Applied behavior analysts are hired for a number of reasons and can work in various settings such as in the home, in a school, in the community, or in a clinical setting. When many people hear the term ABA, they often automatically think of individuals with autism; although, applied behavior analysts can work and treat other groups of people as well. Those with developmental delays benefit the most from applied behavior analysis therapy, as the behavior techniques used are geared toward specific disabilities. Even though many people with autism also have a developmental delay, they are not one in the same. There are numerous people out there who have a developmental delay without autism and vice versa.
Parents wondering about how to help their child with a disability should be aware of the five developmental delays treated with applied behavior analysis. Although applied behavior analysis was originally developed for use in people with autism spectrum disorder, it can also help other children as well as adults who exhibit negative behaviors and need positive reinforcement to change those behaviors into positive ones.
These are the types of developmental delays that applied behavior analysts work with to treat.
- Developmental Coordination Disorder
- Language Disorders
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Intellectual Disability
As you continue the article, you will learn more details about these five types as well as techniques analysts use with individuals with these delays.
5 Developmental Delays Treated with Applied Behavior Analysis
1. Developmental Coordination Disorder
Another term often used for developmental coordination disorder is dyspraxia. The World Health Organization states in their ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV’, that it affects 6% of all children to varying degrees, while other estimates vary between 10-20% (DyspraxiaUSA.org).
According to the Center of Development Pediatric Therapies,
“The theory outlined by Gerald Edelman in 1992 suggests that the condition (dyspraxia) is caused by the failure of the neurons in the brain to develop correctly. This failure of the neurons to form adequate connections means that the brain takes longer to process information and there is a greater likelihood of the brain losing the suggestion and the child therefore failing to respond to requests given to him.”
Children with developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia) lack both the fine and gross motor skills of typically-developing children of the same age. A child with this disorder might have trouble pulling on their pants, holding a crayon, or bringing a spoon to their mouth. They might appear clumsy or shaky in their movements.
Applied behavior analysis encourages an improvement in motor skills by reducing the child’s stress and anxiety about their bodies. It also improves the child’s self-esteem.
Types of therapies that applied behavior analysts can work on with the individual with dyspraxia, often in coordination with other types of therapists are:
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Speech therapy
- Oral feeding therapy
To learn more about dyspraxia or to get support for someone you know, after this article head on over to Dyspraxia USA. Their mission is “to raise awareness; educate people about diagnosis; treatment and resources to improve the quality of life for people with Dyspraxia and their families.”
2. Language Disorders
Next up are language disorders. Speech and language go hand-in-hand, and there are multiple types of speech disorders and language disorders. Language disorders include a child’s difficulty with understanding speech or speech patterns and difficulty with a child’s ability to create their own speech that can be understood by other people.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA):
Speech disorders include:
- Childhood Apraxia of Speech
- Orofacial Myofunctional Disorders
- Speech Sound Disorders
Language disorders include:
- Preschool Language Disorders
- Learning Disabilities (Reading, Spelling, and Writing)
- Selective Mutism
Early detection and treatment are key with any speech and language delay.
Applied behavior analysis can be used on all types of speech and language delays. Children often get frustrated when they cannot understand someone or when others do not understand them. The applied behavior analysis helps children work through the frustration, slow down and focus on making themselves understood. The analyst can work with students who are verbal and nonverbal by using levels and types of prompting, praising with positive reinforcement, and using other behavior modification techniques in order to make gains. Playing, singing, reading, parroting, and talking are all encouraged when working with a child with a language delay.
This type of therapy should be started as soon as a child’s parents or caregivers recognize a speech or language delay.
3. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
When looking at how to treat symptoms of ADHD, you need to understand the symptoms and what that looks like in a classroom or home setting. Individuals with ADHD typically are inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder includes a variety of problem behaviors that can be disruptive to the learning experience and to a child’s everyday life at home. Some of the problem behaviors associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder include wandering around a classroom, fidgeting, and blurting out answers—or really any behavior that looks like “doing before thinking.”
According to ABAedu, there are three main techniques that applied behavior analysts use with their clients:
- Differential reinforcement of behaviors – Positive reinforcement is offered for appropriate behaviors while negative or (more commonly) no reinforcement is given when negative behaviors are expressed.
- Discrete Trial Training – This method involves breaking down complex behaviors into a number of elements, which are separately and sequentially reinforced to build up into the desired behavior.
- Self-management training – Used primarily with older patients, this technique teaches self-awareness and provides a toolbox of skills, including self-praise, that can help with the self-management of problematic behaviors.
Applied behavior analysis helps a child learn how to wait their turn and how to control their urges to fidget in a way that disrupts others or to move about their environment.
Some specific strategies that may work with students with ADHD, from a behavior perspective, include:
- Using nonverbal supports, such as a first/then card, a break card, or reminders
- Using a choice board as reinforcement for appropriate behaviors
- Using visual and environmental prompting
- Using timers or watches to keep track of time for activities
- Using proximity control to be proactive instead of reactive
Each child with ADHD is different, therefore each should be observed in their environment and the teacher, parent, and ABA specialist can come up with a plan of action to reduce disruptive behaviors.
4. Intellectual Disability
Children with intellectual disabilities benefit greatly from applied behavior analysis.
ABA Works clearly defines what an intellectual disability is:
Intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, problem-solving) and in adaptive behaviors, which covers a range of everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18 and affects about 1% to 3% of the population.
The term Intellectual Disability covers the same population of individuals who were diagnosed previously with “mental retardation,” which term is no longer used nor is politically correct, in number, kind, level, type, and duration of the disability.
Some common symptoms of an intellectual disability are:
- Learning and developing more slowly than other children the same age
- Rolling over, sitting up, crawling, or walking much later than developmentally appropriate
- Difficulty communicating or socializing with others
- Lower than average scores on IQ test
- Difficulties talking or talking late
- Having problems remembering things
- Inability to connect actions with consequences
- Difficulty with problem-solving or logical thinking
- Trouble learning in school
- Inability to do everyday tasks like getting dressed or using the restroom without help
- Severe intellectual disabilities, maybe paired with additional health problems such as seizures, vision problems, hearing problems, and mental disorders.
Many of these symptoms are similar to autism and other developmental delays; therefore the modes of treatment may also be similar. Individuals with intellectual disabilities need a lot of support and early intervention is key. Applied behavior analysts and others who support this population often work together to help the individual be successful in school, at home, and out in the community.
Applied behavior analysts are perfect professionals to help those with autism. Symptoms of autism vary from behavioral, cognitive, developmental, adaptive, and psychological.
Here are some basic facts on the autism population from Autism Speaks:
- In 2020, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to 2016 data.
- Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
- Most children were still being diagnosed after age 4, though autism can be reliably diagnosed as early as age 2.
- 31% of children with ASD have an intellectual disability (intelligence quotient [IQ] <70), 25% are in the borderline range (IQ 71–85), and 44% have IQ scores in the average to the above-average range (i.e., IQ >85).
According to Autism Speaks, applied behavior analysis therapy helps people on the autism spectrum disorder by decreasing problem behaviors. Some typical problem behaviors include outbursts, aggression, elopement, property destruction, and skin-picking. With applied behavior analysis, a child with autism can learn how to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease those that are not helpful. The therapist provides praise and verbal rewards for good behaviors. The therapist also teaches parents and caregivers how to provide positive reinforcement.
Some specific techniques used with children with autism include prompting, extinction, discrete trial training, reinforcement, naturalistic teaching, parent training, modeling, functional communication training, exercise, task analysis, social narratives, self-management, and many more.
Helping a child with developmental delays takes a lot of resources, time, and patience. Parents and caregivers should keep in mind that techniques, such as those who practice applied behavior analysis use, do not deliver instantaneous results. Each of these five developmental delays treated with applied behavior analysis benefits from early intervention and at least 20 hours per week of intensive therapy during a child’s elementary school years. If not caught early, all hope is not lost. ABA therapists are trained to work with individuals of any age and with a range in the severity of symptoms.
If you have a child at home or in the classroom who has a developmental delay, seek out an applied behavior analyst and start the treatment process to help reduce unwanted behaviors and increase positive replacement behaviors.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University