Autism and communication difficulties go hand in hand. A failure to develop language is one of the earliest signs of autism. The ability to identify the distinct signature of this deficit in very young children has become increasingly important, given that the presence of speech before five years of age is the strongest predictor for better outcomes in autism.
ABA therapy programs are effective in treating children with autism because they create very structured environments where conditions are optimized for learning. Over time, these very structured environments are systematically changed so that the environment mimics what a child could expect if and when they are placed in the classroom.
Let Leafwing professionals educate you and your child to develop the language skills that will help guide your child to reach their full potential.
Signs of autism and communication difficulties
For the child with ASD, these developmental processes appear to be hijacked taking the form of impaired or delayed language abilities at a very early age.
Some language skills including articulation, vocabulary, and grammar appear to be relatively preserved. In contrast, the difficulties that appear as robotic and abstract use of language are clearly evident. Language impairment varies with age and developmental level. The child with ASD typically uses words to regulate his or her environment to demand or protest. They’re less likely to communicate for social reasons, like sharing information.
Ways Autistic Children Communicate:
- mimic or repeat other people’s words or phrases, or words they’ve heard on TV, YouTube or videos. They repeat these words without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice.
- use made-up words
- say the same word over and over
- confuse pronouns, referring to themselves as ‘you’ and the person they’re talking to as ‘I’.
They also often have difficulty knowing when and how to communicate with people in socially appropriate ways. For example, they might not make eye contact or let another person take a turn in a conversation.
Ways ABA programs help autistic children with their communication difficulties
Most ABA programs will teach a child using simple and concise language at the beginning stages of the program. For example, if the goal is to teach a child to imitate a ‘clap’ the teacher would simply say, “Do this” or “Copy me” while demonstrating the action. The instruction would be limited to as few words as possible (in this example, two words and then a demonstration of the action). The teacher would refrain from using a longer instruction that contains more words such as, “okay, now I’m going to do something and I want you to watch me and then copy me after I’m done. Are you ready?” For a child who has difficulty understanding language, this instruction is laden with words that are unnecessary to complete the instruction and probably will include many words that the child does not presently know.
Approaches used by ABA programs:
- Create a reason to use language
- Through play
- Model the language
- Build the child’s language skill
- Reward the child for language use
Techniques used with autism and communication difficulties:
- Use short sentences – for example, ‘Shirt on. Hat on’.
- Use less mature language – for example, ‘Playdough is yucky in your mouth’. Point to your mouth.
- Exaggerate tone of voice – for example, ‘Ouch, that water is VERY hot.’
- Encourage and prompt the child to fill the gap when it’s the child’s turn in a conversation – for example, ‘Look at that dog. What color is the dog?’
- Ask questions that need a reply from the child – for example, ‘Do you want a sausage?’ If you know the child’s answer is yes, you can teach the child to nod their head in reply by modeling this for the child.
- Give the child enough time to understand and respond to questions.
- Practice communicating with the child on topics or things they’re interested in.
Over time, many autistic children can build on these beginnings and learn to use language in more typical ways.
How are language difficulties in autistic children treated?
When working with an ABA program they will have a speech-language specialist perform a comprehensive evaluation on the child. The speech-language pathologist is a health professional trained to treat individuals with voice, speech, and language disorders. Furthermore, they address social, play, cognitive skills, and feeding and swallowing challenges as well. The speech-language pathologist will design an appropriate treatment program to prevent further developmental delays. In addition, the speech-language pathologist might make a referral for a hearing test to make sure the child’s hearing is normal.
Teaching children with ASD to improve their communication skills is essential for helping them reach their full potential. There are many different approaches, but the best treatment program begins early, during the preschool years, and is tailored to the child’s age and interests. It should address both the child’s behavior and communication skills and offer regular reinforcement of positive actions. Most children with ASD respond well to highly structured, specialized programs. Parents or primary caregivers, as well as other family members, should be involved in the treatment program so that it becomes part of the child’s daily life.
Speech therapy might include:
- interacting through talking and playing, and using books, pictures other objects as part of language intervention to help stimulate language development
- modeling correct sounds and syllables for a child during age-appropriate play to teach the child how to make certain sounds
- providing strategies and homework for the child and parent on how to do speech therapy at home
Autism and communication difficulties: other means of communication
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) means all of the ways that someone communicates besides talking. People of all ages can use AAC if they have trouble with speech or language skills. This provides another way to help them communicate other than verbally. AAC can include sign language, gestures, pictures, computer tablets, and other electronic devices.
A lot of people wonder if using AAC will stop someone from talking or will slow down language development. This is not true—research shows that AAC can actually help with these concerns! People who use AAC can also learn how to read and write.
Main key points to autism and communication difficulties
In the initial stages of an ABA program, the more concise and simpler the instruction, the more successful the child will be. It is important to note that the simplicity or complexity of language used should be based on the child’s language repertoire at the time of assessment. Over time, and with success, simple and concise instructions will be elaborated and more language will be incorporated into the instruction.
Frequently asked questions about ABA therapy
What is ABA Therapy used for?
ABA-based therapy can be used in a multitude of areas. Currently, these interventions are used primarily with individuals living with ASD; however, their applications can be used with individuals living with pervasive developmental disorders as well as other disorders. For ASD, it can be used in effectively teaching specific skills that may not be in a child’s repertoire of skills to help him/her function better in their environment whether that be at home, school, or out in the community. In conjunction with skill acquisition programs, ABA-based interventions can also be used in addressing behavioral excesses (e.g., tantrum behaviors, aggressive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors). Lastly, it can also be utilized in parent/caregiver training.
In skill acquisition programs, a child’s repertoire of skills is assessed in the beginning phase of the services in key adaptive areas such as communication/language, self-help, social skills, and motor skills as well. Once skills to be taught are identified, a goal for each skill is developed and then addressed/taught by using ABA-based techniques to teach those important skills. Ultimately, an ABA-based therapy will facilitate a degree of maintenance (i.e., the child can still perform the learned behaviors in the absence of training/intervention over time) and generalization (i.e., the learned behaviors are observed to occur in situations different from the instructional setting). These two concepts are very important in any ABA-based intervention.
In behavior management, the challenging behaviors are assessed for their function in the beginning phase of the services. In this phase, the “why does this behavior happen in the first place?” is determined. Once known, an ABA-based therapy will be developed to not just decrease the occurrence of the behavior being addressed, but also teach the child a functionally-equivalent behavior that is socially-appropriate. For example, if a child resorts to tantrum behaviors when she is told she cannot have a specific item, she may be taught to accept an alternative or find an alternative for herself. Of course, we can only do this up to a certain point—the offering of alternatives. There comes a point when a ‘no’ means ‘no’ so the tantrum behavior will be left to run its course (i.e., to continue until it ceases). This is never easy and will take some time for parents/caregivers to get used to, but research has shown that over time and consistent application of an ABA-based behavior management program, the challenging behavior will get better.
In parent training, individuals that provide care for a child may receive customized “curriculum” that best fit their situation. A typical area covered in parent training is teaching responsible adults pertinent ABA-based concepts to help adults understand the rationale behind interventions that are being used in their child’s ABA-based services. Another area covered in parent training is teaching adults specific skill acquisition programs and/or behavior management programs that they will implement during family time. Other areas covered in parent training may be data collection, how to facilitate maintenance, how to facilitate generalization of learned skills to name a few.
There is no “one format” that will fit all children and their families’ needs. The ABA professionals you’re currently working with, with your participation, will develop an ABA-based treatment package that will best fit your child’s and your family’s needs. For more information regarding this topic, we encourage you to speak with your BCBA or reach out to us at [email protected].
Who Can Benefit From ABA Therapy?
There is a common misconception that the principles of ABA are specific to Autism. This is not the case. The principles and methods of ABA are scientifically backed and can be applied to any individual. With that said, the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association consider ABA to be an evidence based practice. Forty years of extensive literature have documented ABA therapy as an effective and successful practice to reduce problem behavior and increase skills for individuals with intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Children, teenagers, and adults with ASD can benefit from ABA therapy. Especially when started early, ABA therapy can benefit individuals by targeting challenging behaviors, attention skills, play skills, communication, motor, social, and other skills. Individuals with other developmental challenges such as ADHD or intellectual disability can benefit from ABA therapy as well. While early intervention has been demonstrated to lead to more significant treatment outcomes, there is no specific age at which ABA therapy ceases to be helpful.
Additionally, parents and caregivers of individuals living with ASD can also benefit from the principles of ABA. Depending on the needs of your loved one, the use of specified ABA techniques in addition to 1:1 services, may help produce more desirable treatment outcomes. The term “caregiver training” is common in ABA services and refers to the individualized instruction that a BCBA or ABA Supervisor provides to parents and caregivers. This typically involves a combination of individualized ABA techniques and methods parents and caregivers can use outside of 1:1 sessions to facilitate ongoing progress in specified areas.
ABA therapy can help people living with ASD, intellectual disability, and other developmental challenges achieve their goals and live higher quality lives.
What does ABA Therapy look like?
Agencies that provide ABA-based services in the home-setting are more likely to implement ABA services similarly than doing the same exact protocols or procedures. Regardless, an ABA agency under the guidance of a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst follows the same research-based theories to guide treatment that all other acceptable ABA agencies use.
ABA-based services start with a functional behavior assessment (FBA). In a nutshell, a FBA assesses why the behaviors may be happening in the first place. From there, the FBA will also determine the best way to address the difficulties using tactics that have been proven effective over time with a focus on behavioral replacement versus simple elimination of a problem behavior. The FBA will also have recommendations for other relevant skills/behaviors to be taught and parent skills that can be taught in a parent training format to name a few. From there, the intensity of the ABA-based services is determined, again, based on the clinical needs of your child. The completed FBA is then submitted to the funding source for approval.
One-on-one sessions between a behavior technician and your child will start once services are approved. The duration per session and the frequency of these sessions per week/month will all depend on how many hours your child’s ABA services have been approved for—usually, this will be the number recommended in the FBA. The sessions are used to teach identified skills/behaviors via effective teaching procedures. Another aspect of ABA-based services in the home-setting is parent training. Parent training can take many forms depending on what goals have been established during the FBA process. The number of hours dedicated for parent training is also variable and solely depends on the clinical need for it. If a 1:1 session is between a behavior technician and your child, a parent training session or appointment is between you and the case supervisor and with and without your child present, depending on the parent goal(s) identified. Parent training service’s goal is for you to be able to have ample skills/knowledge in order for you to become more effective in addressing behavioral difficulties as they occur outside of scheduled ABA sessions. Depending on the goals established, you may be required to participate in your child’s 1:1 sessions. These participations are a good way for you to practice what you have learned from the case supervisor while at the same time, having the behavior technician available to you to give you feedback as you practice on those new skills.
As mentioned in the beginning, no two ABA agencies will do the same exact thing when it comes to providing ABA services; however, good agencies will always base their practice on the same empirically-proven procedures.
How do I start ABA Therapy?
In most cases, the first item required to start ABA therapy is the individual’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis report. This is typically conducted by a doctor such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a developmental pediatrician. Most ABA therapy agencies and insurance companies will ask for a copy of this diagnosis report during the intake process as it is required to request an ABA assessment authorization from the individual’s medical insurance provider.
The second item required to start ABA therapy is a funding source. In the United States, and in cases where Medi-Cal or Medicare insurances are involved, there is a legal requirement for ABA services to be covered when there is a medical necessity (ASD diagnosis). Medi-Cal and Medicare cover all medically necessary behavioral health treatment services for beneficiaries. This typically includes children diagnosed with ASD. Since Applied Behavior Analysis is an evidence based and effective treatment for individuals with ASD, it is considered a covered treatment when medically necessary. In many cases, private insurance will also cover ABA services when medically necessary, however in these cases, it is best to speak directly with your medical insurance provider to determine the specifics of the coverage and to ensure that ABA is in fact, a covered benefit. Additionally, some families opt to pay for ABA services out-of-pocket.
The next step to starting ABA therapy is to contact an ABA provider whom you are interested in working with. Depending on your geographic location, ABA agencies exist in many cities across the United States. Your insurance carrier, local support groups, and even a thorough online search can help you find reputable and properly credentialed ABA agencies near you. Our organization, LeafWing Center, is based in southern California and is recognized for aiding people with ASD achieve their goals with the research based on applied behavior analysis.
Once you have identified the ABA provider with whom you wish to work, they should help you facilitate the next steps. These will include facilitating paperwork and authorizations with your funding source. Once the assessment process begins, a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) or qualified Program Supervisor should get in contact with you to arrange times in which interviews with parents/caregivers and observations of your loved one can be conducted. This will help in the process of gathering important clinical information so that with your collaboration, the most effective treatment plans and goals can be established for your loved one. This process is referred to as the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and is elaborated on in different blog posts on our website. With regard as to what can be expected once ABA therapy begins, please read our blog post titled: When You Start an ABA program, What Should You Reasonably Expect from Your Service Provider?