Individualization in the Treatment of Children with Autism

In ABA programs, the individual’s behavior is the primary focus when it comes to intervention development, execution, and monitoring. As such, the design and implementation of all ABA programs must be individualized. This is not only an ethical requirement, but also clinically relevant because each child has their own strengths, skill deficits, environments they spend time in, learning histories, and a unique biology. These factors must be considered during the design of an ABA program. Autism is a spectrum disorder and that means there are a lot of differences in the characteristics that each individual may have.

To illustrate, the goal of teaching pretend play skills to a child who has limited pretend play skills might be a high priority goal. However, the same goal might not be a high priority goal for a different child who already demonstrates age level pretend play skills since he or she already has this skill in their repertoire. In the case of the latter scenario, it may be more clinically appropriate to teach ways in which the pretend play skills can be expanded upon, generalized, or to target different curricular areas in which there are deficits. This is an example of how one particular goal may not be clinically appropriate for two different children.

As mentioned earlier, individualization should take a learner’s strengths and skill deficits into consideration. With this, a learner’s strengths can be built upon while the areas of deficit are strengthened. Remember, ABA is never ‘one size fits all’ and a good program should rely on assessment tools such as observations, interviews, clinical assessments, and collaboration with the learner’s family to establish individualized goals that are in the best interest of the client.

Below are a few ways in which individualization can be achieved in an ABA program:

  • Consider the interests and preferences of the child. Create ways to incorporate these in to the ABA program.
  • Consider the sociocultural values of a child’s family, along with their top concerns as they relate to behavior challenges and skill deficits.
  • Through use of validated clinical methods, explore the child’s strengths and deficits as they relate to major domains – socialization, communication, self-care, motor skills, etc.
  • Promote collaboration between a child’s family members, other professionals (teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists) in the child’s life, and the ABA provider.

Though the list above is not exhaustive, we hope this post has provided you with some information about individualization in ABA programs!

Some Considerations and Strategies for Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

When creating an educational program for students with ASD, each student’s unique characteristics present unique challenges for administrators and school support staff. An effective classroom must include a physical structure that enhances learning opportunities and instructional approaches that facilitate learning, language acquisition, behavior management, social skills, and academic goals. We can apply many of the basic principles of effective instruction that are used in within the general education classroom as we work with students with autism and Asperger Syndrome, however, there are certain strategies that have been proven to be particularly effective. These strategies provide structure and predictability to the learning process, allow students to anticipate task requirements and setting expectations, and teach a variety of skills across content areas in the natural environment, enhancing the likelihood of generalization.

Predictability and sameness are significant factors throughout student’s daily lives. One way to address these elements in the classroom is with “Environmental Supports”. Environmental supports help students organize the physical space in ways that help our students predict any changes in their daily routines or deviations from typical expectations that may take place during the school day; different activities or events, a substitute teacher, or fire drills. We can help students understand expectations, and in general, make sense of their entire environment. Researchers have defined environmental support as “aspects of the environment, other than interactions with people, which affect the learning that takes place”. Examples of environmental supports are: Labels, Boundary settings, Visual schedules, Behavioral-based education tools, Activity completion signals, Choice boards, and Waiting supports.

All of these environmental support strategies are a simple yet effective way to help a student respond appropriately in their day-to-day activities throughout their school day. Environmental supports can be effectively utilized across all environments and all settings to help support individual with ASD. Additionally, environment supports have been shown to increase student independence, and help stimulate language.

The physical organization of the classroom can be a crucial element for them enhancing success. Structure and predictability facilitate the students understanding of the environment, which can help decrease worry or agitation the student might have. This is really important for students with autism who tend to react negatively or really that difficult time with changes and unsent uncertainty in their environment. Something as simple as labeling furniture and objects in a classroom can have numerous benefits for students with autism; label boxes or containers with visual representations such as icons or hand-written labels. Students can then be taught to match the label on the container to the label on the shelf, allowing independents in retrieving or returning an activity to its appropriate place in the classroom.

Again, we want to emphasize that each student is unique and the strategies used need to reflect their unique needs.

Observational Learning and Children with Autism

One of the main obstacles to learning that many children with autism face is a lack of observational learning skills. What is observational learning? It is learning that occurs without explicit teaching and by observing another person do something and simply doing what they do. Children with autism have difficulty learning by watching someone else and absorbing that information incidentally. For example, a typically developing child may look across the classroom and watch another child building a house using blocks. The next day at school this child may then build his or her own house using blocks without specifically being taught this task. This child simply watched another child, observed what the child was doing, was able to retain this information in his or her memory, and then accessed this information the next day in order to build a house. On the other hand, parents of typically developing children sometimes complain that their children are learning bad habits at school. This can also be observational learning at work. A child with autism may lack these imitation skills and so when they are in an environment filled with peers from which to learn, often times very little learning takes place. Opportunities for observational learning occur throughout the day and may contribute to a considerable amount of what we learn. Just think, was everything that you know explicitly taught to you? Chances are you answered “no”.

In an ABA program, one of the first skills taught to a child with autism is the skill of attending and imitating. Initially, this imitation might be as simple as imitating a handclap, or a wave. Over time, these imitation skills will expand so that the child can imitate complex behaviors such as how to watch a child from afar and build what they are building, how to play T-ball, how to draw pictures, or how to engage in self-care tasks such as brushing their teeth simply by watching, absorbing, and imitating. Imitation is one of the basic foundational skills needed for any child to be a successful learner. Therefore, there is much emphasis placed on imitation in ABA programs, particularly in the beginning stages of programs.

Why Do Some ABA programs Use Basic Language When Working with Children with Autism?

We know many children with autism typically have difficulty understanding language. These difficulties can be subtle. For example, a child may have difficulty understanding humor. In other cases, they may be more pronounced. That is, a child may respond to little or no language that is spoken to him or her. Taking this fact into account, 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. Another example of this can be seen with one-word instructions given to children when attempting to teach them to perform actions. With this type of program, an instruction to the child may include something like “clap” or “stand up” and the child would perform the action. The general idea is here is to use fewer, and simpler words to evoke the desired response from the child.

Therefore, 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.

Using Boundary Markers to Support Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

Boundary settings are a type of environmental support for students with ASD. Basic boundary markers which establish physical space for specific activities such as break time areas, and reading areas help students differentiate expectations across settings, especially when one area is used for different activities (this is very common in classrooms around the world). For example, if two or more tasks must be completed at the same work space or work area, using a colored tablecloth can help distinguish one activity from another. Reading could take place at the table and then it could be covered with an orange tablecloth when it is time for math. Additionally, sectioning off an area on the floor with colored tape, rugs, or anything else that would indicate where a student is expected to be during any given activity is an effective environmental support. This type of marking or labeling is simple and seems to be a minor modification, but in fact, it is highly effective for working with students with ASD. These modifications can reduce students’ confusion and increase clarity by identifying expectations.

It is important to note that simply applying these types of environmental supports without explicitly demonstrating them to the student and explaining what they are intended for will likely not result in the desired outcome. It is almost always necessary to show the student how they are intended to be followed for the markers and boundaries to be effective. Often times, showing or demonstrating to the students how the boundaries and markers are to be followed needs to be done repeatedly and over time.

Finally, when boundaries and markers begin to show effectiveness with students with ASD, rewards for appropriately following the supports should be utilized. That is, when a student correctly follows them they should be provided with social praise or other types of rewards.

What Constitutes Effective Intervention for Individuals with Autism? The National Research Council’s report on Effective Treatments for Autism Still Stands True

In 2001, the National Research Council published findings effective treatments on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism from birth to age 8. The committee set out with the question “What are the characteristics of effective interventions in educational programs for young children with autism spectrum disorders?” The findings were published in a comprehensive book titled, “Educating children with autism.”

In answering the above question, the committee recognized that there were numerous articles written on autism treatment and that there were numerous treatment programs across the country claiming to be effective in helping children with autism. Treatments ranging from ABA-based programs to developmentally-based programs to diet-based programs or more idiosyncratic programs such as sensory integration. In order to base their recommendations on clear evidence of effectiveness, the committee ruled out treatment that did not base their statements on some form of data regarding the outcome of the children.

They took a look at over 900 articles written on the treatment of autism and also enlisted the assistance of ‘model’ programs currently in place for the treatment of autism.  These model or state-of-the-art programs were typically university or research ran programs who that enlisted the services of highly qualified professionals. Of the ten model programs selected, seven were from an applied behavior analysis framework, one was from a developmental framework, one was purely parent training, and the last was a combination of behavioral and developmental frameworks.

The committee listed key features seen as variables of effective programs in an effort to use this information from these state-of-the-art programs and translate it to publicly funded early education programs across the country and to begin some quality control.

The first characteristic identified as a key feature of an effective treatment program is that of early entry into a program.  When reviewing the information from these model programs and based on findings from the literature, the committee saw that the earlier a child is placed in treatment the better their chances of making gains.  Therefore, their first recommendation was that educational services begin as soon as a child is suspected of having an autism spectrum disorder highlighting the importance of early intervention. Early detection and treatment are key phrases often heard in the medical field and this is the exact same case when it comes to the treatment of autism.  So, early entry is recommendation number one.

Next, the committee looked at the intensity of these programs and what has been shown in the literature  to be an effective level of intensity. Their conclusion upon review of the information was that educational services include a minimum of 25 hours a week, 5 days a week, 12 months a year during which time a child is actively engaged. The word minimum in this recommendation is key as some children may need more than this minimum of hours given the severity of their symptoms or their resistance to treatment.

Additionally, the notion of active engagement is very important as the recommended number of treatment hours is not merely the number of hours recommended for a child to be placed in a treatment program, but the number of hours to child is actively learning while in the program.  This means that the child should not be just physically present in a treatment program, but that each and every hour of that program is designed in a way in which the child will learn for a minimum of 25 hours per week.

Another way of looking at this is if it was recommended that a child attend a special education program 30 hours a week, one would initially think that the recommendation for a minimum number of hours has been met. However, if, within these 30 hours, the child spends at least two hours a day playing alone in the playground, one hour a day eating lunch, a few hours a day in unstructured and unsupervised solitary play activities, and only two hours of actual teaching occurs within the school day, a child is left with only a 10-hour a week treatment program. And while play time is extremely important for any child, if a child does not yet have the skills to know how to play, how can the child be expected to interact with other children during these free play times without specific structured teaching?  So, it is important to look beyond the number of hours and actually look at what each hour of the treatment program will entail whether that be an ABA program, school-based program, or any type of recommended treatment program.  It’s imperative that a child be placed in a program where they can access the curriculum and where the teachers or therapists are actively engaging the child so as to capture each and every teaching opportunity and make it a worthwhile experience. There needs to be intensive teaching and learning occurring during a child’s time in an intervention program.

The committee actually described intensity as a “large numbers of functionally, developmentally relevant, and high-interest opportunities to respond actively.”  In other words, a child’s time spent in a treatment program should result in high levels of learning when it comes to the matter of reaching their educational goals. So, the higher the level of active engagement, the higher the intensity, the higher the change rate for steady gains.

Next on the list of key characteristics was the child to teacher ratio. The committee recommended that programs consist of sufficient amounts of adult attention in order for a child to meet their educational goals, either learning with one-to-one or very small group instruction. The decision of student-to-teacher ratio should be made, depending on the learning ability of the child rather than depending on the staffing needs of the program.  Therefore, if a child can learn in a small group of maybe two children and one teacher, then that should suffice; however, as is the case for many young children with autism, if the child cannot occupy their own free time in a constructive manner, redirect their attention when asked, or learn via observation of a peer, then the teaching instruction should be in a one-to-one manner, that is one teacher with one child.

The committee recognized the need for well-trained personnel.  The committee noted that all the model programs they reviewed were developed by persons with Ph.D.’s in autism-related fields and the programs were directed and implemented by teams of professionals who had extensive training and experience in autism spectrum disorders. It is so important that the person designing a treatment program for a child with autism has extensive knowledge not only in the field of autism, but hands on experience in designing effective programs.

Next, the committee recognized the notion of individualization. A key characteristic of these model programs was that of comprehensive, individualized treatment goals based on the needs of each individual child rather than a one-size-fits-all curriculum for all the children in the program. The curriculum or individualized plan developed for each child should be based on their own personal strengths and weaknesses.  The goals for each child should also focus on the development of a child’s social and cognitive abilities, their verbal and non-verbal communication skills, adaptive or self-help skills, and the reduction of behavioral difficulties using more positive behavioral approaches rather than punitive approaches.

The second part of this recommendation, that “goals “are frequently adjusted,” cannot be emphasized enough. While the initial curriculum and targets developed for a child may be individualized at the onset of a treatment program, it is critical that these goals and targets be reviewed routinely and adjustments be made when necessary.

And lastly, the committee recognized the important role parents have when it comes to the effectiveness of treatment programs. A key characteristic amongst all model programs was their emphasis on parental training and involvement in the program. The involvement of parents is a very valuable tool in the treatment of autism because children spend most of their time with their parents; therefore, parents must play an active part in the treatment team so as to continue where the formal treatment sessions end. With parents as active participants of the program, a child will always be in a consistent environment where their skills can be generalization generalized and maintained.

Increasing Language for Children with Autism

Impairment in communication is one of the main diagnostic criteria for a child with autism, specifically a delay in or total lack of spoken language.  Behavior analysts break down “language” into many reasons a child would communicate.  Based on these reasons, they identify where there are deficits and how they can increase these deficit areas.  We will outline some of them here in a very easy-to-understand manner and then give some advice on how to increase these forms of language every day.

The first form of language a child engages in is repeating.  This happens when a child repeats what another person says.  You may be thinking at this point that your child with autism does this a lot!  Many children with autism engage in this behavior although it is repetitive in nature and they do not do it to get attention from others (why typically developing children repeat language); they do it because it is fun for them. In order to learn other forms of language (which we will discuss below), a child should be able to repeat what an adult says on command. If your child does not do this regularly, give many opportunities for repetition, each day throughout the day.  Get your child’s full attention, say a simple sound or word very clearly to them (e.g., “ahhhh”) and continue to do this until they repeat or approximate what you are saying.  Provide lots of praise and even preferred items.

Another important form of language a child engages in is requesting.  Many children with autism engage in challenging behaviors as a form of requesting (e.g., crying to get a cookie and this results in them getting a cookie so they will quiet down), instead of using appropriate language (e.g., “mommy, can I have a cookie?”).  This form of language can be taught throughout the day, every day, if you know what your child wants.  Keep many of their preferred items out of reach, especially food items.  Whenever they show a desire for something, model what they should say or do to communicate (e.g., you say “cookie”, engage in the manual sign for cookie, or point to the cookie icon or picture for them to give you) and require them to engage in the same communicative behavior that you modeled before you give them the cookie.  Give them small pieces of food items, little sips of drinks, or a short amount of time to play with preferred toys so you can remove the item and practice requesting for the item again.  If you do this about three times each time they want varied things throughout the day, your child will begin to gain this requesting skill, and you may see a decrease in challenging behaviors.

Remember, to learn language your child must receive lots and lots of learning opportunities per day.  You can provide this by engaging in simple strategies such as the ones we discussed above.

What challenges have you faced? Please write us back and we will respond.

How to teach your child to wait and what you could do before and after telling your child “no”

Two common difficulties that we encounter when working with families over the years are regarding waiting and when a child is told no.  These two scenarios can be overwhelming as they are often accompanied by the most intense challenging behaviors.  We will go over these on this this post.

First off, the skill of requesting appropriately must be well-established already.  If this skill is not yet in your child’s repertoire then it must be taught first. If the skill is already there, but it’s not as fluent as we’d need it to be, then work on that first.

Let’s say your child can already ask for a cookie—this is great, but what can you do if for some reason, you child has to be told to wait?   If your first thought given that question you just read is along the lines of “oh…” then do consider the following.  There is this passage of time that happens between being asked to wait for something and finally getting that something.  The key here is working on that gap.  Depending on how your child “understands” that concept—time—you may have to be more hands-on when helping out your child go through it.   Instead of simply saying “wait,”  try giving your child something that he likes to “kill time.” This is not something out of the ordinary. Case in point: look at long lines of people at a grocery store, a theme park ride, at a bank, et cetera.  It is very rare to see a long line of people, waiting, just starting blankly at the back of the head of the person in front of them (unless you’re in the military or something similar) and just “wait” for their turn.  Perhaps you’ll notice a handful dealing with waiting in not-so-positive ways but for the most part, people will do something to pass time.  From being on their phones, talking to someone whom they are with, looking around, reading a book—we, again, most of us, can handle waiting because we fill that gap with something else.  And that is something that you can try out—offer your child something that they will not mind doing while they wait.  The more reinforcing that activity the better. When starting to teach your child to wait while engaged in something, make sure to keep the wait-time very short. How short?  It depends on each child really, but a good rule of thumb is to end the wait when your child is still behaving well (i.e., before your child starts that path to a full-blown tantrum). Let’s say that time is around one minute—great. Keep it around that time limit and systematically increase the time just a bit and stay on that higher limit (e.g., from one minute to about two minutes) until your child gets used to it.  From there, you can once again increase the limit to say three minutes.  This does not happen without any difficulty—the key here is you being consistent.  Also, avoid a situation wherein the wait time had been too long that your child “forgets” about whatever it is he or she is waiting for.  You need your child’s motivation for whatever it is he or she is waiting for for the learning process to “click.”  Once that motivation goes away, the teachable opportunity is lost so it is best to be realistic on how long you really want your child to wait.

Again, teach waiting only if they can truly have that cookie, but at a later time (or after a number of activities).  If they cannot have that cookie, then don’t say wait (after which they do) then tell them no in the end. Hence, the next topic: what can you do when you are about to tell your child no (i.e., denial).

True: a no is a no and that is something our children must learn; however, before we get to that lesson, let’s take a few steps back.  If you know that your child cannot have that cookie, give your child’s behaviors a chance to not escalate.  Offer your child something she likes instead of whatever that is she wants at the moment.  The key here is you offering an alternative that she truly wants—whatever that is given that moment.  If your child accepts the alternative—great!  If your child does not like your attempts to compromise—and if your child is capable—ask her to choose her own alternative item/food/activity.  Be prepared to honor her choice.  If your child accepts that scenario—great!   If not, time to roll up your sleeves—it’s time to teach your child that no means no.  There is no going around this.  You have offered her alternatives. You have also given her a chance to choose her own alternative.  If those fail, you have done your job but despite your efforts to teach alternatives, the tantrums will happen. As those behaviors are happening, the worst thing that you can do is give in—no.  Don’t give in as that will only reinforce all those not-so-nice behaviors.  It will be difficult, but a no is a no.

When your child’s behaviors start to de-escalate, it is still possible to offer her alternative and/or giving her a chance to select her own, but never give in.

If your child already engages in the most extreme challenging behaviors such as self-injurious behaviors or property destruction or any other behaviors that compromise the safety of others during times when he or she is denied access to something, we highly recommend that you immediately seek assistance from a trained professional.

Using Structure and Scheduling for Your Child and Taking Much Needed Time for You

When you arrive home with the kids after school and work, the first thing you may want to do is relax!  Turning on the television for your child, letting her watch a movie, or allowing her to engage in her repetitive behaviors to her heart’s content is very tempting.  You have had a long day and rest is probably the first thing you would like to do.  Allowing these things just discussed though should be kept to a minimum and used as “earned” activities or used in emergency situations (i.e., when you just can’t take it anymore!).

So, what do you do instead?  When do you get “you” time?  First, focus on creating structure for your child during these down times.  Structure and routine are so important for children with autism. They are important for just about everyone but when it comes to children on the autism spectrum, they really thrive on routine and structure. You establish predictability with structure and routine and it can also help with meltdowns.

Create a visual schedule for your child for the evening routine using printed out photographs which you can Velcro in order to a piece of paper (a laminated paper is best).  A child can, by following clear pictures, recognize the order and importance of daily activities.  This reduces stress and anxiety because they know what to expect and what will be happening next. For example, you may allow 15 minutes of free play time, then homework, then dinner, then bath/shower, then bedtime routine activities, then bed.  It allows your child to see what to expect for the evening and also guides you as the parent, reminding you each evening what the structure should be.

What if your child does not follow visual schedules independently?  That’s okay!  It may take a few days, or even a few weeks, but after you guide them through the schedule each night, using a timer to signal the end of each activity, and guiding them to take off each picture as it is completed, they will learn to follow the schedule themselves and become independent before you know it.

Final tips: Be sure to include fun things that your child likes on the schedule, not just work activities and boring nightly activities.  Sometimes let them choose the activities during certain times (e.g., bedtime routine activities).  Lastly, be sure that when your child has successfully completed their schedule and is successfully in bed, do something good for you!  Enjoy that piece of cake that’s been sitting in the refrigerator or that glass of wine you’ve been waiting for all week.  Watch a movie with your partner.  Now it’s you time!

How to Make a Visit to the Grocery Store a Learning Opportunity for Your Child with Autism

A visit to the grocery store for parents with a child with autism can be quite stressful. On the other hand, it can also be a wonderful learning experience if parents take the time to follow a few simple strategies.

Before the shopping experience begins, it may be beneficial to state what is expected from your child, approximately how long it will take, and what can be expected afterwards. A method to increase motivation may be to state a clear if/then contingency. For example, “Johnny, if you stay next to mom/dad, help pick out your items, then after shopping we can get visit a nearby store you like.”

Make a list of items, either drawn out, printed out, or cut out from advertisements that your child can keep track of during the shopping trip. These can be items they prefer and would be interested in tracking and finding. Ask your child to cross out the items or put the picture in an envelope when you both find the item, signifying one step closer to being done with the shopping experience. Give your child a shortened list without all the items you need to get on it. Save the last item that you get for his list so that he can directly see when the last item is crossed out, you are done!

Have a back-up enjoyable activity that your child can engage in while you are completing the remaining part of the shopping trip that is not on his list. A small coloring book, games on your phone, a squishy toy, or some music through headphones may work to keep him engaged.

Use the experience to teach language skills. Grab a green and a red apple and ask your child to identify which one is red. Grab a big and a small can of tomatoes and ask your child to identify which one is bigger. Ask your child to label items that you grab from the shelves, especially preferable items. Based on how advanced your child’s speech is, tailor what you ask of them to their level.

Last, if your child has difficulties walking through an entire shopping experience, allow your child to catch a ride on the shopping cart only if he has walked and helped for a certain amount of time, or when all of his grocery list is completed. If you base it on time, be sure to have a visual chart (e.g., have 5 boxes, each representing 2 minutes) or timer for him to know how much time he has left of walking.

Hopefully these strategies will aid in creating a productive and enjoyable grocery shopping experience for you and your child!