Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy, or ABA, is one of the most common and well-researched therapies associated with autism. At some point on your autism journey, you’re likely to hear about or investigate ABA therapy for your child. Here’s what you need to know about ABA therapy so you can make the best decision for your child’s autism game plan.
What is Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy?
ABA therapy is a systematic and data-driven intervention that focuses on how your child’s behaviors and learning change in response to their environment.
What is the Goal of Applied Behavior Analysis?
Simply put, ABA therapy’s goal is to increase desired or helpful behaviors and decrease undesired or harmful behaviors. ABA can help with:
- Social skills
- Life skills
- Challenging behaviors
- Communication skills
- Academic success
How Does ABA Therapy Work?
The first step in the ABA process is to meet with a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA). The BCBA will conduct the initial intake meeting and evaluation. The BCBA then develops a plan specific to your child.
Once the BCBA decides which programs are appropriate, your child will begin their therapy sessions, likely with a behavior technician (behavior tech). The behavior tech will work one on one with your child, typically 10-40 hours per week depending on their specific needs.
ABA therapy is data-driven, which means data sheets will be used to see which interventions are and are not successful. The behavior tech will collect data during the therapy sessions and you may be asked to collect data at home as well.
- Pros of data collection: You get an accurate picture of your child’s improvement. Often, when you’re just observing your child’s behaviors over a six-week period, you won’t notice any improvements. However, if you analyze the data, you’ll often find small and steady improvement is actually occurring.
- Cons of data collection: Collecting data in your home can be overwhelming. You’re constantly on a higher level of alert and it can cause stress knowing there’s one more thing on your to-do list.
ABA therapy uses positive reinforcement to increase desired behaviors. Conversely, undesired or challenging behaviors are ignored (unless they’re dangerous) in order to reduce their frequency. The behavior tech will identify a goal behavior. Every time your child uses that behavior correctly they’ll be rewarded. If your child doesn’t use the goal behavior or engages in undesired behaviors those behaviors will be ignored.
Positive rewards, like praise, a sticker chart, or access to a preferred toy, will encourage the continuation of the desired behavior over time.
How Are You, As a Parent, Expected to Implement ABA Techniques?
An important piece of ABA therapy is parent training. When you begin ABA therapy you’ll sit down with the BCBA to talk about strategies you can use to improve your child’s behaviors.
Personally, I felt unprepared to take on ABA therapy. I had read plenty of books and articles but still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. I was filled with self-doubt. The BCBA served as a guide for the entire experience and showed me how to navigate the process for my child’s particular needs.
How to Choose a Therapist
There are plenty of companies offering ABA therapy, from big practices to small independent providers. Here are my tips for choosing an ABA therapist.
- Look for smaller companies: Companies privately owned by the BCBA offer a few advantages. The first is a company owned and operated by the BCBA is likely to pay their behavior techs better. The result is less turnover and more consistency for your child. Also, if the BCBA is the owner they tend to be more invested in your overall experience and success.
- Focus on honesty and transparency: When I was interviewing companies before beginning therapy for Sophie, I always asked the BCBA what the pros and cons of ABA therapy were. The provider you choose should be able to be honest about the huge time commitment required for ABA to be successful.
- Choose a company that has your family’s best interest in mind: The amount of time you need to commit to ABA therapy is one of the first conversations you need to have with the BCBA. Some companies will require you to commit to a specific number of hours and if you can’t commit, they may not be willing to work with you. As parents, to be our best, we need to be emotionally healthy. For me, balancing 40 plus hours of therapy a week for Sophie on top of parenting my twins, and juggling work was stressful. I was overcommitted. Find a provider who will work with you to balance your priorities.
- Pick a provider who understands your insurance: Most states have laws requiring insurance companies to cover the expense of ABA therapy. However, some smaller insurance companies can opt-out of this coverage. Additionally, where your child receives the therapy may affect your coverage. Are they receiving therapy at the ABA center? At home? In school? These details determine how much coverage you’ll receive. Find a BCBA who understands these nuances and can develop a plan within that framework.
What Else Do You Need to Know About ABA Therapy?
There is some controversy surrounding ABA therapy. Adults with ASD are speaking out about their negative and traumatic experiences with ABA when they were kids.
These experiences shouldn’t be ignored. But, there are ways to go about ABA therapy with your child that aren’t harmful.
- Choose someone you trust
- Observe the therapy sessions periodically
- Speak up if you see something concerning
It may be after plenty of research and interviewing a few BCBA’s you’ll decide that ABA therapy isn’t appropriate for your child. That’s ok. There are other interventions out there to get your child to progress even if you’re not comfortable with ABA.
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Be gentle with yourself. You’re doing a great job.
I hope this information has been helpful to you as part of creating Your Autism Game Plan.
Do you have a topic you’d like to learn more about? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org