Children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder often face numerous social and behavioral challenges. These can include problems in communication, such as an inability to understand social cues, or difficulty with learning language. Many people with autism face sensory processing issues, which can overwhelm them to the point of experiencing emotional and physical meltdowns. One of the most potentially dangerous behavioral issues that may occur in children with autism is self-harm.
Individuals with autism can also have difficulty with learning life skills, such as toilet training. The wide range of effects which autism has on many areas of life require flexible treatments which focus on the individual’s particular needs. Modern forms of Applied Behavior Analysis, when conducted appropriately by a trained professional, are based around this philosophy.
The term “applied behavior analysis” (ABA) does not refer to one technique or methodology. Instead, modern ABA includes a variety of treatment approaches, with the goal of teaching patients healthy ways of interacting with their environment. Contemporary practitioners of ABA recognize that treating patients with autism should not involve eliminating healthy behaviors which differ from the “norm” set by society. Instead, they use ABA to encourage growth in patients’ social and behavioral skills. They also help patients minimize behaviors which are disruptive or hurtful, such as self-harm. This is accomplished through a number of techniques and methods.
ABA for Communication Skills
Modern ABA is frequently modeled around natural social interaction. The focus is on responding to a patient’s communication and cues in the moment rather than delivering rigid instruction. ABA sessions can still have a distinct focus with targeted goals, but the method of achieving these goals is not set in stone.
For example, an ABA session might work towards a goal of increased verbal communication. The therapist may set up the environment by taking the patient’s interests into account, such as including a child’s favorite toy. While working on a related skill, the child may become distracted and gesture towards the toy. The therapist uses this gesture as an opportunity to promote verbal communication. The therapist may ask the child to request the toy in a specific way, using the child’s natural interest as a way to teach. This is known as incidental teaching, one of many facets of ABA.
ABA and Problem Behaviors
ABA uses an approach known as antecedent-behavior-consequence analysis, or ABC analysis, to analyze and treat harmful behaviors. For instance, antecedent-based interventions can help identify the causes and triggers of meltdowns in individuals with autism. Meltdowns are overwhelmingly intense for the person with autism and can result in physical harm to him or her or others.
An antecedent-behavior-consequence approach to address meltdowns would hone in on the emotional and environmental triggers, or antecedents, of a meltdown. Therapists and parents could then find ways to manipulate the physical and social environment to better suit the patient, thereby minimizing the chances of future meltdowns.
An ABA therapist may work with the child on coping mechanisms or communication skills that reduce the sort of anxiety and over-stimulation that can lead to meltdowns. The consequences of a meltdown – perhaps the responses of parents in the moment – may also reinforce the stress a child is feeling. An ABA therapist can determine what sorts of reactions might be contributing to meltdown behaviors, and help parents and loved ones understand how to react more appropriately.
ABA for Life Skills Development
Applied Behavior Analysis is often used to assist patients in developing valuable life skills. For instance, some children with autism struggle with learning to brush their teeth or wash their hands. ABA techniques, such as shaping, chaining, and the use of visual aids, can be useful here.
An ABA practitioner might begin to teach a child to wash their hands by “shaping” or modeling an outline of the behavior. The use of a visual aid, like a chart or video outlining the steps of the process, might prove beneficial. From here, the child may begin with a very loose approximation of hand-washing. The therapist would then work with the child to get closer and closer to the proper motions of hand- washing.
Breaking the activity of hand-washing down into steps, or “chaining,” might involve turning on the faucet, getting soap in one’s hands, making the proper scrubbing motions, and so on. By focusing on approximating each step in the process gradually, the child or adult with autism can eventually learn to wash his or her hands by themselves. An ABA practitioner can apply these processes to any number of similar skills.
ABA and Accommodating Individual Needs
ABA’s many treatment methodologies make it highly adaptable to individual needs. Some children may be more responsive in a natural environment versus a structured treatment setting. Many children respond well to therapeutic styles that let them “take the lead” in sessions, while others learn more quickly when the therapist directs activity with a targeted approach.
ABA can be adapted to group settings. Its tools can be used in play-based settings rather than just the classroom or in one-to-one therapy sessions. ABA has also spawned numerous therapeutic methods, including Pivotal Response Training (PRT), the Early Start Denver Model, and Incidental Teaching. These methods often include modifications and aspects from other therapeutic fields, but also incorporate many fundamental ideas of ABA. We should note here that PRT and the Denver Model are not employed at Spectrum of Hope.
Across all of these approaches, ABA is about helping children and adults with autism reach concrete behavioral goals. The best way to attain such goals depends on each individual’s unique needs, so ABA practitioners must remain flexible and choose the right treatment style for each person. Most contemporary ABA therapists understand the critical need to recognize and accommodate how people with autism experience the world, not fight it. With this bedrock principle in mind, ABA therapy can help those with autism develop social and life skills without trying to fit them into an uncomfortable mold or erase their individuality. Instead, ABA therapy gives them the skills they need to learn and thrive in new situations as they grow.