Why Choose Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy for Autism?

Learn About ABA and Why It's So Often Used for Autism

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There really is no such thing as "autism therapy." Many people, however, describe Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as "autism therapy," largely because it is by far the most common therapy to be offered and paid for by early intervention and school programs. 

It's important to know that ABA, which was developed decades ago, is just one of many forms of behavioral therapy offered for children with autism. It is, however, the "mother" of all those different approaches, and the most popular (mainly because it's most likely to be funded!).

There are a few reasons why ABA is so commonly provided to kids on the autism spectrum:

  • ABA has been around for a long time, as it is an outgrowth of the old "behaviorism" developed by B.F. Skinner back in the mid-1900's. As a result, it is well-established and understood (though ABA is, in almost all cases, a much gentler and broad-ranging approach than the older behaviorism).
  • The outcomes of ABA have been intensively studied over decades. ABA lends itself to study because it is a therapy that starts with clear, measurable goals and is implemented in pretty much the same way by every therapist.
  • Because it is implemented in very much the same way by every therapist, it is relatively easy to train individuals to implement ABA. Typically, ABA programs are developed by a trained professional, but then implemented by a paraprofessional.
  • Because ABA has very concrete goals, it is relatively easy to see and measure success. This makes ABA a "gold standard" therapy relative, for example, to developmental therapies which are individualized to each child's particular challenges, strengths, and interests. The question of whether it is actually more effective does not arise, as it is extremely difficult to compare approaches head-to-head.
  • Children with autism often have very challenging behaviors, such as self-abuse and aggression. ABA therapy is often effective in minimizing negative behaviors while encouraging desired behaviors.

What Exactly Are Behavior Analysis and Behavioral Therapy?

Behavior analysis stems from the idea that behaviors, even when they are challenging or confusing, can be understood as a result of careful observation, record keeping, and analysis. Once behaviors are understood, they can be modified based on the needs and desires of the person whose behavior is at issue.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one way autism treatment has benefited from the concept of behavior analysis.

ABA practitioners evaluate children with autism and then recommend and/or implement interventions to encourage certain behaviors or "extinguish" other behaviors. In the past, interventions might have included negative consequences (punishment), but today, almost all specialists agree that punishment is not only morally wrong but also, for the most part, useless.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), an organization based in Florida, offers certifications in behavior analysis to individuals with bachelors and masters degrees. In addition, some universities offer degree concentration in behavior management. For the most part, however, behavior specialists are people from related fields -- education, psychology, social work, etc. -- who have taken courses and gathered experience in observing, analyzing and managing difficult behaviors.

Why Would a Person With Autism Need to See an ABA Therapist?

ABA therapists work to build desirable behaviors and end undesirable behaviors. Children with autism almost always have difficult in developing certain types of desirable behaviors (making eye contact, interacting with others, using speech correctly, etc.).  They are also likely to have some undesirable behaviors ranging from spinning or flapping to self-abuse to hitting, kicking, or dashing into traffic. Autistic people may also find undesirable ways to avoid doing what they don't want to do: they may hum, slide under the table, or otherwise avoid non-preferred activities.

What Does a Behavioral Specialist Do for People with Autism?

The role of the behavior specialist is to observe the child's environment, gather data about the child's abilities, challenges, preferences and needs, and suggest and/or implement appropriate changes and/or interventions. Interventions may range from 1:1 therapy to behavior charts with stickers and motivational prizes to changes in an environment that is creating sensory overload or undue frustrations. Over time (often a great deal of time!) ABA can teach a wide range of skills and behaviors -- from tooth brushing to playground play.

How Can I Find a Qualified Behavior Specialist?

One option for finding credentialed individuals with training in behavior analysis is to go through the BACB registry, which allows the general public to search for registrants by location. Very often, if a challenging behavior occurs in a school setting, the school district will bring in a behavior specialist or therapist they feel is qualified. Parents can, of course, question the choice of specialist -- but it may be hard to make a change.

Similarly, state and local early intervention programs for children under the age of three may employ their own behavior specialists or behavior consultants. Parents may have the option of having that consultant come into the home to observe and help manage difficult behaviors related to family life.

Behavior management consultants may also be found through local hospitals, autism clinics or universities. Look for university graduate programs in areas like special education, social work, and related fields.

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