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What is ABA? It’s All About the Seven Dimensions

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In 1968, three of the forefathers of applied behavior analysis (Baer, Wolf, and Risley) identified the seven dimensions of ABA. Today, these seven dimensions guide behavior analysts when developing interventions.

  1. Applied
  2. Behavioral
  3. Analytic
  4. Technological
  5. Conceptually Systematic
  6. Effective
  7. Generality

Let’s discuss these terms through the use of a case study.

Santiago, age 3, receives 30 hours of ABA therapy per week. He has been making progress on his treatment goals over the last six months; however, he recently started swallowing non-food items at home and during therapy. His family and treatment team are concerned about this behavior and want to develop a plan to stop it right away.

Before we identify an intervention, we have to determine whether this behavior meets the “applied” dimension of ABA. Is it socially significant for Santiago to stop swallowing non-food items? Can swallowing non-food items impact his ability to take care of himself? YES! This behavior is relevant for Santiago in his daily life. It’s important that we reduce this behavior so that he can safely participate in his activities of daily living.

In order to meet the “behavioral” criterion, we need to clearly define the problem behavior so it can be measured. Mouthing without swallowing may or may not be included in the behavioral definition. Careful selection of measurement tools are also necessary. Is the duration of swallowing important, or the size of the item swallowed, or the number of items swallowed? A strong behavioral definition will include examples and non-examples.

The intervention will be “analytic” if the BCBA can demonstrate the intervention’s effectiveness in reducing the problem behavior. The BCBA will observe the behavior before, during, and after the intervention. If the data shows a functional relationship between the decrease in the swallowing behavior and the introduction of the intervention (that is, did the behavior improve due to the intervention and not any other factor?) then the intervention would meet this third criterion.

The term “technological” means that the intervention plan is written in a clear way, such that anyone on the team could implement the plan in the same way as the author. Consistency across team members is essential to Santiago’s progress.

An intervention is “conceptually systematic” when it utilizes principles of ABA. Some examples of principles that could be used for Santiago are Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI), response blocking, and changes to the Motivating Operation (MO).

The most straightforward dimension is “effective.” Did the intervention do what it was designed to do? Did Santiago completely stop swallowing non-food items or did the frequency of swallowing decrease? If the intervention improved the behavior, but not to a socially significant level (any swallowing of non-food items is dangerous) then the intervention was not effective.

Generality” is demonstrated when Santiago stops swallowing non-food items at home, even though the intervention was only in place at the ABA clinic. Generality can also occur if the behavior change lasts over time after the intervention ends or if other related behaviors also improve.

Students of ABA memorize the acronym GET A CAB to recall the seven dimensions. If the intervention to eliminate Santiago’s swallowing of non-food items meets GET A CAB, then it meets the criteria for high-quality applied behavior analysis.

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