ABA Terms & Terminology: An Exhaustive List

ABA Terms & Terminology: An Exhaustive List

Sign your child up for ABA therapy, and you may feel like you’re learning an entirely new language. Treatments are technical, and professionals often use shorthand to talk with one another. That shorthand can slide into your conversations too.

Speak up whenever your team uses a term you don’t understand. There’s no shame in asking for help or clarification.

Look over this terminology list too. You might find the answers you are looking for.


Behaviors stem from triggers, including direct requests and environmental stimuli. Anything that elicits a behavior is an antecedent.

In ABA therapy, common antecedents include:

- Verbal requests, such as “Sit in this chair.”
- Questions, such as “What color is this?”
- Physical, such as handing a child a toy.
- Environmental, such as a feeling or a fleeting thought


ABA stands for applied behavior analysis. Some experts define the term as applied behavioral analysis too.

Autism Speaks explains that this is a form of therapy based on the science of behavior, deepened with knowledge of how people learn. Therapists use ABA therapy to:

Understand a child’s behavior.
Determine how a child’s decisions are influenced by the environment.
Help a child learn how to replace harmful behaviors with positive versions.


Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is the preferred term for people with autism based on current research. It encompasses people with mild impairment as well as those who need assistance with everyday tasks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say about 1 child in 54 has an ASD diagnosis.


ABA is a measurable, targeted intervention to modify behavior and encourage learning. Therapists keep detailed records of their work, and they attempt to measure change. A baseline starts that data collection.

A baseline represents a child’s activity or habits before the therapy begins.


ABA therapy works best when given by a trained professional. The BCaBA designation highlights the therapist’s education in the foundations of ABA.

Someone with this designation has an undergraduate degree in behavior analysis, says the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. That person is also certified in ABA.


An undergraduate degree qualifies a professional to deliver ABA therapy, but someone with a BCBA degree has even more education. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board says this designation means the person has a graduate degree in behavior analysis.


Some professionals continue their education in ABA. Those who hold a doctoral degree and are board certified hold the BCBA-D designation, per the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.


During ABA therapy, a child is presented with an antecedent. The way the child reacts to that prompt is labeled as a behavior, such as:

- Verbalizing. The child might repeat a word or phrase. Or the child might scream, yell, laugh, or cry.
- Mimicking. The child might do as they are shown or instructed.
- Defiance. The child might refuse, or the child might act out.
- Mastery. The child might rush to complete the task before the antecedent is completely presented.
- Lack of reaction. The child might not react to the antecedent at all.


A behavior intervention plan, or BIP, guides therapy. The document identifies behaviors that impede the child and includes a step-by-step program to elicit change.

Effective BIPs, experts say, include notes about why the behavior occurred, rather than simply stating an act. The BIP should also help outsiders, including teachers and family members, understand how to reinforce good behaviors and set the child up for success.


Think of a consequence as the response to a behavior. The therapist typically doles these out in ABA sessions, but they can also come from the environment.

Experts explain that a consequence could involve:

- A repeated request.
- The loss or gain of a reward.
- An emotion.

The key, experts say, is to examine the consequence and see if it increases or decreases the risk of a problem behavior.


When you’re denied access to something, that item often becomes more attractive. This is the underlying principle of deprivation.

An ABA therapist might use this tool to encourage a behavior. For example, a child who is unwilling to stay engaged in an activity might be more willing to do so if the therapist offers a break to play in 10 minutes. The more that play break comes alive for the child, the more likely the session will continue successfully.

Discrete trial training

Autism Speaks explains that discrete trial training (DTT) and ABA are often used interchangeably. But DTT is actually a type of teaching strategy that can be used with ABA.

Teachers use DTT to break a large skill into smaller components. The child is taught each piece independently, and in time, the child can master the large task too.


In early ABA stages, a child needs a reinforcer to complete a task. A reward, such as food, entices the child to move forward.

Extinction refers to the moment the child can handle that task without the reinforcer. It sometimes indicates a point of mastery of a task, or it can highlight an environment in which a child feels very comfortable.


In early ABA stages, a child needs a reinforcer to complete a task. A reward, such as food, entices the child to move forward.

Extinction refers to the moment the child can handle that task without the reinforcer. It sometimes indicates a point of mastery of a task, or it can highlight an environment in which a child feels very comfortable.


People with ASD may handle a task with ease in one environment and then struggle with that same task in a different place. Sometimes, the National Autistic Society explains, some people with ASD become so overwhelmed with sensory information that they enter a state of complete meltdown.

ABA therapy aims to lessen those moments, and therapists also help to encourage people to handle the same task every time, no matter where it happens. Generalization refers to the moment when students can complete the same task in multiple settings.


A strategy used to change behavior is an intervention. That could be a command, a reward, a plan, or a change in environment.

Therapists measure the effectiveness of interventions, so they’ll know how to help their students more effectively in the future.

Functional Behavior Assessment

During functional behavior assessment (FBA), experts uncover why a child behaves in a specific way. An FBA stems from four steps:

1. Defining the behavior
2. Gathering information
3. Developing a hypothesis about the cause
4. Making a plan to change the behavior

Your child may have an FBA completed at school if it’s tough for them to succeed in the classroom. Therapists may also use an FBA at the start of ABA therapy.


Tasks consume much of an ABA therapy session. A child must do a certain thing in a specific way, and then that behavior is repeated. A prompt begins each task.

A prompt may be verbal instruction, or therapists might use physical prompts like touch.


A reinforcer is a reaction to a behavior. Positive reinforcements, such as snacks or play sessions, can entice a child to engage with or complete an activity. These form the crux of effective ABA therapy, Autism Speaks explains.

Therapists and technicians want their students to enjoy therapy and participate willingly. Positive reinforcers make that possible.


The Behavior Analyst Certification Board created the registered behavior technician, or RBT, designation for professionals who carry out treatment plans that are designed by autism therapists. An RBT practices ABA techniques under the supervision of a BCBA or BCaBA.

An RBT will have a high school degree and specific training in ABA. They are supervised by a BCBA or BCaBA.


Some tasks are difficult to grasp. A child may not understand how to complete each step all at once. The child may not even understand how to get started. Shaping involves rewarding a child for doing something that’s very close to the target behavior with a prompt that encourages the child to do even more.

To shape picking up a block, for example, a therapist might give verbal encouragement to a child that looks at the block, even more encouragement if the child touches it, and even more if the child grasps the block.

Ask for Clarification

As a parent of a child with autism, you are a key part of the ABA team. You reinforce lessons when your child’s formal sessions are complete. You take notes to share with the therapist. You can best track your child’s progress. Your work is critical to your child’s success.

Ensure that you understand your child’s plan and progress. If you’re unclear on any element of it, ask for clarification. Your therapist will be happy to answer your questions and ensure you’re working together effectively.