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Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism: Can ABA Work for Your Child?

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Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is an approach to understanding how your child interacts with his or her environment. It is an analytical, data-driven process that increases desirable behaviors, such as successfully adapting to the child’s environment, while also decreasing undesirable, maladaptive behaviors that often cause learning and behavioral problems.

How does ABA Work?

While both adults and children have used ABA for years, it has only recently been used to help autistic children both at home and in the classroom for the past several decades. The idea centers are rewarding specific types of behavior, which is often the cornerstone of any kind of learning.

The basic structure is that an external or environment cue is provided, then the child reacts, and a reward is provided for a correct response. If the child does not respond appropriately, the behavior is often corrected verbally, and the reward is not provided.

For example, imagine you and your child are at the grocery store. Your child sees the candy aisle (the environmental cue), and politely asks if he can have a candy bar (the reaction). Because of the polite and appropriate question, you reward the child by allowing him to pick out a candy bar.

Why ABA?

Today, experts advocate for ABA for autistic children for one simple reason: It works. In fact, it “works” better than any other similar intervention or treatment for autistic children. ABA can help with communication, social relationships, employment, self-care, play time, and generalized learning. It can be applied across all age levels as well. Results at every age indicate an increase in participation in family activities as well as community events.

The Importance of Reinforcement

Every behavior must be reinforced. Actions simply will not be repeated unless they are reinforced. In the context of ABA, reinforcement means either giving the child something he or she likes or avoiding something that the child does not like. Interestingly, in this respect, the behavior does not actually change—it is the environment’s “reaction” to the behavior that is altered.

For parents, your response to your child’s behavior is critical. How you react will dictate your child will behave in the future, and this applies to all children, not just those who have been officially diagnosed with autism. You react to virtually everything that your child does, which means that you are likely practicing ABA techniques and do not even realize it.

ABA and Autism Programs

ABA can be used for a variety of learning situations. However, those with autism seem to benefit most from more “intense” one-on-one sessions at an early age. “Comprehensive” sessions that combine several techniques and skill focuses, such as school readiness, social skills, and self-care, are ideal.

Some of these programs can be between 25 and 40 hours per week for one to several years. The likely shocking amount of time that these programs take is meant to replicate the thousands of interactions that children have in their daily lives on a regular basis.

Teaching parents about ABA and how to use it effectively is also a key component to any type of autism treatment program. Even the most “intense” program can be undermined if the techniques are not utilized properly at home. That means that even if your child goes through one of these boot-camp-like programs, you, as a parent, must understand what and how your child is learning as well and continue to use these techniques at home.

Ethical Concerns with ABA Practices and Programs

ABA has a haunting history that certainly “turns off” many parents. It has been misused, even when applied to children with disabilities. Reinforcement for some parents, and even some who are very knowledgeable in their field, has been in the form of physical or mental harm. This type of “reinforcement” is abuse—it should not be used as a means to control or develop desirable behaviors. Some ABA techniques, particularly practiced by those that do not fully understand the concept, toe the line between effective teaching strategies and abuse.

Other studies indicate that repetition may not be the best form of learning for autistic children, even when it works well for others. It also may not be effective for autistic adults, either. This is, in part, because autistic children (and adults) are sometimes not able to transfer what they have learned in one environment to a new context. That may mean that ABA techniques need to be utilized in a variety of situations and environments for it to have any real, meaningful effect.

ABA can be extremely useful when used correctly, consistently, and ethically. Every child is different and what works for one may not work for hundreds or thousands of others. Learning what works well for your unique situation is part of the developmental process, for both you as a parent and your child.

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