Education/Learning, Perspiration & Butterscotch — May 26, 2016 at 11:30 am

ABA Basics for Autism and Beyond: Consequence Power


The science behind ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) is the science of learning and behaviour. With a little understanding of the principles, there’s nothing we can’t teach. In fact, every teacher and parent would benefit from knowing the basics of ABA inside and out.

I was diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) when I was 8. Unfortunately, I went to a very small rural Catholic school and had the misfortune of having a teacher who thought my diagnosis was a sham, and because the school was so small, I had her for 2 years. She tried a few things to motivate me, and I recognise in retrospect, that they had a loose basis in ABA. Since she didn’t understand the very foundations, they weren’t effective, and she gave up. Luckily, I’m otherwise neuro-typical, and I had some really great teachers in the years following that, but imagine when someone on the autism spectrum loses the opportunity to learn because their teacher doesn’t know how to teach them. For our ASD friends and family, the early years are precious.

You, dear readers, will not be subject to the same fate of ignorance as my grade 3/4 teacher. Here is a really quick crash course on the cornerstones of ABA:


  • This is THE MOST important aspect of teaching – but it is vastly under-utilized.
  • It is different than a ‘reward’ in two important ways:
    • Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour happening again in the future.
    • Reinforcement does not have to be intentional.

To understand this, I’ll give you some examples:

Reward vs. Reinforcement: Your grandmother gives you a chocolate bar every time you mow her lawn, but you don’t really like chocolate. It’s not likely the reward she is giving is likely to have any effect on your mowing her lawn in the future. In fact, if she insists you sit and eat it right away, you may actually stop mowing her lawn. However, If you were saving for a bike, and she gave you $10 every time you mowed the lawn, you would likely mow the lawn often. A reward is just a good intention while reinforcement increases behaviour.

Unintentional Reinforcement: You are on the telephone for an important call, and your toddler wants you to pick her up. She starts crying loudly and you pick her up so that you can hear the person on the phone. It is now more likely that she will cry in the future when she wants to be picked up.

Positive reinforcement for the kid; negative reinforcement for the mum… Comic from


Things to keep in mind about reinforcement:

  • Make sure the size of the reinforcer matches the difficulty of the task for the individual. Hard/new skills should get the most reinforcement – don’t be afraid to throw a party.
  • Immediacy of delivery is key – delays provide an opportunity for unwanted behaviour to occur, and then you risk reinforcing both behaviours or missing the opportunity to reinforce the positive one.
  • Reinforcers can be anything: things, food, activities, attention, or praise.
  • Make sure the learner has an opportunity for success – you can’t increase a behaviour if it never occurs. You might have to tell/show them what you expect, and reinforce the prompted response at first.
  • Reinforcement doesn’t have to be the delivery of something, it could also be the removal of something unwanted.
    • Babies present the best example: A baby is crying > we meet their needs > they stop crying. This is called Negative Reinforcement because we are likely to meet those needs (increased behaviour) in the future in order to stop the crying (removed stimulus). Positive Reinforcement (when a stimulus is added to increase behaviour) is the kind of reinforcement used most often.

Fun fact: Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, even the big bang theory got it wrong (@ 2:36).


  • Similar to the difference between a “reward” and reinforcement, it is only called punishment in ABA if it decreases a behaviour.
    • Positive punishment is when something is added, like a verbal “No”, or a spanking… Even a hug could be classified here if someone found them aversive.
    • Negative punishment is when something is taken away, like access to something preferred, or removing attention during a tantrum.

Things to keep in mind about punishment:

  • Punishment should be used sparingly – In most ABA treatments, it is only accepted for use in treating extreme aggression or self-injury in addition to teaching acceptable/incompatible replacements.
  • Punishment should always be used in conjunction with reinforcement of alternative behaviours.
  • Attention is a powerful motivator; when punishment of bad behaviour is used without the reinforcement of good behaviour, some learners respond by deciding that bad attention is better than no attention. When this happens, the attempt at punishment is actually reinforcing the bad behaviour.
  • If  “punishment” is being used and it is not changing the behaviour, it might just be a waste of breath or a waste of time. However, in extreme cases, it is abuse.
  • When punishment is necessary as a treatment plan it is important to consult with a professional. If you have a family member or client with severe aggression or self-injury and are considering this option, please consult with a psychologist.

Important note:  We all do things that decrease behaviour – there’s nothing wrong with that.  We shouldn’t shy away from talking about the use of punishment in our daily lives, because when we do, the misuse (and abuse) of punishment becomes a secret.

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Congratulations, you now have the basic tools for changing behaviour!! Please share your questions and comments below!