Commonly Used Terms in ABA

  • ABA

    Applied Behavior Analysis at its core is a way to teach, manage, or reduce behaviors. ABA is an umbrella term that can cover many specific and unique strategies to increase or decrease behavior. Some examples include Incidental Teaching, Natural Environment Teaching, Discrete Trial Training, and Verbal Behavior. There are many ways to implement ABA.

  • ABC’s of Behavior

    Also known as the Three Term Contingency, ABC’s of behavior is a tool used to determine the function of any behavior. The A is for antecedent, the B is the actual behavior, and C is the consequence.

  • Antecedent

    In behavior analytic terms, an antecedent is simply what happened right before the behavior occurred.

  • Autism Spectrum Disorders

    According to the DSM- V, these are defined as persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, and there is a severity level rating system based on the intensity of supports the individual needs to function. It is important to remember that Autism is a spectrum, and no two individuals are the same.


    This is the board certification required for a person to become a Behavior Analyst, and it is recognized worldwide. In many states or with insurance companies, only BCBAs are recognized as being properly authorized to oversee, manage, or supervise ABA programs. The BCaBA denotes the person is at an associate level, and must work under a BCBA. BCaBA’s usually have less training or experience, although this isn’t always the case. Becoming certified is a lengthy process that takes much dedication, focus, and graduate level coursework. A BCBA-D is a doctorate level BCBA.

  • Behavior

    To be called a behavior, it must be observable and/or measurable. In the field we refer to something called the “Dead Man’s Test”: If a dead man can do it, it is not behavior. So “being quiet” is not a behavior because a dead person can “be quiet”.

  • Chaining

    Used to teach multi-step skills in which the steps involved are defined through a task analysis, and each separate step is taught to link together the total “chain”. Can be either done by backward, forward, or total task analyses. Some examples are tooth brushing, shoe tying, showering, following a recipe and handwashing.

  • Co-Morbidity

    This means having multiple diagnoses as the same time, such as being diagnosed with Autism, OCD, and an Anxiety Disorder.

  • Consequence

    In behavior analytic terms, a consequence is simply what happens after the behavior. Consequences can determine the future frequency of the behavior (increase or decrease).

  • Consultant

    Describes anyone who creates the treatment/behavioral plans, trains and supervises staff, and may or may not assist with hiring staff. Typically this is a BCBA level individual with extensive experience and training in running an ABA program.

  • Deprivation

    An ABA principle which states that the more deprived of a particular reinforcer, the more powerful that reinforcer will be. Think about how when you are on a diet suddenly cakes, brownies, and cookies seem MUCH more appetizing.

  • Developmentally Delayed

    A child or infant may be given a diagnosis of DD when they are not progressing as they should be and aren’t meeting developmental milestones such as crawling, sitting up, using a pincer grasp, talking/babbling, etc. However, adolescents or adults sometimes receive this diagnosis far later in life than they should have received it.

  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

    A specific method of instruction in which a task is isolated and taught to an individual across multiple trials (repetition teaching). A specific opportunity to respond is presented, and a specific response from the learner is expected (Teacher: “Stand up”. Learner: (stands up). Teacher: “Nice standing!”).

  • Discriminative stimulus (Sd)

    This can be a demand/question or directive given to obtain a specific response, or a naturally occurring signal that reinforcement is available. For example, if you are waiting for an important phone call about a bonus at work then every time your phone rings it becomes a potential Sd of reinforcement (your bonus).

  • DSM

    The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used by a variety of professionals across the world to diagnoses or treat individuals. The DSM is basically a handy manual that catalogs all mental conditions, disorders, and syndromes and explains how to diagnose each one. It is regularly updated, and professionals reference the newest version when discussing, explaining, or understanding diagnoses.

  • Echoic

    This is a Verbal Behavior term. An echoic is being able to vocally imitate upon request.

  • Echolalia

    “Echoing” or imitating what is heard, can be immediate or delayed. E.g., if you say to the learner “Want to go outside?” and they respond “Go outside?”, that is echolalia. Many individuals with Autism exhibit echolalia, but engaging in echolalia does not automatically mean someone has Autism.

  • Elopement

    Elopement is wandering, or running away, from an area the person is not supposed to leave. This behavior can be very scary, and for many different reasons occurs frequently with special need populations.

  • Expressive

    Expressive means speaker behavior, and refers to tasks that require a vocal response such as singing or talking.

  • Extinction

    The withholding of reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior, resulting in reduction of that behavior.

  • Extinction burst

    The increase in frequency and/or intensity of behavior in the early stages of extinction.

  • FBA

    Functional Behavior Assessment. This is the process by which behavioral interventions are created. An FBA is intended to determine the function (or the reason) for a behavior, and then create an intervention based on that function. A Functional Analysis (FA) involves manipulating the environment to understand the behavior, while a Functional Behavior Assessment involves things like observation, interview, and collecting ABC data.

  • Fine Motor Skills

    These are the activities that require the coordination and movement of the smaller muscles of the body, especially those of the hand.

  • Generalization

    Term used to describe the ability to learn a skill in one situation and be able to apply it flexibly to other similar but different situations.

  • Gross Motor Skills

    These are the activities we do using our larger muscle groups; like sitting, walking & jumping.

  • Hypersensitivity

    Acute reaction to sensory input (i.e. overly sensitive).

  • Hyposensitivity

    Little or no reaction to sensory input (i.e. under-sensitive).

  • IEP

    An Individual Education Plan is the individualized curriculum plan that children, adolescents, or adults (usually up to 21 or 22) have if they are in special education. An IEP is a legal document, and the IEP process should be taken very seriously and with much consideration for the learner’s future. If the child is under 3 years old and receiving services they may have an IFSP, which is an Individual Family Services Plan.

  • Intervention

    This is the plan of action or the strategy you will use to change a behavior. An example of an intervention is teaching a learner to use a card to request help instead of engaging in maladaptive behavior.

  • Intraverbal

    This is a Verbal Behavior term. Basically, intraverbals are building blocks to conversation skills as its the ability to discuss, describe, or answer a question about something that isn’t physically present. Like if someone asks you “What did you do on your vacation last summer?”.

  • Mand

    This is a Verbal Behavior term. A mand is basically a “demand”. This is being able to request something that one wants or needs.

  • Mouthing

    This refers to when inappropriately placing items/toys, etc. in the mouth. Depending on the individual, licking items could also be considered mouthing.

  • NET

    Natural Environment Training is a type of ABA where learning occurs incidentally and often playfully in natural environments, such as at the bus stop, a local playground, or during dinner.

  • Perseverative Behavior

    Repeating words, songs, phrases, etc., with a high frequency. Many people think this word is synonymous with “stimming” (see below), but it is not because perseverative behavior may or may not be automatically maintained.

  • Prompt

    A form of assistance or cue given to help the learner compete a task and to increase accurate responding. There are several types of prompts: physical prompt, gestural prompt, position prompt, model prompt, verbal prompt, symbolic prompt, and visual prompt, and many more.

  • Prompt Dependent

    Prompt dependency is when an individual has become reliant on being assisted with a task, and stops attempting to do the task independently. Or it could be a learner who has been prompted to do a task a certain way so many times, that it is very difficult for them to change the way they complete the task.

  • Punisher

    Punishers can be tangible, social, physical, etc. In behavior analytic terms, to be considered a punisher the target behavior must decrease.

  • RBT

    Registered Behavior Technician. For direct level staff, this is a credential that denotes the person has met specific education and experience standards, and starting in 12/2015, that the person has passed a rigorous exam.

  • Receptive

    Receptive is listener behavior, and refers to tasks that require a nonvocal action or motor response such as touch, give, or point.

  • Reinforcer

    A reinforcer is something used to motivate a learner to complete a task, or engage in a behavior. Reinforcement can be tangible (toy), social (praise), physical (hugs, kisses), etc. In behavior analytic terms, to be considered a reinforcer the likelihood of future occurrence of the target behavior must increase. Remember that bribery (which isn’t effective) is given before the behavior occurs, reinforcement is given after the behavior occurs.

  • Satiation

    When a reinforcer loses its effectiveness due to overuse.

  • Scrolling

    This is when a learner responds to a demand by either receptively or expressively linking several responses together. For example, if shown a photo of a firefighter and asked “Who is this?” the learner responds by saying “Doctor/Teacher/Firefighter”.

  • Self injurious behavior (SIB)

    Self-injurious behaviors are actions that an individual performs that result in physical injury to the body. Typical forms of self-injurious behavior include: hitting oneself with hands or other body parts, head-banging, biting oneself, picking at skin or sores, etc.

  • Stereotypic/Repetitive behaviors

    Often referred to as “Stimming” or “Stims”. These are self-initiated, often repetitive movements (e.g. rocking, vocalizations, flapping, spinning, finger-flicking, and/or unusual manipulation of inanimate objects) that can be vocal or motoric. For some individuals with Autism these behaviors can occur at very high frequencies, sometimes 100+ times per day. Individuals with Autism may engage in these behaviors for automatic reinforcement purposes, but that isn’t always the case (function can vary), which is why the blanket term of “self-stimulatory behavior/stimming” can be technically incorrect.

  • Tact

    This is a Verbal Behavior term. A tact is being able to label or describe an item with stimuli being present. For example, a learner can tact if they can label the color of a ball if the ball is present.

  • Target Behavior

    This is the behavior of interest you are trying to increase, or decrease. There may be multiple target behaviors being addressed simultaneously, as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

  • Transitions

    May refer to changes from one activity or setting to another such as from an early childhood program to school or from a preferred play activity to a work activity. Transitions are typically very difficult for individuals with ASD, particularly unplanned or abrupt transitions.

  • VB

    VB stands for Verbal Behavior. Verbal Behavior is a type of ABA based on the works of B.F. Skinner that focuses on understanding and teaching language as a behavior, and based on its function

  • VB-MAPP Assessment

    An assessment and curriculum tool created by Dr. Sundberg. This tool focuses on verbal/language assessment to get a complete snapshot of verbal abilities, strengths, and deficits. Domains include manding, intraverbals, echoics, etc.

  • Verbal vs Vocal

    When people use these terms they typically mean a learner can talk to communicate. However, the behavior analytic term for spoken communication is “vocal”, not verbal. “Verbal” can be any form of communication such as sign language or gesturing, while “Vocal” is speech/vocalizations used to communicate.

  • VI

    Variable interval is a way of describing a schedule of reinforcement. If the learner has a VI of 2-3 minutes, that means that between every 2 and 3 minutes they contact reinforcement.

  • VR

    Variable ratio is a way of describing a schedule of reinforcement. If the learner has a VR of 4-6, that means that between every 4th and 6th response they contact reinforcement.

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