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