With all the programs available for children diagnosed with autism, how do I know that ABA is the one that works?

Many treatment programs are available, but few, if any, scientific studies support their use. These therapies remain controversial and may or may not reduce a specific person’s “autistic” behaviors. Parents should use caution before subscribing to any particular treatment that does not have scientific support. ABA methods have been extensively researched (since the 1960’s) with children with the diagnosis of autism and research has demonstrated that ABA methods are effective in teaching new behaviors and reducing maladaptive behaviors. In 1996, more than 550 studies had been published in scientific journals showing the effectiveness of behavior analytic procedures with persons with autism (Matson, et al., 1996). Several studies have demonstrated the effectives of ABA methodology in teaching new skills and increasing behaviors (e.g., Goldstein, 2002; Odom et al., 2003; McConnell, 2002) and reducing undesirable behaviors (e.g., Horner et al., 2002). A number of studies have also indicated that early (prior to the age of 4 years) and intensive (more than 20 hours per week) programs may produce large gains in development and reductions in the need for special services (Smith, 1999). The United States Surgeon General (1999) concluded, “Thirty years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning and appropriate social behavior.”


Goldstein, H. (2002). Communication intervention for children with autism: A review of treatment efficacy. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 373-396.

Horner, R., Carr, E. G., Strain, P. S., Todd, A. W., & Reed, H. K.(2002). Problem behavior interventions for young children with autism: A research synthesis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 32, 423-446.

McConnell, S. (2002).Interventions to facilitate social interaction for young children with autism: Review of available research and recommendations for educational intervention and future research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 351-372.

Odom, S. L., Brown, W. H., Frey, T., Karasu, N., Smith-Canter, L. L., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Evidence-based practices for young children with autism: Contributions from single-subject design research. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 166-175.

Matson, J. L., Benavidez, D. A., Compton, L. S., Paclwaskyj, T., & Baglio, C. (1996). Behavioral treatment of autistic persons: A review of research from 1980 to the present. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 7, 388-451.

Smith, T. (1999). Outcome of early intervention for children with autism. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 6, 33-49.

United States Surgeon General (1998). Mental health: A report of the Surgeon General. Washington, DC: Author.