A Parent’s Guide to Autism and ABA Therapy
Your child has autism are words that no parent can ever be fully prepared to hear. It’s a diagnosis that raises fears and endless questions—what will my child’s future look like? can he or she learn? why did this happen? do autism treatments work? what can I do?
Both a blessing and a curse, the volume of information available at our fingertips on various autism therapies—ranging from conventional treatments to controversial and unproven medical interventions—is seemingly limitless. Many eager parents quickly fall into the proverbial rabbit hole of research, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and confused.
So where is a good place to start for parents with a child recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Applied Behavior Analysis, better known as ABA, has helped children with autism make remarkable progress for more than 40 years.
This blog will help to demystify the process and answer some of the most common questions parents have about ABA therapy and how it can help their child on the spectrum.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Each year, roughly one out of every 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism.
ASD is a developmental disorder that involves a range of impairments in communication and language skills, cognitive functioning, and social interactions; restricted or repetitive behaviors may also be present. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, deficits can range from mild to severe.
For children with limited language capabilities, maladaptive behaviors like tantrums, aggression, wandering, destructive, and self-injurious behaviors (SIB) frequently become a primary means of expression. ABA therapy works to address these behaviors by giving children a voice through less disruptive and more productive means of communicating.
Beyond expanding the capacity and methods of communication, ABA therapy is widely utilized in teaching skills essential for self-sufficiency, learning, friendships, and cognitive development.
How Effective is ABA Therapy for Autism?
With an efficacy backed by literally hundreds of research studies, ABA is, without question, the most widely used and effective treatment for autism today. Both the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychology Association recognize it as an evidence-based practice for the treatment of autism.
Therapists have used Applied Behavior Analysis to help children with autism and related developmental disorders since the 1960s and many parents in the years since have sung its praises as a catalyst for dramatic improvements in behavior and the adoption of new and important skills.
ABA training is most effective if therapy begins under the age of five but older children—even adults—can benefit. Applied Behavior Analysis can begin as early as eighteen months.
Significant therapeutic and cognitive gains for intensive and early behavioral intervention are well-documented.
What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for Autism?
Based on the science of understanding and modifying behavior, the foundational principle of ABA is that behaviors can be taught through a system of rewards and consequences.
When used in the treatment of autism, ABA is most often utilized to extinguish problematic and disruptive behaviors while encouraging the adoption of more socially acceptable alternatives through positive reinforcement.
Using rewards that are meaningful to the child—a book, toy, opportunity to play, a game, or praise—ABA has been widely used to teach a variety of skills that are more conducive to learning, building friendships, and independence.
Through ABA, children learn to apply their new learned behaviors to other real-world settings outside of therapy and incorporate them into their social interactions.
What Kind of Behaviors and Skills Can ABA Therapy Improve?
Children with autism often engage in disruptive behaviors like spinning, flapping, self-harm, and avoidance of disliked activities. ABA therapists work to replace these maladaptive behaviors with responses that are more conducive to general classroom settings and participation in childhood experiences so vital for development.
ABA is effective at teaching children a wide range of behaviors and skills involving:
•Language and communication
•Hygiene, dressing, toilet training, chores
•Sharing, eye-contact, taking turns
•Reading, memory, focus, and attention
Common ABA Teaching Techniques
While ABA therapy can be intensive, ABA therapists focus on making it playful and fun and may incorporate a variety of tools like visuals, symbols, sign language, games, and digital tools, depending on the child’s verbal and cognitive abilities.
There are a variety of methods used in Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, but they all focus on things that happen prior to a behavior (antecedents) and consequences after.
Most sessions include two types of training to help children master new skills and behaviors and generalize them to other environments.
Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a structured, formal technique that breaks down skills into small steps or components that are reinforced after every trial. Natural Environment Training (NET) is less formalized and reinforces desirable responses during natural play and experiences.
Depending on the age, abilities, and needs of the child, a variety of common ABA teaching methods may be used during therapy.
Shaping teaches complex tasks by breaking them down into small steps and rewarding closer and closer approximations of the targeted behavior.
Functional Communication Training (FTC) teaches children to communicate their wants, needs, and feelings in socially appropriate ways. For children with limited to no verbal skills, pictures, symbols, sign language, and gestures will be used.
Extinction is used to eliminate an undesirable behavior by withholding reinforcement, depriving the behavior of its value as a useful function.
Task Analysis and Chaining is a list of all the manageable steps necessary to complete a task.
Preference Assessments is a formalized way to determine what reward or reinforcement will best motivate the individual child.
Differential reinforcement reinforces desirable types of behaviors while withholding reinforcement for undesirable behaviors that are targeted for extinction.
Discrimination training teaches children how to tell the difference between two or more targets or stimuli like understanding that a coat, not a hairbrush, is needed to go outside.
Prompt and Prompt Fading uses physical, verbal reminders, demonstrations, gestures, and pauses to prompt a behavior and then slowly reducing the prompts to encourage the behavior independently.
While these are commonly utilized techniques, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or typical session as ABA therapy is tailored to the unique needs, abilities, age, and progress of the child.
What Should I Expect?
You and your child will work with a therapy team that includes a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), who has undergone extensive training in Applied Behavior Analysis, and a therapist or Registered Behavior Technician (RBT).
The BCBA will conduct a thorough assessment of the child that will involve observation, parent interviews, questionnaires, and reviews of their developmental history from schools, doctors, and previous therapy providers.
Based on this information, the BCBA will prepare an Individual Support Plan (ISP) to address the child’s specific needs and strengths, identify behaviors to moderate, set goals, and establish a method to track progress.
Under the supervision of the BCBA, the therapist will implement the plan and work one-on-one with the child and family.
Parents new to a diagnosis of autism are often surprised at the number of hours involved in ABA therapy, but research suggests that early and intensive treatments should involve a minimum of 25 hours weekly for children with more significant impairments.
Therapy sessions typically take place in the home several times a week and can last three to four hours, but the specific frequency and duration of treatment vary from child to child.
The BCBA will meet with the family regularly to review goals and progress and train parents and caregivers on ABA techniques to support the learning progress made during sessions. Depending on their availability, it is not uncommon for parents to spend several hours each week in training.
What is My Role as a Parent in ABA Therapy?
Fully engaged parents are instrumental in the long-term success of ABA therapy. Through parent instruction and participation in their child’s therapy sessions as often as possible, parents can, and often do, become skilled defacto ABA providers. And their influence on their child’s progress is invaluable.
Parents who consistently reinforce the efforts made during therapy helps to accelerate their child’s progress and generalize practiced and learned behaviors to other environments like schools, stores, and playgrounds.
Research shows that parents trained in behavior modification techniques enrich their child’s lives in numerous ways:
•Enhance quality of life
•Increase academic achievement
•Reduce the need for more intensive services
•Create a healthier family dynamic
•Accelerate cognitive, social, and behavior proficiencies
A Brighter Future with ABA Therapy
While there is no cure for autism, ABA therapy can help children overcome deficits and, in milder forms of the disorder, help them to catch up to their neurologically normal peers. It is the most effective and studied evidence-based tool in the autism therapy arsenal.
Applied Behavior Analysis for the treatment of autism is not a quick fix and can take years of intensive sessions, depending on the severity of the impairments. But the ABA success stories over the past four decades speak for themselves.
Alliance ABA is a leading provider of autism therapy services in Northern Virginia. Give us a call today to schedule a no-cost consultation today.