What Role Does the Parent Play in Applied Behavior Analysis?

What role does a parent play in applied behaviorWhat is applied behavior analysis (ABA)? ABA is a type of therapy most commonly utilized in the treatment of autism. It is an appropriate therapy for both children and adults. The therapy is focused on helping the autistic patient improve many different behaviors, particularly in the areas in which they are most challenged personally. This may include work related to social skills, communication, and reading, as well as fine motor skill improvement (hygiene, grooming, dexterity, etc.). The ultimate hope is that the autistic patient will be able to both improve these skills and be able to transfer these skills (on their own) into new or challenging situations. 

Although ABA is a therapy that can be utilized by anyone, it is most commonly employed with the treatment and care of autistic children. Naturally, there is then the question of ‘what role does the parent play in applied behavior analysis?’ Any time a child is being treated (for anything) the parent(s) and the child’s caregiver team are going to play an integral role in treatment success. While it is true that much of what an autistic child learns clinically is going to come from a specifically trained therapist, parents also need clarity about what their role at home is. 

Parents Play a Pivotal Role

Without question, parents play an essential role in the ABA process. While a therapist is responsible for teaching new skills, a child with autism only visits with their therapist for a small portion of their daily lives. Alternatively, these children spend many hours with their parents, when their new behaviors and skills need to be reinforced and supported. How parents and caregivers interact with the autistic child and whether or not they remember to incorporate or encourage the child’s newly learned ABA methods will play a pivotal role in how quickly the child learns what is being taught (or whether the skills are retained at all).

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The Importance of Complementing the Applied Behavior Analysis Skills Being Taught

Many studies show that children whose parents are actively engaged in the ABA process make measurable gains far greater than children whose parents are not. This does not mean that parents need to attend every therapy session or attempt to be their child’s ‘at-home therapist.’ But one cannot deny that typically, it is the parent who knows that child better than anyone. Their insight and engagement can thus prove invaluable to positive growth.

Parents who do not attempt to engage in or encourage the ABA techniques being taught in their children’s sessions can cause a lot of confusion for the autistic child. Parental disengagement can leave the child unsure of how to best communicate with both parental figures and other authority figures that they interact within their day-to-day lives. Conversely, parents who make an effort to complement what is being taught during their interactions with their children will see their child make greater progress and more efficient incorporation of their newly learned skills. For the parent feeling significantly underequipped in ways to best complement ABA therapy, most programs also have parent training available.

What Should Parents Do?

The amount of time a parent spends with a child leaves them in a position to record and track data, both at home and out in the community. This information can be shared with a therapist as the child’s care team continues to consider long-term goals. 

In the day to day, many parents find that engaging in positive reinforcement is a helpful tool. For example, parents may choose to provide their child with what they ask for only once eye contact has been made. This reinforcement technique will help teach the child to associate eye contact with positive emotions and responses. Some parents also choose to keep favorite toys, loveys, or games out of their children’s reach, ensuring that they will need to ask for them. This practice helps the child associate the act of speaking up and asking for something with another positive emotion and response (receive things that are appropriately asked for). The specific practices or tools a parent is engaging in at home will be dependent on what is being learned in current therapy sessions, so it is a good idea to maintain consistency by discussing these at-home plans with the child’s care team.

Take some time to consider how you can add caregiver(s) along with parent(s) to these plans. Are all authority figures in the child’s life aware of the skills being worked on, as well as how they are being enforced and encouraged? This list of people may include mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, coaches, nannies, etc.

How Can Parents Help Their Children’s Sessions be as Productive as Possible?

If the child’s ABA sessions will take place at home, it is important to ensure that the location and timing coincide with the fewest distractions possible. This environment will allow the child to focus more easily on what is being taught, which can be especially challenging for autistic children. If you can, create a quiet, peaceful place, in which family ‘traffic’ is minimal (guest room, office, etc.) and the noise is non-existent (or can be kept to a minimum). 

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Patience may be one of the most valuable skills for the parent of an autistic child. One of the most significant challenges parents face is the ups and downs that will occur while their autistic child makes long-term improvements. Keeping the big picture in mind during certain bumps in the process is essential. As the ‘honeymoon’ phase of the learning process slowly fades, remember why you started, celebrate your child’s progress, and keep your eyes on long term growth and goals. 

Related Resource: Top 10 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Online Programs 2015

The role of the parents in ABA therapy is integral to how much a child learns and how fully they learn to incorporate their new skills. This is always true for all children, regardless of whether or not autism is a part of their lives. Should you desire them, there are support groups, online forums, and parent training available to you. While the challenges parents face cannot be ignored, ultimately, we encourage you to remember that you are not alone. 

ABA Programs Guide Staff

Updated April 2020

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