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Is Applied Behavior Analysis Only for Small Children?

Is Applied Behavior Analysis Only for Small ChildrenToday, applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a popular form of non-invasive therapeutic treatment for young children with mental health concerns, particularly for children with autism or related disorders. Its effectiveness in treating a variety of disorders on the autism spectrum is supported by the results of hundreds of studies; this has led to it being one of the most popular evidence-based treatments for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). 

Interestingly, ABAs extensive success related to young children and ASD may also undermine its effectiveness in other areas and with other patient populations. Many people have come to believe that ABA is intended exclusively for small children. Even students of developmental psychology, including some who are looking to enter into the field in a specialized capacity, are often surprised by the breadth of ABA’s scope in treating adults as well. 

Applied Behavior Analysis for Small Children

Applied behavior analysis was the first non-invasive therapeutic treatment to be widely recognized by the therapeutic community for its success in the treatment of ASD patients, particularly children. ABAs focus on the laws of learning and ‘normal’ development gives it a unique approach both in the way it understands behavior and in the ways it modifies or teaches behavior. ABA methods are strategically planned, to meet the specific needs of each patient, address their preferences, and engage with them inside of their interests. 

ABA professionals observe and modify the environment and the patient both before, during and after behaviors that need modification. This full scope of observation can occur in all kinds of environments, including clinical offices, home visits, parks, restaurants, and schools. When ABA is successful, patients learn new skills and acquire the ability to modify their behavior, with the ultimate goal of effecting coping strategies and the ability to form healthy social relationships. 

At what ages is ABA most effective? You may find a lot of answers to this question. Most believe that ABA therapy is most effective if it is begun with a child before the age of 5. However, older children and patients can also benefit. This list documents several hundred references/meta-analyses that specifically looked at ABA‘s impact with children over the age of seven, with results indicating that effective ABA methods can be helpful in patients up to age 21+. 

For the parent or provider asking “how long will my child be in ABA therapy” there are also a variety of answers. Both the intensity and duration of ABA therapy will be dependent on the child’s needs when beginning therapy. However, three years is an average expected length for intensive ABA treatment (20-40 hours a week with a lot of time spent at home), with many studies pointing to a possible range of 18 months – 5 years of therapy. 

Recent Advancements in Developmental Psychology

As advances in science and cognitive understanding continue to grow, neuroscientists and psychiatric professionals have found (and continue to find) that the human brain is constantly developing, in stages, throughout the entirety of our lifespans. While these phases of development can influence the stages which occur later, they are also inherently distinct. 

Stages of cognitive development are not only biological. They are also extremely influenced by social and cultural norms. Many parents and caregivers strive to raise their children to behave in ways that meet the widespread perception of how people at certain points in their lives are “expected to behave.” Though these expectations aren’t always right or appropriate for everyone, they do significantly impact patient goals. Therapeutic methods like ABA therapy have proven to be so beneficial largely because they address the social and cultural developmental norms of life as well as the biological ones, ensuring that ASD and it’s associated disruptive behaviors are modified without causing extensive further developmental issues. 

Applied Behavior Analysis for Adults

Though it takes some different approaches based on ABA’s primary philosophies, ABA therapy can also be an appropriate therapy for adults. Interestingly, this may even be true in adults who did not respond to ABA as children, because like any other individuals, autistic people continue to develop throughout their lives. For example, some ASD individuals eventually develop their own coping strategies, which provide a foothold for future ABA efforts to achieve greater success. 

Though ABA is used almost exclusively as an ASD treatment in children, it can be used to treat other disorders in the adult population. Some disorders that have responded well to ABA therapy include: 

– Dementia

– Substance misuse

– Eating disorders

– Addictive behaviors

– Anger issues

– Borderline personality disorder

– Anxiety conditions (panic, OCD, phobias)

Established in 2014 by the Center for Autism & Related Disorders, the CARD Adults program was the first of its kind to focus on ASD treatment (for adults) via ABA methods. They accept patients who are 14+. Much like the successful CARD program (for younger individuals), the program focuses on increasing functioning, independence, and social and cultural integration for ASD adults.

Related Resource: Top 20 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

More Information on the Practical Applications of ABA

Applied behavior analysis for small children is a highly effective way of treating various childhood disorders, but this is by no means the full breadth of ABA’s scope. Caregivers of ASD individuals need to understand that there are no clear limits on when ABA can be utilized or when it stops being effective. While the age therapy begins may have some indication of success, it is not the only factor that determines ABA therapy success. Should you believe that ABA therapy may prove helpful to an ASD individual in your life, consult with your care provider about the ABA approaches or methods available to you or your family.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

Updated May 2020

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