What to Know About ABA Therapy and Why to Trust It

March 2, 2020

When talking with parents who have children with autism, there is a lot of discussion about ABA: So what IS ABA therapy - what does it mean?

Jenika Karnik and Sasha Yazdgerdi

AnswersNow BCBAs

When talking with parents who have children with autism, there is a lot of discussion about ABA: So what IS ABA therapy - what does it mean?

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, uses systematic, evidence-based methods to improve socially significant behaviors in children with autism.

That means: it’s a science, using methods that have been repeatedly tested, to help people increase behaviors that are socially rewarding and we want to see more of (ex. social skills) and decrease behaviors that are socially punishing and we want to see less of (ex. aggression). Typically skills are taught via repetition using motivators that are important to that individual. 

History of ABA

Dr. Ivar Lovaas, a behavioral psychologist, first applied ABA to autism in the Psychology Department at UCLA in 1987, advancing B.F. Skinner’s work in behaviorism and conditioning. Lovaas believed that social and behavioral skills could be taught, even to profoundly affected children with autism, through the science of ABA. 

When he first began using ABA, Lovaas had no hesitation about employing punishments for non-compliance, some of which could be very harsh. This approach has been heavily modified in almost all situations but is still occasionally used in some settings. In general, "punishment" has been replaced by "withholding of rewards" - although this withholding is still considered a punishment within the science of ABA. For example, a child who does not properly respond to a task will not receive a reward (reinforcer) such as a favorite food, toy, etc. 

Although there are many opinions about Lovaas’s approach, his idea turned out to be fairly correct: many if not most children who receive intensive ABA training learn various skills. 

Let’s talk about what you’ve heard….

Myth 1: "ABA is nothing more than repetition and sitting at a table".

Fact: ABA uses a variety of teaching methods. Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is most likely what this is referring to. DTT breaks down complex skills into smaller, discrete tasks then combines skills to achieve complex goals. This is often first done when sitting at a table, as it encourages structure, routine, and focus - but this same system can be and is used in more naturalistic locations such as around the house or out in the community. 

Keep in mind that DTT is just one example of an ABA teaching method.  There’s DTT, Pivotal Response Training (PRT), Naturalistic Environmental Teaching (NET), Social Skills Training, and more. 

Myth 2: "ABA trains a child to act without thinking - or like a robot!"

Fact: We all learn through some amount of practice or memorization. Think about the steps you take when brushing your teeth. You’re probably moving through your tooth brushing routine automatically, not thinking about each behavior like wetting your toothbrush, then applying toothpaste, and so on. That being said, a critical component of ABA is generalization, which has to be specifically programmed for, so that the person doesn’t only respond in one way. We want to teach that there are different ways to think and respond, and that includes being able to respond to different people in various locations using different responses.  

Myth 3: "All ABA programs are the same".

Fact: Applied Behavior Analysis is the science of individual behavior and focuses on changing specific behaviors in each individual. An ABA program for one person is different from another person’s program. Depending on the targeted skills to increase and to decrease, sometimes ABA programming can look similar - for example, an ABA program almost always involves working on some level of communication, on social skills, and on replacing maladaptive behaviors with acceptable behaviors. But that doesn’t mean they are executed the same way. And they will definitely change as the individual learns the new skills taught. 

ABA therapy can involve multiple treatment steps that help children overcome challenging behaviors and develop socially significant skills. This is executed carefully by a clinician, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), who has been trained to understand the nuances of behavior.

Here are some steps your BCBA will take to overcome challenging behavior:

  1. Conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA): An FBA is one of the first assessments conducted in ABA therapy when a child engages in challenging behavior. It is a comprehensive set of assessment procedures to help understand why problem behavior occurs so that the therapist can best provide intervention services. An FBA involves an indirect assessment, direct observational data collection, and sometimes a systematic, structured assessment called a Functional Analysis. The results can reveal a cause and effect relationship between a problem behavior and what is maintaining it.
  2. Developing a plan: After assessing the individual’s challenging behavior, your BCBA will develop a collaborative function-based treatment plan with you to reach a set goal. The team discusses the best therapeutic methods and measurements of success to try under the ABA plan.
  3. Ongoing assessment: ABA therapy doesn’t end when a goal is met. An effective BCBA will continue to support their client, maintain skills, and teach new skills. The goal is to help the child continuously experience success in different settings across multiple people. 

On the AnswersNow App, you can have access to ABA therapy right on your phone, without the need of waiting for an appointment. Download the app and start chatting with one of our BCBAs to build a plan tailored for your child’s needs.

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