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This article is part of our ABA therapy techniques series where we explore the different techniques used by ABA therapists.

Pairing in ABA therapy is a process of developing a fun relationship with a child with autism through their favorite items and activities. Pairing helps to establish the therapist as a reinforcer, thus increasing the likelihood that the child will remain engaged and cooperative during therapy sessions. 

What Is Pairing in ABA?

Pairing in ABA therapy refers to connecting (pairing) a therapist with a child’s favorite items or activities (reinforcers) in order to build rapport. Pairing is an indispensable tool in working with children with autism who avoid social interactions and lack engagement in activities. It allows them to respond favorably to being in the presence of a therapist, develop a trusting relationship, and increase the chances that they will listen to and comply with the therapist’s instructions.

What does a successful pairing look like?

When pairing is successful, the child systematically approaches the therapist instead of avoiding contact and engaging in challenging behaviors. Through pairing, children also learn how to dissociate the therapist from the activity. This means that they can successfully complete therapy sessions even at times when they don’t find the activity itself particularly enjoyable. 

There are several ways to tell that the therapist is paired with the child:

  • The child attends therapy sessions regularly 
  • The child approaches the therapist and enjoys the therapist’s presence
  • The child smiles, makes eye contact, and remains in close proximity with the therapist throughout the session
  • The child complies with simple demands that the therapist makes
  • There is a noticeable decrease in maladaptive behaviors.

How long does it take to pair?

There is no set formula for successful pairing in ABA therapy. Depending on the child, it may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to build rapport. 

It is important to keep in mind, however, that pairing is not permanent. After a holiday, illness, transitioning to a different setting, or an increase in problematic behavior, it may be necessary to go back to pairing. For optimal results, ABA therapists should use pairing on an ongoing basis. 

How Do I Pair?

Pairing starts with observing the child’s behavior and engagement to determine the types of items and activities they enjoy, for example, toys, games, books, or sensory activities. The therapist will also conduct a preference assessment by interviewing the child’s parents, caregivers, and teachers to identify the child’s preferred reinforcers.


Pairing is done by engaging in the child’s preferred activity or providing favorite items like a toy or a snack, without placing any demands. By pairing with an already established (primary) reinforcer such as an object or an activity, the therapist becomes a conditioned (secondary) reinforcer. 


Once rapport is established, the therapist will start withholding the reinforcers and encourage the child to interact in order to access them. It is also recommended to regularly introduce new reinforcers to keep the child motivated and engaged.


Building rapport will look different for every child, depending on their age, communication skills, and areas of interest. The key is to follow the child’s lead in selecting reinforcing objects and activities. 

Rules for pairing

To successfully pair with a child with autism, ABA therapists must follow certain rules:

Rule 1: Have fun

As a therapist you should be involved in the child’s preferred activities, making them even more fun. If you are enjoying yourself, the child is more likely to enjoy the process too. 

Rule 2: No turn off

The pairing process always begins with avoiding turn offs. These are any requests that require the child to respond in a specific way. During initial therapy sessions, it is important that you don’t make any demands, give instructions, or ask questions. 


If you start the therapy by telling the child what to do, they may not like spending time with you. You should let the child be as independent as possible in the beginning. Once you are successfully paired, you can slowly introduce demands and instructions.

Rule 3: Restrict access to reinforcers

Remember that as a therapist you are always in control of reinforcing items and activities, such as playing with a favorite toy or going to the park. The child is required to follow easy demands to be able to access those items and activities, for example, finishing a puzzle before going out.

Rule 4: Play starts with you and stays with you

You need to limit access to reinforcement outside of the area where the therapy takes place. This space has to be more fun than any other environment. The child should also prefer engaging in the activity together with you than alone.

Tips to pair effectively

  • Let the child guide the pairing process by showing you what they like. You should always follow the child’s motivation and preferences.
  • Place the child’s favorite items in a cabinet or up on a shelf where the child can see them, but still needs your help to get access to them.
  • Show the child new items and different ways to play.
  • Be sure to pair the work area with reinforcement, so that the child will be motivated to want to learn in that space.
  • If the child is not approaching you, this may be the sign that he or she is able to access reinforcing items when you are not there. The child should be given access to these items only during therapy sessions.
  • While pairing, you should comment on the activity and give praise rather than asking questions. 
  • If you notice that the child avoids you and is no longer interested in interacting with you, it’s time to start the pairing process again.
  • The process of pairing should be a part of every therapy session and done for at least a few minutes every day.
  • Make sure to deliver reinforcers only if the child is not engaging in any maladaptive behaviors.


If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in Indiana, New Jersey, or New York, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family. 

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