Simple Steps Autism

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The Steps Explained

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a science and so can present complicated terms at times. We know some of the terms used in the program will be new and unfamilar, and difficult to understand. That’s why we created a glossary of terms to help you along the way. Listed below are some of the terms you will find in each of the sections. If you come across a term that you do not understand, let us know so we can add it to the glossary.

The Simple Steps Glossary of Terms

Click on each step to access the glossary:

Step 3:  Autism & Applied Behaviour Analysis
Step 4:  Understanding Behaviour
Step 5:  Measuring Behaviour
Step 6:  Increasing Behaviour & Teaching New Skills
Step 7:  Dealing with Problem Behaviours

Step 8 provides you with a Guide Book which explains these terms in even more detail, written by world-renonwed ABA experts.


Step 3:  Autism and ABA

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD):

A pervasive developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them. Children and adults with Autism have difficulties with everyday social interaction. Their ability to develop friendships is generally limited, as is their capacity to understand other people’s emotional expression. People with autism can often have accompanying learning disabilities but everyone with the condition shares a difficulty in relating to the world around them (see

Behavioural Deficits:

Behavioural deficits are skills that an individual does not do or does not do to an adequate level. These deficits are highlighted through assessments and they are the skills that we target to increase. They are made up of skills that an individual needs to be able to engage in to function independently and successfully in their environment.

Behavioural Excesses:

Behavioural excesses are behaviours that an individual engages in too frequently that may impede his/her ability to function successfully in their environment.

Triad of impairments:

Excesses and/or deficits in behaviour in three main areas: Social Interaction (difficulty with social relationships, for example, appearing aloof and indifferent to other people, liking to be alone); Social Communication (difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, for example, not fully understanding the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice; Imagination (difficulty in the development of interpersonal play and imagination, for example, having a limited range of imaginative activities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively).


The actions or reactions of a person or animal in response to external or internal stimuli. In Behaviour Analysis, the definition of behaviour includes everything that people do (walking, talking, sitting, playing, etc), including thinking (also called cognition) and feeling (often called emotion).


The applied branch of a science called Behaviour Analysis. The term ‘Applied’ refers to the application of the findings of the scientific study of behaviour. It is a mistake to view it simply as a therapy for Autism.


Interventions that are based on observations of the behaviours of the particular child/individual in question. Interventions that are based on the scientific principles of ABA are holistic and individually tailored and centered on the person’s needs at a specific time.

Target behaviours:

Behaviours that are identified by you (the parent) in consultation with a professional behaviour analyst as requiring change. Interventions are then designed to address specific target behaviours and the changes in these behaviours are then measured to show the effect of the intervention.


Thoughts and feelings often happen before an observable behaviour but that doesn’t mean they should be regarded as the cause of the behaviour. A different approach is to regard thoughts and feelings themselves as behaviour. This is because they are part of what the whole person does and as such they too require explaining. Mentalism prevents the appropriate analysis from taking place because it involves circular reasoning that produces premature conclusions about why a behaviour occurs. The circular reasoning involves the mistake of using the same summary label (see below) as both a description of a behaviour and as an explanation of that same behaviour. For example, the descriptive word ‘angry’ is used correctly to summarise behaviours like clenched fist, shouting, red face, or raised heartbeat. The mistake, however, is to explain the behaviours of a clenched fist, shouting, a red face and a raised heartbeat by saying that these occur because a person is angry.

Summary Label:

A label applied to a person because s/he has been observed to have a number of different behaviors that have something in common. There are many different ways, for example, that a person can be said to be affectionate, angry, happy, depressed, etc.

Circular Reasoning:

When a summary label is used to both describe and explain a set of behaviours (see summary label) this leads to circular reasoning. A man has a clenched fist, red face, raised heartbeat and is shouting because he is angry. How do you know he is angry – well because the man he has a clenched fist, red face, raised heartbeat and is shouting.

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Step 4:  Understanding Behaviour


The way a behaviour looks, an aspect of its choreography. Topographical features are the physical form that the behaviour takes.


How often a behaviour occurs during a particular period of time.


How long a person engages in a particular behaviour.


The time between the offset of one event and the beginning of another; for example, the amount of time it takes between someone giving an instruction (event 1), and the time when the request is carried out (event 2).

Interresponse time:

This is the elapsed time between two successive responses.


A stimulus or event that immediately follows behaviour. Consequences affect the future likelihood of behaviour. Some consequences make it more likely that we will engage in the same behaviour again in the future. Other consequences make it less likely that we will do that behaviour again in the future.


A stimulus or event in a person’s environment that occurs before a specific behaviour.


The actions or reactions of a person or animal in response to external or internal stimuli. In Behaviour Analysis, the definition of behaviour includes everything that people do (walking, talking, sitting, playing, etc), including thinking (also called cognition) and feeling (often called emotion).


The occurrence of a behaviour is followed by a consequence and as a result the future probability of the behaviour occurring again is increased.


A stimulus or event that will increase the future probability of a behaviour when it is delivered contingent upon the occurrence of a behaviour. If the behaviour does not increase, then the stimulus or event is not serving as a reinforcer. To judge whether or not a consequence is to be regarded as a reinforcer, you must examine the effect on the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again. If there is an increase in the future likelihood of the behaviour, then the consequence is a reinforcer.

Tangible reinforcers:

These are things we can “get our hands on” such as foods, drinks, favourite toys, etc.

Social reinforcers:

These are things we get through interaction with another people such as attention, hugs, kisses, smiles, verbal praise, etc.

Activity reinforcers:

These are things we can do, such as play sports, go to the cinema, listen to music, have a relaxing bath, etc.

Primary reinforcers:

Linked to the biology of how our bodies work.

Conditioned reinforcer/ Secondary reinforcer:

A stimulus or event that functions as a reinforcer because of prior pairing with one or more other reinforcers; sometimes known as a conditioned reinforcer, or learned reinforcer.

Operant behaviour:

A behaviour that acts on the environment to produce an immediate consequence and, in turn, is strengthened by that consequence.

Functional Assessment:

Refers to the collection and analysis of information in order to identify the possible causes of behaviour. This allows us to select the most appropriate intervention to change the behaviour and evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention.


Involves changing some aspect of the person’s environment  in order to change behaviour/interaction.

Functional analysis:

An experimental analysis of the function of a problem behaviour. Antecedents and consequences representing those in the individual’s natural environment are arranged to test their individual effects on the problem behaviour. Usually consists of 3 test conditions (contingent attention, contingent escape, and alone), as well as a control condition.

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Step 5:  Measuring Behaviour

Data-driven decision-making:

All decisions in ABA programmes are based upon the data collected. This practice lets us to know whether or not our intervention is having the desired effect upon the individual’s behaviour. This allows for scientific accountability which is better than relying on anecdotal evidence.

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Step 6:  Increasing Behaviour/Teaching New Skills


A part of the environment correlated with the occurrence of a behaviour.

Positive reinforcement:

A term used to describe the increased probability of a behaviour occurring again in the future because of the contingent presentation of a particular stimulus or event.

Negative reinforcement:

A term used to describe the increased probability of a behaviour occurring again in the future because of the contingent removal of a particular stimulus or event.

Discriminative stimulus:

A stimulus which sets the occasion on which a response will be reinforced. In the presence of this stimulus, the target behaviour is more likely to occur.

Stimulus control:

A situation in which behaviour is controlled by the presence an antecedent stimulus because of a history of reinforcement in the presence of that stimulus.


A stimulus or signal that is used to increase the likelihood that an individual will engage in the correct behaviour at the correct time.

Physical prompt:

A type of prompt in which the teacher physically guides the learner into completing the correct response. This usually involves hand-over-hand guidance.

Gestural prompt:

A type of prompt on which the teacher uses a physical movement or gesture to guide the learner into the correct response. Examples of gestural prompts include pointing to or looking at the correct response

Verbal prompt:

A type of prompt in which the teacher uses words and partial words to guide the learner to engage in the correct response Prompt fading: Refers to the gradual change, on successive trials, of the prompt that controls the stimulus, until the response occurs without any prompting.


Refers to the development of a new behaviour by the successive reinforcement of closer approximations to the target behaviour and the extinction of preceding approximations of the behaviour.


The force of a response.


A procedure used to teach a person to engage in a chain of behaviours that make up a functional skill.

Total task presentation:

The teacher performs the whole task from start to finish in a single unit and the learner is asked to imitate the task. Incorrect responses are corrected with verbal or physical prompts.

Forward chaining:

The task is broken down into a series of steps. The initial step is learned first. Next, the second step is taught and the learner completes the first two steps independently. Subsequent steps are taught in a similar manner until the entire chain is learned.

Backward chaining:

The task is broken down into a series of steps. The last step is taught first. Next, the next-to-last step is taught and the learner completes the last two steps independently and is guided through the other steps. This process is repeated until the learner can complete all steps in the chain independently.

Task analysis:

The process of breaking a complex skill into smaller, teachable units.


The demonstration of skills in situations other than those that were involved in training. Generalisation should occur across people, places and materials.

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Step 7:  Decreasing Behaviour / Problem Behaviours

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative behaviour (DRA):

A procedure used to decrease problem behaviour in which reinforcement is delivered for a behaviour that serves as a desirable alternative to the behaviour being reduced, and withheld when the problem behaviour occurs. Differential Reinforcement of High rates of behaviour (DRH): A procedure used to increase the frequency of a behaviour. Reinforcement is provided after a specified period of time, contingent on the behaviour occurring a minimum number of times.

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behaviour (DRI):

A procedure in which a behaviour that is topographically incompatible with the problem behaviour is reinforced.

Differential Reinforcement of Low rates of behaviour (DRL):

Refers to the occurrence of a reinforcer contingent upon a low rate of responding.

DRL- Limited responding:

The reinforcer is delivered only when the target behaviour occurs less than a specified number of times in a given period of time.

DRL-Spaced responding:

The reinforcer is delivered only when a specified amount of time has passed between responses. The goal is to pace the rate of the behaviour.


A procedure in which the reinforcer is delivered following intervals of time in which the problem behaviour does not occur.

Target behaviour:

The behaviour that is the target of the intervention.


If a behaviour that has been reinforced previously is no longer followed by a reinforcing consequence, then the result is that behaviour will be less likely to occur in similar situations in the future.

Social extinction:

Involves ignoring a response in order to decrease the future likelihood of the behaviour occurring

Sensory extinction:

Involves removing sensory stimulations that reinforce a response in order to decrease the future likelihood of the behaviour.

Extinction burst:

When a behaviour is no longer reinforced, the behaviour will temporarily increase in frequency, duration, or intensity before it decreases.

Extinction-induced aggression:

The introduction of extinction is often followed by the appearance of emotional behaviours in the form of aggression or annoyance.

Spontaneous recovery:

When a behaviour has stopped following extinction it may occur again in similar situations even after a long period of time has passed.