one of the main goals of science. As newer ABA techniques arise, there are always concerns about the ethics of using these new techniques on patients. Researchers and practitioners must establish guidelines and best practices for the ever-evolving world of behavior analytics.

Notable Recent Findings

Studies show that the latest ABA practices have made significant positive differences in the people who use them. Advances in early detection technology have helped countless parents and children start their ABA journey as soon as possible. A 2010 meta-analysis published by Virues-Ortega suggested that long-term, comprehensive ABA interventions implemented in early childhood resulted in positive improvements in language development, intellectual functioning, learning daily living skills, and social functioning.

One of the reasons ABA is such a popular choice for the treatment of ASD is the huge amount of research and data that highlights its successful outcomes. A recent scoping review of ABA in children and youth with ASD published in 2022 discovered significant improvement across all categories. The review, which spanned 770 study records, showed that 63% to 88% reported improvement across the various outcome measures.

To further back up the data on the success of ABA therapy, caretakers and people diagnosed with ASD have positive things to say about it. Speaking about the program they are participating in, one patient said, “I typically do two four-hour sessions, but I’ve gone as long as 11 hours a day, although we usually spend a lot of that time doing fun stuff.”

Challenges and Controversies

Any new development within ABA comes with challenges. The use of newer technology to aid in the pursuit of a deep understanding of a patient’s behavior could be a step in the wrong direction. If ABA derives its success from humans analyzing other humans’ behavior, wouldn’t reliance on technology be a bad thing? 

However, many believe that technology is and will be a useful tool for ABA practitioners in the future. 

The rise of AI and machine learning has changed many industries. With any new technology, it’s natural to be wary. However, it’s important to view these technologies as an opportunity for advancement rather than something to be afraid of. 

Practitioners of ABA have always put their faith in the study of human behavior, and there are certainly ways for them to use technology to enhance, rather than replace, the essential human elements of ABA.

The Future of ABA and Potential for More Research

Just like human behavior itself, ABA is a continually evolving field. As we continue to use ABA to treat developmental disorders and explore the possibilities of using these therapies in other fields and industries, the base of knowledge that ABA draws from will only become more robust. 

The potential of the future of ABA is incredibly exciting. In the fast-moving world that we live in, it’s more important than ever to stay informed and engaged with new research as it becomes available, new technology as it becomes relevant, and new discoveries as we make them. Applied behavior analysis has limitless potential, and we want to be there to see what happens.