Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in Autism Treatment

December 26, 2018

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in Autism Treatment

What is ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that focuses on teaching socially acceptable behaviors in a child’s natural environment. In general, ABA is the most common treatment path for children and adults with autism. ABA helps individuals understand how behavior works and what is appropriate for different situations. By encouraging good behaviors and decreasing harmful behaviors, ABA improves language and communication, fosters learning and social skills, and reduces problem behaviors.

At the micro-level, ABA therapy trains the behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by breaking down these behaviors into small, manageable steps. Using a piece-by-piece approach, children with autism can achieve larger behavioral goals. Board-certified behavioral analysts (BCBAs) are therapists who work intensively with individuals with ASD to collect information and data about their behavior and its triggers within natural environments. ABA therapy is one of the mainstays of improving language and communication in autism. Additionally, ABA helps with attention and focus.

One of the main strategies used in ABA, positive reinforcement, is a simple idea. BCBAs identify what an “acceptable” or goal behavior is in a certain situation. When a child acts appropriately or correctly uses a skill, he or she is rewarded with praise, encouragement, or even access to something like a toy or playtime. Over time, these rewards prompt the child to continue using the desirable skills, resulting in meaningful and natural behavior change.

ABA is a multi-dimensional therapy. The term “applied” refers to the significance of the specific behavior to be changed. In many cases, ABA addresses behaviors that are crucial to everyday life—occupational skills like eating or social skills like sharing. The term “behavior” or “behavioral” means that the approach aims to encourage appropriate behavior in a wide variety of scenarios. The analysis portion is crucial for ABA’s success; a good BCBA will diligently collect information about an individual’s behavior to understand what conditions act as antecedents. The technological dimension of ABA provides clear and detailed reports about an individuals’ therapy sessions so that future caregivers or BCBAs are able to continue treatment without any hitches. ABA is also a conceptual system, meaning that every methodology applied is based on behavioral principles. The term “effectivity” is used to determine whether or not the therapy is working. Finally, the generality of ABA means that this line of treatment can be used in a variety of environments and for many kinds of behaviors.

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The Pros and Cons of ABA

ABA has been a hallmark treatment for individuals with ASD for decades. Years of research and successful applications mean that ABA is oftentimes the first treatment plan that parents and health professionals will try.

Because ASD is a very individualized disorder, meaning each child will have different symptoms and different needs, ABA works well because it is easily adaptable. ABA stipulates that behavioral changes in autism should take place within normal environments, so therapy can be practiced in nearly any place like at home, at school, or in the community. In the same vein, ABA can be tailored for either one-on-one or group settings. It is not rote learning either; children with ASD make progress by fine-tuning their positive behavioral responses so that these eventually become second-nature.

The obvious drawback to ABA is the time and cost associated with it. Therapy sessions can range up to 20 hours per week, which puts a strain on busy families or individuals. Health insurance companies may have a cap on the number of hours of therapy they cover, which puts financial pressure on those who need more intensive intervention. There are some ethical concerns surrounding ABA and its tendency to foster a certain amount of “de-individualization” by encouraging a child to appear “less autistic.” For those children with ASD who are more introverted, the skills they learn during ABA may push them into a kind of “social conformity” that is otherwise antithetical to their personality or nature. Importantly, some children find ABA to be traumatic. The experience may leave them feeling invalidated, which then causes concern for their sense of confidence and self-worth.

The important takeaway here is that parents should regard ABA—or any treatment for that matter—critically and not think of it as a miracle fix.

Target Behavior Practice

Before you jump head-first into ABA, it’s important to understand why a child with ASD acts the way s/he does.

Target behavior practice is one of the foundations of ABA. ABA targets and evaluates specific behaviors using observation and feedback from parents, caregivers, and teachers. Using this data and feedback, BCBAs come up with specific treatment goals, which include goals for the individual with ASD as well as his family members. In therapy sessions, a BCBA works with children to promote appropriate behavior by use of positive reinforcement, discourage inappropriate behavior by use of negative reinforcement, and works to prevent inappropriate behavior by recognizing and changing elements in the environment that precipitate it.

The most considerable chance for successful and long-term behavioral changes occurs when there is a structured and consistent response system in place. Children should learn and eventually understand whether or not a particular behavior merits a reward or a consequence. Wishy-washy responses on the part of parents or caregivers may undermine target behavior practice in autism, which ultimately cripples ABA’s success.

what is aba therapy for autism

Tips and Tricks for Families

As with any disorder, early diagnosis and intervention provide the best results for long-term success. Especially for children with autism, whose symptoms often include disordered behavior, early treatment can stop and re-teach these behaviors before they become habitual. In many cases of ASD, signs can appear in babies as young as six months old. ASD may coexist with other issues like depression and anxiety, so it is critical for children to be assessed thoroughly by a qualified medical professional so as to rule out any other possible causes of ASD symptoms.

Once a child receives a definite ASD diagnosis, parents and health professionals will come up with a specialized treatment method to tackle the child’s unique symptoms. While there are numerous therapies to consider, ABA will likely be one of the first options to try.

One of the positive features of ABA is that parents can learn and apply ABA’s methodology easily outside of designated therapy sessions. Since the crux of ABA is to reinforce positive behavior, parents can give their child rewards (via praise or a token system) when their child engages in a desired behavior. However, unlike BCBAs, parents have heightened emotional responses to their children. This often leads parents to become overly frustrated or upset when their child struggles. A key tip for parents is to practice consistency in their responses and to avoid yelling or nagging. Practicing consistency not only makes it easier for parents to control their emotional reactions but also encourages trust in their child, who will know exactly what to expect when they act a certain way.

While raising a child with ASD can seem isolating, there is a vibrant and helpful community out there. Don’t be afraid to seek out support from other parents, health professionals, and educators.

How Technology is Used in ABA

Perhaps the greatest benefits of technology are its diversity and adaptability. Technology’s ubiquity means that children are becoming proficient in handling computers and mobile devices at much earlier ages. It’s not surprising that technology is an innovative and useful tool for ASD therapy.

Assistive technology is a wide-ranging term, and many devices that may not seem so “new” and technological do go a long way in helping those with ASD. For example, audio or video recordings allow therapists to communicate with clients outside of regular sessions. Parents and children can use pre-recorded videos to demonstrate and practice social skills and appropriate behavior.

Mobile devices like phones and tablets provide a fertile foundation for ABA therapy. Touch screen technology means that BCBA’s can enhance communication in children with ASD with the use of gestures and physical actions. These devices can be altered to cater to an individual’s specific needs; adjustable features include font size, volume, and screen brightness among others. Their portability means that therapy can go wherever the child goes, thereby extending far beyond sessions with a BCBA. It also allows for independent work, especially in the form of educational games.

Otsimo, being one of them, is a convenient app that puts quality special education within arm’s reach. Imagined and developed with the principles of ABA in mind, the app offers over 50 educational games that cater to the special needs of children with autism. Its mobile platform means that ABA and education travel easily, granting children ample opportunities to learn and grow anytime anywhere. Their games cover a range of topics and skills. Many of these games give individuals the opportunity to practice skills for daily life, like counting, telling time, using money/coins, recognizing foods, or learning about the weather. Because individuals with ASD may struggle with language and communication, there are target-specific games for learning sounds and understanding emotions. All in all, apps like Otsimo offer accessibility and convenience, which gives a much-needed boost to autism intervention.

Sources

5 Ways Technology is Used in ABA https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/lists/5-ways-technology-is-used-in-applied-behavior-analysis/

Applied Behavior Analysis https://www.autismspeaks.org/applied-behavior-analysis-aba-0

Autism Behavior Interventions Strategies https://www.nationalautismresources.com/autism-behavior-interventions-strategies/

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