Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a spectrum of complex neurobiological disorders with common symptoms that are most often characterized by difficulty communicating and relating socially to others, and an obsessive need to engage in repetitive behaviors or language. Symptoms of ASD show up in infancy and very early childhood and might include avoiding eye contact, delayed speech or not speaking at all, not responding to his or her name, and restricted interests.
It’s important to understand that there are a wide variety of symptoms for children who fall somewhere on the spectrum. Symptoms that are easy to spot in one child might be virtually invisible in another.
However, every child who lands somewhere on the spectrum struggles with challenges in these three areas:
- Verbal and non-verbal communication.
- Relating to and understanding other people and the world around them
- Adapting to change or dealing with unpredictability.
The goal of any treatment option is to maximize the child’s ability to function by reducing ASD symptoms in a way that also supports positive development and learning. However, the range of home-based, school, and clinical treatment options can be completely overwhelming. Parents of children with autism want what all parents want – to provide their child with the support and resources they need to lead a happy, meaningful life.
We believe that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the most effective ways to support families by helping children with autism acquire new, positive behavior and communication skills while decreasing behavior that is destructive and detrimental to their development.
What is ABA Therapy?
In a nutshell, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a systematic approach to treating the symptoms of autism while increasing communication and decreasing maladaptive behaviors. The approach starts with the understanding that not being able to communicate is incredibly frustrating for children with autism, and this frustration can cause them to act out in destructive ways.
ABA therapy has been proven to improve a child’s ability to communicate and teach behavior that helps them form vital social relationships. The approach is also an effective way to teach play and self-care skills that support long-term healthy development. Children who receive consistent treatment, especially from a young age, generally show significant improvements in school performance and their ability to act appropriately in a wide variety of social situations.
Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that ABA therapy can improve communication, social relationships, play skills, and self-care for children with autism. The techniques have been shown to help children perform better in school and may even prepare some children for future employment. Early intervention is most effective, but even when applied to adults, research confirms that ABA is a powerful method for reducing undesirable behaviors and increasing positive social interaction.
Perhaps most important, many parents of children receiving Applied Behavior Analysis report a significant reduction in daily stress. Parent involvement is incredibly important to the healthy development of all children – but, being the parent of a child with autism is not easy. ABA therapy can offer parents significant relief from the stress of caring for a child on the spectrum by offering the skills to help them communicate more effectively with their child.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact this can have on the overall health of a family. So, let’s dig deeper into why ABA therapy is so effective.
Behavior Analysis: Let’s start from the start.
Behavior analysis is simply a way to understand a child’s behavior by observing them in a variety of situations. No child operates in a vacuum. So, behavior analysis seeks to understand how environmental influencers affect behavior. The approach is founded on the premise that we can learn a lot about what’s happening inside a child by investigating what the child does – their actions, words, and skills. And, in seeking to understand why a child behaves the way they do, we must also examine the physical and social influencers that might change or be changed by that behavior.
Behavior analysis is also an excellent way to help explain how learning takes place for children with autism. Learning is a complicated and intricate process with countless variables. Through understanding the many intricacies of how learning takes place, we can develop principles and techniques for increasing positive behavior and reducing harmful and destructive behavior.
Applied Behavior Analysis is simply the application of what’s learned from Behavior Analysis.
ABA is a systematic approach to treating the symptoms of autism while increasing communication.
It’s all well and good to understand why a child is behaving in a certain way, but Applied Behavior Analysis takes that information and uses it in practical ways to help children acquire important life skills. Starting with specific knowledge about how the child is having trouble getting their needs met, ABA therapy implements practical skills that teach them how to make healthy self-care choices, work well with others, and pursue personal interests. As the child learns more effective ways to communicate with the outside world, destructive behaviors are no longer necessary and naturally decrease.
“One of the most effective ways to understand ABA therapy is to compare behavior to a pendulum. Communication skills are on one side of the pendulum and maladaptive behavior born out of total frustration are on the other side. By helping a child communicate in a way that puts them in control of getting their needs met, the pendulum swings away from the difficult behavior. It’s not easy, and takes time, but ABA therapy is one of the most effective methods we have to support the health and happiness of children with autism and their families.”– Crystal Ciszek, Director of Operations and Business Development, The Autism Therapy Group
What Does ABA Therapy Involve?
ABA is one of the most effective treatments for autism in part because of how easy its principles can be applied in both structured environments, such as a classroom, and in day-to-day life, such as trips to the grocery store, play dates with neighborhood friends, or getting along with siblings.
ABA programs are highly structured, providing children with the consistency and repetition they need to test and modify their behavior. Therapists create a plan for the development of specific skills that is specific to each child’s needs. Skills are broken down into specific steps so that progress can be clearly tracked and the treatment plan can be adjusted if necessary.
One of the most effective parts of ABA treatment is the opportunity for repetition. Repetition is necessary for learning, so children are given ample opportunities to practice skills in a variety of situations. When the child achieves the desired results from an action, they are immediately given positive reinforcement which serves as further motivation to repeat the behavior.
Our approach at ATG is focused primarily on in-home therapy and other environments in which the family is consistently present, such as houses of worship, community events, extended family involvement, and athletic or cultural performance events.
Most ABA programs include support for the child at school and facilitated play with other children. As such, ABA therapy is tremendously effective in nurturing the development of basic life and social skills. Children learn to look at people who are speaking to them, notice things in their environment, understand social cues, and listen to people who are speaking to them. ABA therapy is also effective at helping children develop complex cognitive skills such as reading, holding a conversation, and even understanding other people’s perspectives.
ABA treatment is not a one-size-fits-all textbook-like approach to the treatment of autism. There is no instruction sheet to follow or a checklist to mark. On the contrary, one of the things that makes it so effective is that the intervention is customized to each child’s abilities, interests, situation, and needs. An ABA program for one child will look different than a program for another.
Progress builds on progress.
It’s important to understand that ABA therapy is an integrative, long-term approach, and the rate of progress varies from child to child. However, in most cases, small noticeable improvements will be apparent soon after therapy begins. As children recognize the personal benefits of behavioral changes, their progress becomes a natural stepping stone for further improvement.
ABA programs, including the programs offered through The Autism Therapy Group, create room for children to learn new skills and then put them into practice in both structured and unstructured situations.
Perhaps the most vital element in the effectiveness of ABA treatment is the treatment team. At ATG, we take a team approach to treatment, which may include a Client Case Manager, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who manages and assesses your child’s progress, and additional specialized therapists brought in to meet specific needs. This team approach ensures that families are supported throughout the entire treatment process.
If you have a child with autism and are wondering if ABA therapy might be a useful component to their development, please contact us. We welcome all your questions, comments, and suggestions.
For more information and resources related to autism, please visit the ATG Resource Page.