What is a Discriminative Stimulus in ABA Therapy?

In the wide world of autism, the many acronyms can be overwhelming. ABA, ASD, BCBA, OT, RBT, SLP, and the list goes on. When you’re observing one of your child’s Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy sessions, you may hear the therapists use the term ‘SD’ and wonder exactly what they’re talking about. SD, or discriminative stimulus, is formally defined as “a stimulus in the presence of which a particular response will be reinforced” (Malott, 2007).

The Basics of SD
If the ABA therapist asks them to point to ‘Purple’ and the child correctly points to the purple box, then they will receive positive reinforcement from the ABA therapist, such as the therapist saying “Great job!” In this example, the SD is the purple box. If the child incorrectly picks the yellow box, then they will not receive positive reinforcement from the therapist. In this example, the therapist is looking for the one correct answer among three other incorrect answers.

SD in the context of social skills

Once the child has established a basic understanding of SD, then they would work on applying this concept in a more advanced manner. In the context of ABA therapy can use an SD to build appropriate behaviors in a social context, such as interacting with classmates during school or in the community.

This method can be particularly helpful for children who are on the autism spectrum and have a goal of developing stronger social skills throughout the course of their ABA therapy. In the context of a social interaction, the SD would be a classmate waving to the student. This may also be called a social cue. The goal would then be for the child who is on the spectrum to respond appropriately (e.g. saying “Hello!” or waving back). The subsequent reinforcement in this example would be the classmate asking them to go play with trains.

Why is SD important in ABA therapy?
Social skills are a crucial part of childhood development, and while they come easily to some children, many children who are on the autism spectrum struggle with the social aspect of school. This means that responding to a discriminative stimulus does not come naturally and may require modeling and practice with an ABA therapist. Throughout the course of ABA therapy, children can build appropriate responses to SD, which can result in more positive social interactions with classmates, family, and new acquaintances in the community.

5-Star Google Reviews
Read More Testimonials

"Chicago ABA Therapy is a boon for special needs kids and parents. They take a play-based, personalized approach and meet the kids where they are. They also go above and beyond - our ABA therapist took time to make sure we as parents understood every aspect of our child's experience, understood how to read his progress reports and generally made us feel a part of his therapy. My child loved all his therapists. Highly recommend the team!"

"We were so happy with our experience with Chicago ABA. We began working with them when our son was almost 4, a few months after his autism diagnosis. It was such an amazing team to work with - everyone was professional, responsive, flexible, and worked so hard for our son to meet his goals, which he did beautifully. We worked together for almost 2 years before he left for kindergarten, and in that time period he met almost all of his goals. We went through several bumps in the road with behavioral difficulties, and the Chicago ABA team did an amazing job helping us problem solve, try new strategies and think of ways to translate those strategies at home. We couldn't recommend them more highly - anyone who works with Chicago ABA will be lucky to have the experience!"