Generalization in Clinic-Based ABA Programs

Delve into the critical concept of generalization in clinic-based ABA programs with this informative post, offering practical insights and strategies to bridge the gap between controlled settings and real-world applications, ensuring meaningful and lasting behavior change.

Recently, there has been a rise in the popularity of clinic-based ABA therapy. Because ABA clinics are such controlled environments, it’s natural to wonder about whether children would be able to carry over skills like following directions, playing with toys, or preparing a snack, from one environment to another. BCBAs refer to this “carryover” as generalization. 

What is Generalization?

From a behavioral perspective, generalization is the ability to relate new stimuli to past experiences. When a learned skill is “generalized”, an individual is able to demonstrate the skill in a variety of settings, in the presence of a variety of people, and with a variety of items or materials. The ability to generalize is essential as our environment and everything in it is constantly changing. 

Generalization and Autism

Difficulty generalizing is a common deficit for individuals with autism. Because of this we often see situations like the following:

  • An individual can identify an apple on a flash card, but is unable to identify an actual apple.
  • An individual learns to respond to the greeting “Hi.” but is unable to respond to the greeting, “Hey”. 
  • An individual learns to answer social questions asked by one person, but is unable to answer the same questions asked by someone else. 
  • An individual learns to use the self check-out at one grocery store but is unable to do so at another grocery store. 

Responsibilities of the Behavior Analyst

It is the job of the behavior analyst to create socially significant behavior change. If an individual is successfully taught to safely cross the street in the parking lot at the clinic, but is unable to do so anywhere else, this skill is not socially significant and the behavior analyst has not done his job. Additionally, BCBAs are bound by the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts to produce generality. Instead of taking a “wait and see” approach, good behavior analysts actively teach generalization from the start. 

Programming for Generalization

There are various protocols and curricula for promoting generalization, but one of the most researched methods is general-case programming.

General-case programming takes a proactive, “front-end” approach. First the environments, and all variations within those environments where the individual will be performing the target skill are defined. Based on those results, direct instruction is developed and implemented. Research has consistently shown general-case programming to be effective and efficient in teaching a variety of generalized skills to individuals with autism and other developmental and intellectual delays. Included in the study were hygiene skills, community skills and vocational skills (Horner and Albin, 1988). 

Another study which followed the same general case analysis procedure examined generalization in teaching children to share. Several prior studies have failed to show generalization from one setting to another. When a proactive approach to generalization was taken in the current study, all participants generalized the skill of sharing to a new environment (Marzullo-Kerth et al., 2011). 


The ability to generalize, or apply learned skills in new environments, does not come naturally to most individuals with autism. Informed behavior analysts take this into account and plan methods for generalization proactively. When employing best practices, such as general-case programming, research shows that there is no need to be concerned about skills generalizing from the clinic to other environments. This allows parents to make decisions about their child’s ABA therapy confidently, whether it be in the clinic, home, or both. 



Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2014). Professional and ethical compliance code for

behavior analysts. Littleton, CO.

Education and Treatment of Children , NOVEMBER 1988, Vol. 11, No. 4, SPECIAL

ISSUE: Direct Instruction: A General Case for Teaching the General Case (NOVEMBER

1988), pp. 375-388

Marzullo‐Kerth D, Reeve SA, Reeve KF, Townsend DB. USING MULTIPLE‐EXEMPLAR TRAINING TO TEACH A GENERALIZED REPERTOIRE OF SHARING TO CHILDREN WITH AUTISM. J Appl Behav Anal. 2011;44(2):279-294. doi:10.1901/jaba.2011.44-279

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