Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy, often referred to as a therapeutic intervention, that is used to help those diagnosed with autism and related conditions. It is an effective means of therapy for children and adults and it often occurs in a variety of settings. How does it help an autistic individual? According to the Center for Autism & Related Disorders (CARD), ABA helps the client with autism improve a variety of specific behaviors, including social skills, communication skills, reading skills, other academic skills and adaptive learning skills (hygiene, punctuality, job competence, etc.). ABA should also help teach a client to utilize and transfer their new healthy skills and behaviors to a variety of situations, especially those which consistently cause negative behaviors and responses.
Related resource: Top 15 Best Online Applied Behavior Analysis Programs
Many people question what will happen during a typical ABA counseling session, curious as to how one would describe the therapist or the therapy. You should find that the technique and philosophy of ABA therapy are pretty similar among therapists. ABA is believed to be most successful when it is applied for more than 20 hours a week and begins before the age of four. The only people who can lead an ABA session are specifically trained and certified therapists. These professionals are known as registered behavior technicians (RBTs). RBTs are trained by board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs). BCBAs also oversee all work performed by the RBTs. Occasionally, ABA providers may also have students working with them. If a student is part of the ABA therapy process, all of their actions are directly overseen by the licensed professional(s).
An ABA therapy session will almost always involve just two people: the person giving the counseling (usually an RBT) and the person receiving the counseling. This individualized instruction helps the client form a healthy relationship with the counselor. This familiar relationship should induce feelings of comfort, allowing the client to trust the counselor and potentially even look forward to sessions. For the young client, having just two people in the room can also help the child focus on the task at hand or the lesson being taught. Often, when a child’s parents or siblings attempt to participate, the child can feel uncomfortable or unable to open up the way they would if they were alone.
A big part of ABA’s success can depend on the location of therapy. ABA therapy can be home-based or center-based. Many counselors choose to utilize many locations, as an autistic client’s life occurs in a variety of places. Regardless of specific location, most ABA sessions will take place in a quieter space, like a bedroom, living room or office. The autistic client often needs this quiet to focus on the learning to be accomplished, as they usually have an easier time concentrating when there is less stimulation around.
Occasionally, a counselor may suggest some therapy occur in a public place like a park or a restaurant. These settings are particularly helpful with children, as they allow the child to learn how to act and react appropriately in social settings.
Using rewards for good behavior is an important part of ABA sessions. Offering a reward for good behavior or for doing something correctly helps the child link that action to the reward. The child, desiring a reward again, should then learn to perform the appropriate behavior in the future. The hope is that eventually, that ‘right’ response will always occur, whether or not a reward follows.
The type of reward will vary based on the skills and age of the child. Some will benefit from a session ending a few minutes early, while others benefit from more tangible rewards like a small treat. Many counselors may offer the child a sticker, a few minutes playing a computer game or a small candy at the end of the session.
Questions for Parents and Caregivers
You may find yourself wondering ‘what questions should I ask?’ while considering or before beginning ABA therapy for your loved one. Having a therapist that is a good fit is so important! Here are some questions to consider as you search for the right therapist.
- Is the overseeing BCBA(s) licensed by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board?
- How many BCBAs are on staff at the practice?
- How many behavioral therapists may be working with your child?
- What does a typical ABA session look like?
- Is the therapy home-based, clinic-based, or both?
- How do you determine goals for your clients? How often do you reevaluate goals?
- Do you allow parental input?
- Do your therapists receive continuing education and training?
- How many hours per week can you provide?
According to Autism Speaks, which is one of the largest autism organizations in the world today, an ABA treatment program should involve an individualized treatment plan with ongoing assessment. This is especially important for clients who may work with different providers each week or session.
An individualized treatment plan ensures that any therapist can measure and collect the appropriate data during a session, determining progress towards goals on an ongoing basis. It also allows a therapist to determine if successful behaviors and responses form a prior session have been retained. Once ABA therapy slows down (or stops), a therapist will desire a client to return for regular check-ins every few months to ensure that currents goals, routines, and practices are still working well for the client at home.
ABA therapy has been proven to help clients diagnosed with autism respond more appropriately to their world and their own personal challenges. ABA therapy is effective for clients from early childhood through adulthood. As you search for an ABA therapy provider, make sure you ask the right questions. The right fit between an RBT and a client can lead to positive results that last for a lifetime.
ABA Programs Guide Staff
Updated March 2020
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