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Discrimination Training In ABA Therapy: Complete Guide

Discrimination training in ABA therapy is a technique that is used by ABA therapists to see how autism therapy uses different languages, operants, and skills.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 15, 2023
min read

What is discrimination training?

Discrimination training in ABA therapy is a technique that is used by ABA therapists to see how autism therapy uses different languages, operants, and skills.

When people hear the word "discrimination", many things go through their minds, but in ABA therapy discrimination is a bad word. In simple terms when the word "Discrimination" is used in ABA therapy it means choosing between different items or objects.

After all, when figuring out treatments, diagnosis, and identification of autism, language is crucial. It is important that in this type of therapy, communication skills are not only spoken language skills.

With autism, communication skills can cover any form of communication that a client with autism might use to communicate with people around them.

A few of the common communication skills that people with autism might use include singing, desires, touching, and pointing. Understanding these types of communication skills is crucial to discrimination training.

How does discrimination training work?

When dealing with ABA therapy, therapists can use discrimination training with clients of all ages, but it has had more effect on children of younger ages.

However, discrimination training is usually only used once the therapist has had time to build a certain level of trust and understanding with the child. When working with autism, therapists have to understand that high emotions and extreme behavior are often the results.

Therefore, having a trusting relationship with the client is important to ensure that the client does not perceive the commands as a threat and they trust that the therapist will return the item, which is often something that the client holds dear.

Discrimination training examples

Discrimination training can be used on simple skills teaching a child to choose between different objects when asked.

For instance, if a therapist is teaching a child the command "give me ball", they would place a ball in front of the child and point it out to them. It is important to note that "ball" can be replaced with any object.

Usually, it is best to start with an item that is meaningful to the client.

This will assist them with following the training easier.It would start out being the only object in front of them.

Next, the therapist would add another item. Generally, you would want to pick something that is from a different category to keep from confusing the child.

For instance, in this case, you might add a shoe to the mix because a shoe and a ball are completely different categories that are less likely to be confused.

Once the client can identify the item correctly, the therapist would then put out three items, including the ball.

This gives the client more choices to discriminate against when given the "give me ball" command.Finally, the therapist will repeat this step, but this time, they will use the ball and 2 other untrained items, or items that had not been used in the previous steps.

If the child can pick the ball out from the other items at least 80% to 100% of the time, the therapist can feel confident to move on to a new item with the same method.

Why do we teach it?

When it comes to discriminating between items, it can be difficult for people with autism to grasp some things.

Therefore, it is important to ensure they can discriminate against different items when given a direct command to get something.

This is where discrimination training comes into play.

People need to be able to recognize and discriminate between items, which is why many ABA therapists conduct discrimination training with their clients who suffer from autism.

By using discrimination training, ABA therapists can help their clients with learning to discriminate between different objects and choosing the right one when given simple commands.

This will allow the clients with autism to get experience that can help with other behavioral skills that are needed, as well, as that is challenging for many people who are diagnosed with autism.

How do we teach it?

Just like with any training method, discrimination training can vary in the way that one teaches it. It usually depends on the client and how the therapist feels it should go.

However, for the most part, when starting with the training, the therapist tends to only use a single item at the start, which is the item that goes with the command and skill they are working with.

Most of the time, the therapist will start with an item that is meaningful to the client, which comes in with the therapist knowing the client.

This is one reason why the therapist needs to have a trusting and understanding relationship with a client.

Many people with autism are very protective of items that they enjoy and like, which means when someone takes them away, it could cause them to act out.

However, if the client is comfortable with the therapist and trusts them, they are more likely to follow the command because they trust the therapist to give the item back to them.

When do we teach it?

Discrimination training can be used when working with adults who suffer from autism, but it has been more effective in smaller children. It is considered to be a beginner program, which is why it tends to be more effective for smaller children.

If a child requires basic skills, like following basic 1-step instructions, choosing an item out of a group, or having joint attention, then discrimination training will often be suggested by the therapist.

However, it is important to remember that discrimination training takes a build-up of trust and understanding between the child and the ABA therapist. Without this, the child will not be as receptive to the training.

Therefore, many ABA therapists will use discrimination training only after they have spoken and worked with a child for at least a short time once that trust is built between them and the child.


  1. https://online.regiscollege.edu/blog/aba-therapy-examples/
  2. https://www.crossrivertherapy.com/aba-therapy-techniques
  3. https://www.cigna.com/assets/docs/behavioral-health-series/autism/2017/autism-april-handout.pdf
steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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