Where Does Emotion Fit Into ABA?


I feel sad.  I got hurt.  I am so excited!  I had fun.  I love you.

These are simple statements with so much meaning and things parents hear regularly from their children.  That is, parents with typically developing children.  Children who fall on the autism spectrum may have difficulty expressing these emotions and I have met many parents who tell me with tear-filled eyes how much it would mean to just hear, “I love you” from their child.

I’d like to re-iterate that children on the spectrum may have difficulty “expressing” these emotions, NOT feeling them.  Now, there may be fellow behavior analysts out there who are shaking their heads as they read this saying “we cannot KNOW what someone is feeling; it is not observable, it is not behavioral”.  I say, this thinking, when it leads to turning off completely from teaching emotion, is what gives ABA and behavior analysis a bad reputation.

I am a behavior analyst, and will operationally define these abstract concepts to the best of my ability to work on these “feelings” because I believe it is socially significant to the children I work with, and their families.  We should not let our practice limit what we believe as humans, first.  Furthermore, it does not have to.  Doing ABA and working on emotion does not have to be a contradiction.

These abstract concepts can be broken into teachable skills.  This article explains how to do that nicely:   http://www.education.com/reference/article/ABA-intervention-cognitive-emotional-autism/?page=3 .  It goes beyond rote memorization, but true generalization and observation of the skill in the natural environment.

There is a slow, but growing collection of resources on social skills, some in which cover emotional growth and goals.  Theory of mind, social thinking, and executive functioning skills should all be considered when creating a program that will fully address the child’s emotional growth.

Here are some resources we like:






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