Understanding Applied Behavior Analysis for Autism
Human beings are unique, but individuals with Autism are sometimes considered outliers. They interact with the world in creative, diverse, and inspiring ways. Even so, our brilliant children with autism sometimes need some support to live in a world that doesn’t always function with their needs in mind.
Many families find the support they need in the form of Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA therapy. Professionals call this therapeutic modality the gold standard for the treatment of autism. But what is ABA therapy, and what are the benefits for autistic children and their families?
Applied Behavioral Analysis seems complex but is a fairly simple approach that leads to growth for so many autistic individuals. Read on to learn more about autism, as well as how ABA therapy can help autistic children thrive.
What Is Autism?
In essence, Autism describes individuals who have challenges related to communication, social skills, and repetitive behaviors. Children and adults with autism may struggle with sensory input or have additional medical challenges. Many autistic individuals face mental health challenges such as anxiety or depression, too.
Defining Autism can be challenging. It’s also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. The word “spectrum” reflects the fact that no two experiences of Autism are the same.
Autism is a way of living in and interacting with the world, not a disease, so symptoms and daily life are different for every individual. Symptoms and daily life are different for every individual.
Some individuals with Autism like to use an analogy known as the “sundae bar” analogy. If you were going to an ice cream social, you would make your ice cream sundae your way. It would have a unique variety and quantity of toppings.
Even if the person next to you added the same toppings, their sundae would look different. For example, the quantity of “gummy bears” might vary.
Likewise, no two autistic people will have the same combination of symptoms. Symptoms and experiences might even be identical on paper, but individual experiences are unique. Regardless, it all falls under the blanket term of ‘autism’ – they’re all still delicious ice cream sundaes!
Living and Learning With Autism
Even though Autism is a way of being in the world, it often poses challenges, especially in allistic or non-autistic spaces. We sometimes use the term ‘neurodiverse’ to explain the unique way that autistic brains process language and sensory information. While individuals with autism do well in some settings, they sometimes need support to function in less comfortable spaces, such as public schools.
Symptoms of Autism typically appear in early childhood, usually around the age of two. There is no “cutoff,” however, so symptoms often appear earlier or later.
The most common symptoms fall into one of two distinct categories. They are problems with communication and social interaction and restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior or activities.
Problems With Communication and Social Interaction
Autistic children may struggle to express themselves. This can range from challenges with naming and describing emotions to the inability to have a conversation. Many individuals struggle to process subtext, don’t pick up on body language cues, and find eye contact uncomfortable.
This can make it challenging for autistic individuals to form relationships. Social interactions that an allistic person would consider to be intuitive take special effort. Unless these social and communication skills are explicitly taught, autistic children may find other solutions, with neurotypical people perceive as inappropriate.
All human brains can tackle problem-solving, and autistic brains are no different. Autistic children may use language that they have picked up in other contexts in unique and creative ways. This can challenge the problem-solving abilities of parents, friends, and caregivers!
Restricted or Repetitive Patterns of Behavior or Activities
You might have heard the word “stimming” used to describe some of the repetitive behavior that autistic individuals engage in. This is short for “self-stimulation.”
Individuals with autism may be sensory averse or sensory seeking. These behaviors provide the stimulation that they need to self-soothe, focus, and exist comfortably.
Stimming might look like repetitive movements, speech patterns, or motions. They can be small and unobtrusive or involve the whole body.
Individuals with autism are also sensitive to certain sensory inputs, such as light or sound. Some of these things do not register at all for allistic individuals. Even so, they can be uncomfortable or even painful for autistic people.
We sometimes consider certain responses to be “restrictive.” This is because they may inform the types of spaces where an autistic individual can comfortably function.
Autistic individuals also commonly develop special interests, which they find fascinating, engaging, and compelling. Interests might be anything, from a television program to a proclivity for robotics. This has led to the stereotype of ‘the autistic savant,’ which is not descriptive of the average individual with autism.
What Is ABA Therapy?
ABA Therapy, or applied behavioral analysis, is a popular autism treatment. It uses behaviorist theories in accessible ways. At the most basic level, it uses systems of rewards and consequences to help autistic individuals to learn, communicate, and behave in more appropriate ways.
ABA therapy is one of the most common modalities in the treatment of autistic individuals.
ABA therapy begins with an assessment conducted by a trained professional, often a therapist or special educator. Usually, this involves speaking with the parents or caregivers about what life is like with and for the autistic individual. They may observe the child using a series of standardized assessments.
Specialists use the data to develop a series of goals for autistic individuals. These might include educational goals, social skills, or replacing stimming behavior. These are the skills that the ABA practitioner will work on during ABA therapy.
Furthermore, effective ABA therapy involves training and educating parents and caregivers on using behavior and reward systems at home. Autistic children, like all children, deserve consistency and routines. It can be a wonderful way to help parents understand their children’s unique gifts.
Types of ABA Therapy
There are several different types or categories of ABA therapy. The therapy used will reflect the individual’s therapeutic goals. ABA therapy looks different for very young children than for adults, for example.
Language-based ABA may focus on communication, while ABA in the school setting may focus on academic skills.
Discrete Trial Training
DTT therapy uses a series of steps known as ABC, or antecedent, behavior, conclusion. It is a clear method of teaching an autistic individual a new skill or behavior. When the autistic person can complete the task, they receive a reward, which reinforces the behavior.
Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention
EIBI is an individualized approach to helping young children to function. It is intensive, as the skills the therapist teaches have applications for almost all settings.
Early Start Denver Model
ESDM is the method used when children are very young. It uses play to help teach babies and toddlers basic social and language skills.
Natural Environment Training
Natural environment training is the way that autistic children apply their DTT skills. The individual participates in a natural scenario where they can practice new skills. For example, individuals learning about shopping might go to the supermarket to practice using a shopping list.
Focused ABA Therapy
Therapists use focused ABA when an autistic individual is struggling in a specific situation. This is often addressed in one-on-one therapy. They will learn strategies to help them navigate the specific scenario that is causing issues.
What Might a Typical Day Look Like?
By now, the one thing that should be clear about both autism and autism therapy is that “one size fits all” does not apply! Treatment is as unique as the individual, and different therapists put a unique spin on the process. Great therapists find ways to include an autistic individual’s interests in the process.
This can make it difficult to visualize what ABA therapy looks like in practice! The truth is that there will never be a “typical” ABA session. A well-structured day run by a proficient practitioner will have consistency and rhythm built-in.
Full-Day ABA Therapy
All quality ABA therapy should begin with relationships. The therapists will give your child time and space to become familiar with the space and materials. They will observe as your child expresses preferences for toys, tasks, and materials.
Usually, the actual therapeutic process will begin with DTT. It looks a lot like an ordinary day of school. Your child will work with a therapist, one-on-one or in small groups. They will use a variety of tactile and virtual materials to meet your child’s goals.
Often, DTT involves playing games. When your child effectively demonstrates a new skill, they will receive a reward. Often, they will earn “tokens” throughout the day and redeem them for a treat or prize.
Later, the child will participate in NET therapy. For young children, this usually means applying new social skills in real social situations. They may be able to engage in free-play with support and side coaching from the ABA therapist.
The daily schedule will usually have a tight and predictable structure. Children may work with more than one therapist throughout the day. There will be time to address a variety of skills, from academic to daily living skills like toileting.
Benefits of ABA for Autism Spectrum Disorder
There are many benefits of ABA therapy because it addresses so many different skills. Therapists address the needs of an individual child. This ensures that each child will grow in the areas where growth is most necessary.
One of the best benefits of ABA therapy is that it helps children with autism to make friends. They will learn and practice new social skills in a setting with their peers. These skills also have applications when interacting with neurotypical peers and even siblings.
Furthermore, the emphasis on teaching skills to parents and caregivers is exceedingly beneficial for the children. It helps parents better understand their children and delivers the kind of consistency that children need and deserve. In ABA therapy, parents and therapists are on the same team, and parents grow as much as children.
ABA therapists also tend to have high expectations. Once a goal is set, they will work tirelessly to help your child rise to the occasion. They can show you how capable children with autism are with the right support.
Even at the most basic level, ABA’s approach to teaching practical life skills makes it easy for neurodiverse children to live in a neurotypical world.
Applied Behavioral Analysis and Controversy
Although ABA is common, it is not entirely without controversy. Autistic children grow into autistic adults, and several of them have grown to express frustration with the goals of ABA therapy. Namely, they find it frustrating that the therapy seeks to make them seem “more normal.”
This implies that there is a way to be “normal.” They prefer that the allistic world learns to accept a range of neurodiversity. They would like to change the world, not to change themselves to fit the world.
The belief is that different is not the same as abnormal. They feel that rhetoric exists that suggests that children who don’t undergo ABA therapy are “hopeless,” which is damaging.
Other forms of therapy for autism do exist but are rarely presented as options for parents. After a new diagnosis, parents are often overwhelmed. They may not be in a position to do extensive research and will go with the most visible treatment option.
ABA is not the only form of therapy that exists. You should look into all available options and find practitioners that share your beliefs.
ABA Therapy: One Key to Comfort
Applied Behavioral Analysis has helped children and families make incredible strides when living with an autism spectrum disorder. Non-verbal children have learned to speak, touch averse, children have learned to hug, and all children have taken steps toward independence. The right therapist can make a massive difference and inspire children to work hard and tackle even the toughest challenges.
ABA therapy is not the only technique that can help alleviate symptoms of autism. TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, can also relieve challenging symptoms with no side effects. It is quick and painless, which makes it ideal for even the most sensory-averse individuals.
Brain center TMS offers TMS treatment for autism at their San Diego location. If you would like to learn more, schedule a free consultation online. Learn how the combination of ABA and TMS therapy can make life easier for autistic children and adults.
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- National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, March). Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved October 8, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd
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