Everything You Need to Master Your ABA Terminology

Hi there!

I know some of my readers are parents of children with special needs, and as such, you may have had to delve into the world of Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. If your child receives behavior therapy, chances are you may have come across some terms you didn’t quite understand. Even though the main focus of Tutor in Tinseltown isn’t applied behavior analysis, I wanted to share this glossary of ABA terminology with you to give you some tools for navigating the world of ABA.

This glossary is a collection of ABA terms that are helpful to know as a professional or parent.

For an easy-to-access PDF version for this blog post, you can join my parenting membership program, the Clever Kid Curriculum!

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So let’s begin with our ABA terminology!


Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) – Applied Behavior Analysis is an established science that goes MUCH farther than Autism. If you only know of Applied Behavior Analysis as a treatment for young children with Autism, I highly recommend you further your reading and study of the field. At its core, applied behavior analysis is a way to teach, manage, or reduce behaviors. Applied Behavior Analysis is an umbrella term that can cover many specific and unique strategies. Some examples include Incidental Teaching, Discrete Trial Training, and Verbal Behavior. There are many ways to implement or carry out ABA.

ABA Therapist – This is the term I use on my blog to describe anyone who provides ABA therapy to a learner, in a direct staff role. Many terms are used to label the direct staff, such as ABA tutor, ABA technician, clinical assistant, services provider, etc, however the term used most often is ABA Therapist.

ABLLS Assessment- Pronounced “A-bulls” – A comprehensive assessment and curriculum planning tool created by Drs. Sundberg & Partington. This tool allows you to assess across 25 varied domains to get a complete snapshot of a child’s functioning level, strengths, and deficits. Domains include self help skills, gross motor skills, receptive skills, group instruction, etc.

ABC’s of Behavior – The ABCs are also called the Three Term Contingency. The Three Term Contingency is a tool used to determine the function of any behavior. The A stands for antecedent, the B is the actual behavior, and C is the consequence.

Acquisition Task – A target that is in the process of being taught. This behavior is not yet a known skill.

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

Aspergers Syndrome – Aspergers is a form/type of Autism, with the main differences being these individuals usually lack language deficits, but may present with social difficulties/impairments, and neurological issues. These individuals can often go undiagnosed until they are older, since common hallmarks of Autism may not be present or as obvious. Note: Aspergers as a separate diagnosis was removed from the DSM- V.

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. Basically, its important to know that Autism is a spectrum, and no 2 individuals are the same. There is much variability amongst people with Autism.


BCaBA, BCBA or BCBA-D – 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 and BCBA-Ds 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.

Behavior – Behavior 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 ain’t behavior. So “being quiet” is not a behavior because a dead person can “be quiet”.

Bio-Medical Approach –  The bio-medical approach to treating Autism is based on treating the biological causes of, or issues associated with, Autism, such as heavy metals or an over growth of yeast. Some common bio-medical interventions not only lack empirical evidence, but they can be potentially harmful.


Chaining – Used to teach multi-step skills in which the steps involved are defined through 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.

Chronological Age/ Developmental Age – Chronological age is a person’s age calculated by birth date. A developmental age is based on level of functioning/cognitive ability, and adaptive skills. For example a 7 year old child diagnosed with Autism could have the developmental age of a 3 year old. A Pediatrician or Developmental Psychologist can help you determine your child’s developmental age, or if you work with a BCBA they can assess your child to help determine developmental age.

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 be good or bad (or nothing).

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.

Contained Classroom – A contained, or self -contained, classroom is a classroom that has only special needs children. These classrooms have a smaller teacher to student ratio than an inclusive classroom. Typically, Special Education teachers cover these classes and include at least 1 specially trained paraprofessional.


Deprivation – An ABA principle which states that the more deprived a person is of a particular reinforcer, the more powerful that reinforcer will be. (Think about how suddenly cakes, brownies, and cookies seem MUCH more appetizing when you’re on a diet.)

Developmentally Delayed (DD) – 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 teaching procedure used in applied behavior analysis. DTT is a method of instruction in which a professional teaches a task in isolation and 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 is the demand/question or directive given, to obtain a specific response. Examples of SD’s: “Touch red”, and  “Clean your room”.

Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – The DSM is a manual that catalogs all mental conditions, disorders, and syndromes and explains how to diagnose each one. It is regularly updated, and professionals have to 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. Echolalia can be immediate or delayed. So if you ask your child “Want to go outside?” and they respond “Go outside?”, that is echolalia. Many individuals with Autism (particularly early learners) exhibit echolalia, but engaging in echolalia does not automatically mean someone has Autism.

Elopement – Elopement is when a learner wanders, or runs away, from an area they are not supposed to leave. This behavior can be very scary, especially for individuals who cannot communicate.

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.


Fine Motor Skills – Skills of coordination and movement of the smaller muscles of the body, especially those of the hand.

Field Size (teaching term) – During a teaching trial, this refers to how many stimuli you should have presented in an array. E.g. “Teach the animal ‘cat’ in a field size of 2-3”. This example means that the target stimuli (“cat” flashcard or photo) would be presented in an array of 2-3 other cards.

Floortime – Floortime is a treatment method that focuses on child-led, play focused activities using a naturalistic approach. Empirical data does not support floortime. As such, it should not be part of ABA treatment.

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) – This is the process by which behavioral interventions are created. An FBA determines 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.


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.

Gluten free and Casein free diet (GFCF Diet) – Gluten is wheat, and casein is dairy. Empirical data does not support GFCF diets as an effective as a treatment for Autism. 

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


High Functioning/Low Functioning – Individuals on the Spectrum are sometimes categorized according to their functioning level, or cognitive ability. A high functioning child may be fine academically, has conversational language, and has social difficulties. A low functioning child may have significant deficits and difficulties across all areas including language, cognition, academics, adaptive, etc. Many people find the terms “high or low functioning” to be offensive, due to the over-generalization of these labels. The DSM -V uses the categorizations of severity levels instead (how impacted is the individual by their diagnosis).

Hand Over Hand Prompting (HOH) – Hand over hand prompting is a physical prompt where you place your hands over the learner’s hand to get them to comply with a motor demand or directive.

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

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


Individual Education Plan (IEP) – The individualized curriculum plan that children, adolescents, or adults (usually up to 22) have if they are in special education. An IEP is a legal document. Parents as well as professionals should take the IEP process 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 Individual Family Services Plan (IFSP).

Inclusive Classroom – An inclusive classroom is a classroom with both special needs and typical children learning together. Typically, General Education teachers cover inclusive classrooms, but there may or may not be paraprofessionals in the room.

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 request help instead of engaging in a tantrum.

Intraverbal – This is a Verbal Behavior term. Intraverbals are building blocks to conversation skills as it is the ability to discuss, describe, or answer a question about something that isn’t physically present, such as, “What did you do on your vacation last summer?”


Lead Therapist – Anyone who helps manage the ABA program and supervises the ABA Therapists (direct staff) while also reporting to the Consultant. Other terms for Lead Therapists include: Supervising Therapists, Senior Therapists, or Case Managers.

Lovaas therapy – Lovaas therapy is another term for Applied Behavior Analysis. It is named after Dr. Ivar Lovaas, who conducted groundbreaking studies on Autism & Applied Behavior Analysis in the 1950’s which were critical to the development and explosion of this field. Traditional Lovaas therapy often looks very different from how DTT is implemented today due to advancements in research.


Mainstream – To mainstream a learner is to successfully integrate them into a typical classroom, instead of maintaining placement in a special education classroom. It also means they can perform grade level work and have play, adaptive, motor, and cognitive abilities comparable to typically developing peers. Main streaming is sometimes the long-term goal for a child in special education.

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

Mental Retardation (MR) – A mental disorder characterized by significantly under-average general intellectual functioning associated with impairments in adaptive behavior. It is classified on the basis of severity as mild, moderate, severe, and profound. In different states, this may have different names (cognitive impairments, intellectual impairments, etc).

Mouthing – This refers to when inappropriately placing items/toys, etc. in the mouth. Depending on the individual, mouthing might also present as licking items.


Natural Environment Training (NET) – A teaching procedure used in applied behavior analysis. Learning occurs incidentally and often playfully in natural environments, such as at the bus stop, in the bathtub, or during dinner.

Neuro-Divergent (ND) – Neuro-divergent is a term describing people with neurological difficulties or differences.

Neuro-Typical (NT) – Neuro-typical is a term describing people who do not have Autism or neurological difficulties or differences.

Normal vs Typical – Many people use the word “normal” when distinguishing between individuals with Autism and individuals without it. The more appropriate way of describing individuals without Autism is “neuro-typical”.


Pairing – Pairing is the act of linking two stimuli in your environment, such that when one happens, it triggers you to expect the other one to happen. Sometimes a professional will use training and learning to strategically pair two stimuli. However, stimuli in our environment may also become paired by mistake.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) – PDD was a form of Autism. Despite popular opinion, PDD is not a way for doctors to “avoid giving a diagnosis of Autism”. A diagnosis of PDD means that child is on the spectrum, but they aren’t fitting neatly into any one category. PDD is no longer a separate diagnosis in the most recent edition of the DSM.

Perseverative Behavior – Displaying excessively repetitive and stereotypical behaviors. An example might be asking for a pretzel 18 times in 5 minutes. It might also present as repeating a line from a commercial over and over again. Many people think this word is synonymous with “stimming” (see stereotypic behaviors). They are wrong, however, because automatic reinforcement is not always the function maintaining perseverative behavior.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) – PECS is a symbolic communication system for functionally non-verbal individuals. PECS helps individuals  with autism initiate requests and communicate their needs.

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 assistance with a task. This means that they have stopped attempting to do the task independently. It could also be that a parent or professional has prompted the learner to do a task a certain way so many times, that it is difficult for them to change the way they complete it.

Punisher – Punishers can be tangible, social, physical, etc. In behavior analytic terms, a stimulus is only a punisher if the target behavior preceding it decreases in occurrence in the future.


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

Recovered – The word “recovered” replaces words like “cured” or “fixed”. A recovered individual has overcome the more disabling effects of their Autism diagnosis. They are able to be successful with minimum supports across a variety of settings (work, school, relationships, etc).

Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) – For direct level staff, this is a credential that denotes the person has met specific education and experience standards as well as a credentialing exam. The RBT credential is now a requirement to work as direct ABA staff.

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, for a stimulus to be 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. For an easy-to-implement mini-course on delivering reinforcers, or rewards, you can join my parenting membership program, the Clever Kid Curriculum!


Satiation – When a reinforcer loses its effectiveness due to overuse.

Scripting – This is when a learner engages in a vocal stereotypic behavior (see stereotypic behavior). It may include repeating, or “scripting” phrases or entire sections of a TV show, movie, commercial, etc.

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, or frantically scratching or rubbing oneself repeatedly to the point of bruising or other harm.

Stereotypic/Repetitive behaviors – Often referred to as “Stimming” or “Stims”. Stereotypic behaviors are self-initiated and repetitive vocal or motoric movements. Some examples include rocking, vocalizations, flapping, spinning, finger-flicking, and/or unusual manipulation of inanimate objects. 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” isn’t technically correct.

Sensory Integration/Sensory Diets – Sensory integration refers to different strategies or techniques used to meet, raise, or lower internal sensory needs such as weighted vests, specific sensory diets, or brushing procedures. Often an OT will recommend sensory integration via a sensory diet. Empirical data does not support sensory integration. As such, it should not be part of ABA treatment.

Shadow – Also called a School Facilitator; a Shadow is someone who goes into the classroom with a child and helps them integrate into the classroom environment.

SLP/OT/PT – Speech  and Language Therapist (also referred to as ST), Occupational Therapist, & Physical Therapist. These are professionals who often work with individuals with Autism and other types of special needs to provide therapy services. These services are related to speech, movement, developmental goals, coordination, and functional communication. It isn’t uncommon for these professionals (including professionals in applied behavior analysis) to overlap in the services they provide, such as teaching motor skills or visual performance skills.


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. The behavior program can address multiple target behaviors simultaneously, as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Task reduction – Reducing the demands put upon the individual in an effort to avoid or decrease frustration levels.

Transitions – May refer to changes from one activity or setting to another. An example might be transitioning from a preferred play activity to a work activity. Transitions are typically very difficult for individuals with ASD, particularly unplanned or abrupt transitions.


Variable Interval (VI) – Variable interval is a way of describing a schedule of reinforcement. If a program runs on VI 2-3, that means that between every 2 and 3 minutes the child contacts reinforcement.

Variable Ratio (VR) – Variable ratio is a way of describing a schedule of reinforcement. If a program uses VR 4-6, that means that between every 4th and 6th response the child contacts reinforcement.

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 Behavior (VB) – Verbal Behavior is a field within applied behavior analysis based on the works of B.F. Skinner that focuses on understanding and teaching language as a behavior, and based on its function.

Verbal vs Non Verbal – When people use these terms they typically mean if a learner can talk or not. Babbling sounds are not typically “verbal”, unless they serve a communicative purpose. The behavior analytic term for being able to talk is “vocal”, not verbal. “Verbal” refers to forms of communication such as sign language or gesturing, while “Vocal” refers to speech/vocalizations used to communicate.


I hope this thorough glossary of ABA terminology does indeed help you navigate the world of applied behavior analysis and it’s field-specific terminology.

I’m currently offering free 1:1 consulting calls for parents that would like some individualized support. If you would like to book a call, just book an appointment here.

2 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Master Your ABA Terminology

  1. This was very helpful! Thanks for the information it helped me to prepare for my RBT examine

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