Are you confused about ABA therapy?

What is ABA?

Over the last few decades, Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, has grown into a broad group of approaches and techniques designed to help children with autism.

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that can improve social, communication, and learning skills through reinforcement strategies.

ABA therapy may decrease behavior with a negative impact on social interactions. It could also address negative behavior in family and educational settings and foster better focusing abilities.

ABA principles and strategies target negative behaviors, and the goal is to modify such behaviors to be more functional and appropriate, which can result in improved daily living.

How does it work?

The principles behind ABA target four different functions of behavior, which include: escape or avoidance, attention seeking, access to tangibles or reinforcements, and instant gratification. 

All forms of ABA are based on the idea that rewarding certain behaviors will lead kids to repeat those behaviors. Early forms of ABA focused on breaking skills into very small steps and rewarding kids for doing each step correctly. In the past, kids might also have been punished for doing a step incorrectly. Punishment is no longer used in any form of ABA.

Today, there are a few different kinds of ABA in use.

The specific type of ABA used may depend on your child’s age, challenges, and other factors.

  • Early intensive behavioral intervention: This is often recommended for children younger than 5. It involves an intensive, individualized curriculum designed to teach communication, social interaction, and functional and adaptive skills.
  • Discrete trial training: This training aims to teach skills through structured task completion and rewards.
  • Pivotal response training: This training lets your child take the lead in a learning activity, though the therapist often offers a few choices based on specific skills.
  • Early Start Denver Model: This involves play-based activities that incorporate several goals at once.
  • Verbal behavior interventions: These can help children become more verbal or increase their communication skills.

What’s the end goal?

The goal of treatment depends largely on your child’s individual needs.

However, ABA often results in children:

  • showing more interest in people around them
  • communicating with other people more effectively
  • learning to ask for things they want (a certain toy or food, for example), 
  • having more focus at school
  • reducing or stopping self-harming behaviors
  • having fewer tantrums or other outbursts

Too tough on kids?

Too focused on eliminating behaviors?

ABA has been the topic of debate in recent years. Many autistic individuals and their advocates vehemently oppose this treatment and speak out against it.

While use of aversive reinforcement is generally gone, there is still a complaint that ABA therapy, which can involve a lot of repetition, is tough on the children, and the skills they learn don’t necessarily generalize to other situations.

ABA is also criticized because the goal behaviors it teaches are selected without consideration of autistic needs, such as sensory sensitivity or overwhelm. Children under the Spectrum are taught to perform behaviors regardless of whether those behaviors cause them pain.

Some criticisms include the following:

  • ABA takes away a child’s human right to say “no.”
  • Children under this treatment are bullied and belittled.
  • ABA therapists are too rigid and don’t take into account a child’s individuality.

Defenders of ABA argue that it isn’t aimed at taking away autistic children’s neurodiversity but at enabling independence.

So, should parents choose ABA for their children?

You, the parents, are truly the experts when it comes to your child. Parents
want their children to voice their opinions, needs, and wants. But as parents, you take on the responsibility to provide what you feel is best for your children.

How is this different for your children? Yes, some studies show early intervention is beneficial, but my personal advice would be to slow down before jumping to the first service provider you find, and take a look at your child. What do you truly feel would be best for him/her? Would your child cope in a strict behavioral setting, or does he/she require a more fluent and easygoing therapist?

ABA is not your only option

Children with autism do not need therapy simply because they have autism. Instead of asking, “What should I do instead of ABA,” ask yourself, “What specific needs does my child have?”

Alternatives to ABA include:

  1. Does your child have no reliable way to communicate? Try a speech and language pathologist specialized in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).
  2. Is your child experiencing distress and meltdowns due to sensory sensitivities? Try an occupational therapist specialized in sensory regulation.
  3. Does your child need help regulating emotions or understanding interpersonal boundaries? Try counseling with a pediatric mental health therapist trained to support children in those areas.
  4. Is your child struggling with motor (movement) coordination? Try working with a physical or occupational therapist.

What a good therapist does, whether it’s ABA or not ABA, is “try to figure out ways that build on an individual child’s strengths, that use their interests, but that allow them to participate in society and that will give them the most choices. That’s what we want. We don’t want just the best-behaved person, we want a person who can do as much as possible, and get as much joy as possible out of the world.” Dr. Catherine Lord, PhD

 

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