Applying ABA Techniques to Eating Disorder Treatments the right way

Eating Disorders and ABA

ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) techniques involve altering the antecedents and consequences that are associated with the particular behavior of socially significant, in this case those associated with the eating disorders. These approaches have proven extremely successful for many different types of behaviour problems, though they have generally been used to target specific phenomena (e.g. Ahearn, Clark, MacDonald, & Chung, 2007; Baker, Hanley, & Matthews, 2006; Derby et al., 1992).

Eating disorders are of course socially significant, but they're also very serious when it comes to a child's health. In some severe cases, there have actually been people who have faced serious consequences as a result of these conditions when they went untreated. An intervention is required to ensure that children get the help that they need to safely reach an age-appropriate eating level.

Science-based ABA programmes are used in the treatment of Selective Eating Disorders, Paediatric Feeding Disorders, and other Eating problems by the following effective treatment procedures:

  • Understanding behaviour problems and the function of the behaviour
  • Analysing that behaviour
  • Choosing the correctly applied behaviour treatment and implementing the treatment programme
  • Training patientsso that the behaviour does not occur again
  • Providing after care and/or support programmes for life-long maintenance of healthy eating

Our treatment programme helps individuals look at the underlying causes of their behaviours in order to come to terms with their illness and start to create healthy strategies for coping once they leave.

The behaviour analyst direct behaviour observation and frequently, listening to reports of the behaving person or from close persons. Listening and observing are not sufficient; some rules have to govern the selection. One could select the most aversive problem for the client who seeks our services, or for his/her parents or caretakers. In some cases, like anorexia, the target behaviour should be the one that presents physical danger to the client or to others. The targeted behaviour could be the one that would lead, without treatment, to a poor prognostic. On the other hand, one could select a behaviour that is easy to change in order to obtain the client or caretaker’s cooperation.

Another important strategy is to select a key response, one that produces the greatest change among several problem behaviours. A good strategy is to teach functionally equivalent incompatible behaviours that enhance adaptation to the environment or that are important to the development of other behaviours, or that are relevant for a well-succeeded performance, or that are socially valued.

Another selection criterion would be a behaviour whose change is likely to maintain over time. Alternatively, the selected behaviour can be one that is consistent with local or developmental norms, and lastly, one that enhance discrimination among good and bad succeeded performances.  Ref: Meyer, S. B. (2008).  Functional analysis of eating disorders, Journal Of Behavior Analysis In Health, Sports, Fitness And Medicine, 1, 1. p.26.


Ahearn, W.H., Clark, K.M., MacDonald, R.P.F., & Chung, B. (2007). Assessing and treating vocal stereotypy in children with autism. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 40, 263-275.

Baker, J.C., Hanley, G.P., & Mathews, R.M. (2006). Staff-administered functional analysis and treatment of aggression by an elder with dementia. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 39, 469-474.

Bosch, A., Miltenberger, R.G., Gross, A., Knudson, P., & Brower-Breitwieser, C. (2008). Evaluation of extinction as a functional treatment for binge eating. Behaviour Modification,32, 556-576 .

Derby, K.M., Wacker, D.P., Sasso, G., Steege, M., Northup, J., Cigrand, K., & Asmus, J. (1992). Brief functional assessment techniques to evaluate aberrant behaviour in an outpatient setting: a summary of 79 cases. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 25, 713-721.

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