What Do We Do All Day Anyway?

It is true that every individual with autism is different and that different therapies may be beneficial in helping kids reach their potential at school, home, and community events. Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is the most evidenced based therapy for children with autism, and when provided at an appropriate quality and level of intensity it can achieve great results for kids and families. 

The general idea of ABA is that we teach skills and reduce challenging behaviours. Although this is a good start, it’s not very descriptive of what we do all day everyday! ABA is the science of manipulating the environment to improve socially significant behaviour. Does that give a good idea of what we do? Probably not. In other words, we observe what kids do and determine specific goals to improve their lives.  This may mean improving their learning potential, helping them to be more interactive with their peers or families, or teaching everyday routines like toileting or safety skills. 

But how do we pick these goals? This is where the socially significant piece comes in! We assess kids to determine goal areas that are age appropriate in the sense that all kids learn those skills as they grow and develop. These goals might be language oriented, academic, or social. 

The other piece to social significance brings the family into focus. We communicate closely with families to find out what’s important to them and what they might be struggling with. For example, helping kids learn to brush their teeth, to ride a bike and wear a helmet, or sit with their family for a meal. We are always striving to improve the lives of our clients and usually that also means improvement to their family’s lives as well!

Once we’ve determined goals to work on, we break big skills down into smaller teaching targets and give lots of opportunities to practice each target. This is where sometimes ABA can be criticized because, if we’re not careful about our instructional strategies, there is the potential to lean on memorization or rote learning as well as unnatural or contrived teaching. Of course, some children do require (especially in the beginning) a lot of repetition and contrived teaching scenarios in order to kick-start the learning process. However, as soon as possible, naturalistic teaching strategies should be included or prioritized in order to generalize and teach as naturally as possible. In a future post I’ll go into more detail about the differences between table-top (or Discrete Trial Teaching) and naturalistic teaching. 

Each of our kiddos has an individualized program and works one on one with instructor therapists throughout the day with the exception of some group time opportunities. One to one sessions often target language skills, matching, imitation, academics, personal care skills, and more!  There are group time opportunities where kids are participating in circle time singing songs, doing arts and crafts, or having gym time where they might be doing an obstacle course, playing with the parachute, or having free play. 

When observing at an ABA Centre like ours, you might quickly notice the high level of engagement provided to each child. You should also see instructors taking data on almost everything that happens during the day so that progress can be tracked. We also provide a lot of planned support in order to teach small skills. This support might look like praising or reinforcing specific behaviours or skills that we are aiming for and using prompts or environmental cues to help teach a skill. Another area of focus for ABA Centres is reducing any challenging behaviours using assessment and intervention. Challenging behaviours are defined and assessed before being intervened on. Intervention might entail guiding kids to work through a skill that is tough for them, re-directing them to another activity, setting up the environment using visual cues, or teaching them language they can use instead of engaging in a tantrum or other challenging behaviour. 

It’s quite the fast-paced job but those of us who do it love it because we get to work with the best kids and families and nothing beats the feeling of having a kiddo say his first words, seeing them regulate their emotions for the first time, or start playing with their peers or family members! 

Until next time!

Mary Philips M.Ed., BCBA

Let’s Start With Quality Over Quantity                                       September 2019

As I sit down to finally write this blog post I feel a little disappointed; not because I don’t want to write it, but because I am just getting to it now. When I began blogging about the experience of opening The Discovery Centre and providing behavioural services to children and youth with ASD I was hoping to get a post out every month. That was 3 months ago :/

Does struggling to get things done sound familiar? Trying to balance the rest of your life – which probably includes other children, a job, a partner, appointments, and trying to navigate funding changes – you are now expected to try and implement behavioural strategies that will help in the long run, but initially seem like a huge amount of work and commitment…

So instead of my original idea looking at different ways to determine the function of challenging behaviour, I’d rather start a discussion on how to pick our battles; do a few things with confidence to get great results, then build on that progress.

I was chatting with a parent the other day about starting toilet training at home  -which was still in the early stages at the Centre. Although the family was initially really eager, as we chatted it became apparent that adding toilet training at home would be too much to add to their already full plate. We agreed that it would be best for her child to gain some toileting momentum at the Centre, give the family some time to work on an already established home-goal (which was going quite well), and transfer toilet training home when she and her husband felt ready to give it their full attention.

We don’t have to tackle everything at once! Although we often feel pressed for time in early intervention, it’s also important to remember that if we pick one or two goals for parent training, they will likely be implemented with more effectiveness than if we try multiple training goals at once. We know that the benefits of therapy are impacted greatly the more a family is involved; however, it’s the quality of that involvement, not necessarily the quantity of goals targeted that makes the difference.

Keep your eyes peeled for our next (monthly?) blog post.

Mary Philips M.Ed., BCBA

   I am looking forward to starting a monthly blog as an opportunity to communicate with you about events happening at The Discovery Centre as well as information about Applied Behaviour Analysis and strategies for incorporating ABA into your daily life. With The Discovery Centre opening about 9 months ago, I still occasionally have to pinch myself as a reminder that I have had this opportunity to develop an environment and culture that strives to provide high quality ABA services to kids and families. Our team has grown significantly and now includes 13 wonderful and skilled instructor therapists as well as a dedicated Lead and Senior Therapist. We also can’t forget about Dr. Bruce Linder who has supported this initiative from the very beginning and continues to support us wherever necessary. This team has been wonderful in helping to develop our clinical practices, training new staff, and establishing relationships with families and community partners.

I have had the opportunity over the last 13 years to see what good quality ABA programming can do for increasing independence, communication, and play and functional skills. Teaching kids the skills they need to be successful in school, at home, and in community settings is a wonderful privilege. Each time we see a child say their first word, learn to match, read and write, successfully use the washroom, or learn to play with their peers I’m reminded why I do this job. Similarly, helping kids learn to use functional communication and adaptive skills instead of using behaviours that could be harmful to themselves or others is equally rewarding.

Of course I didn’t realize that the timing of opening the Centre would be followed closely by the Ontario government completely overhauling the Ontario Autism Program, jeopardizing the future of all ABA services that we, as Behaviour Analysts, know to be essential for autistic children, youth, and adults alike. Advocacy for our families and kids will continue, as will the day to day work of teaching new skills, developing relationships with families and community partners, and mentoring and training our staff.

Despite the volatile climate that we are currently facing, The Discovery Centre will continue to provide a learning environment that is fun, motivating, and results driven. I look forward to publishing more content on topics such as incorporating ABA strategies at home, naturalistic teaching strategies, and functions of behaviour.


Mary Philips M.Ed., BCBA

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