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Who Can Provide ABA Therapy?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is typically provided by Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBAs), Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs), and paraprofessionals.

A BCBA is a person who has met the educational and professional training requirements established by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board. A BCBA will typically hold a Master’s degree in Psychology, Child Development, or a related field. Some BCBAs may also hold a doctoral degree in one of these fields and are referred to as BCBA-Ds (doctorate level BCBAs). The primary duties of BCBAs include: conducting clinical assessments, establishing skill based and behavior goals, updating and modifying treatment goals, conducting parent and caregiver trainings, supervising Registered Behavior Technicians and BCaBAs, ensuring the ABA program is implemented correctly and effectively, and writing progress reports required by funding sources.

A BCaBA (assistant Behavior Analyst) works under the supervision and direction of a BCBA and has similar duties as a BCBA. A BCaBA is also certified by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and has met the necessary training and education requirements. A BCaBA will typically hold Bachelor’s degree in the field of Psychology, Child Development, or related field.

As stated by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board, an RBT is a person who practices under the close, ongoing supervision of a BCBA, BCaBA, or BCBA-D. The Registered Behavior Technician is primarily responsible for the direct implementation of ABA services. This is the person who is typically working 1:1 with an individual in designated treatment settings (home, school, clinic, etc.) RBTs must be over 18 years old, possess at least a high school diploma, go through a designated training program, and pass other eligibility requirements. RBTs do not conduct assessments or create treatment programs, however they implement the treatment program designed by a Behavior Analyst and collect data on progress.

Other professionals such as Marriage and Family Therapists and Licensed Clinical Social Workers may also provide ABA therapy in some instances. However, the majority of ABA services are provided by Behavior Analysts and Registered Behavior Technicians. Other paraprofessionals, including individuals pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees in Psychology and related fields and/or pursuing certification by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board, may also provide ABA therapy under the Supervision of Behavior Analysts.

When is a good time to start ABA therapy?

As a general recommendation, “earlier is better” when it comes to starting ABA therapy. The time at which a child is diagnosed with Autism or a related developmental disorder is typically also a good time to begin ABA therapy. There are several reasons for this. At younger ages, children go through more frequent critical periods in their development. These critical periods are maturation stages in which the individual is particularly sensitive to stimuli in their environment. Teaching certain concepts in these earlier years may pay off in the long run.

Additionally, the earlier a child learns critical and age relevant behaviors and skills, the more productive and meaningful their time at school will be. The child will be able to access more of the curriculum if the necessary prerequisite skills are targeted early on. For example, a child who is taught to raise their hand to ask for help, initiate a social play interaction, and count from 1-10 during ABA therapy may gain the ability to absorb more from the academic and social environment at the school setting.

Research indicates that early intervention can improve challenging behaviors and children’s overall development. Another reason early intervention is important is to ensure that challenging behaviors are addressed early on so that they do not have the opportunity to become entrenched with age. Without an individualized, function based intervention plan, challenging behaviors can become worse (e.g. increase in frequency, duration, and severity) over time. This is because reinforcement over time can strengthen behaviors. If a young child is constantly engaging in challenging behaviors, without a behavior plan in place, those challenging behaviors may be inadvertently reinforced, therefore contributing to the possibility that they may worsen over time.

Early intervention provides the skills necessary to set the child up for long term success. The more skills a child is equipped with early on, the more of their social and learning environments they will be able to access as they grow. In fact, teaching “pivotal behaviors” and “behavior cusps” are a crucial component of ABA programs, particularly during earlier stages of the ABA program. While these two terms are related, they refer to behaviors, that when learned, result in new and positive changes across many areas of a child’s life.

While there are significant benefits to starting ABA therapy as early as possible, that is not say there is a point at which it is “too late” to start. ABA programs are highly individualized to the needs of the learner and Behavior Analysts take into consideration numerous factors when designing an ABA program. These will include the learner’s current behavioral, social, academic, communication, self-help, and other needs from different curricular areas. This is why many individuals benefit from ABA therapy even when starting a program later in their development.

Therefore, while “earlier is better” is the common recommendation by most clinicians, ABA therapy can benefit many learners at various stages in their development due to its emphasis on individualization.

Using Activity Completion Signals to Support Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

An activity completion signal is a tool which can help students identify when an activity is over. Many students with autism have difficulty knowing how long an activity or task will last. These difficulties may also be present when students are asked to switch their focus to another task. Activity completion signals such as “Finish Pockets” or a “Finish Boxes” provide a lot of support for students transitioning between activities. Finish pockets, like other tools, can easily be created—folders or plastic containers can be labeled and placed near students’ visual schedules for students to place completed work into. When the student completes an activity, he or she should remove the icon of the current task or activity, and then also place it in the finish pocket. During this time, the teacher would indicate that the activity is over. For example, “math is over everyone, time for recess” thereby allowing a student to recognize a transition, and recognize what comes next in a visual format rather than only hearing the instructions.

There are various ways you can use activity completion signals such as turning an icon-card around so that it is facing backwards, placing an icon or object near the finish box, crossing off the name of the activity or task on a white board, and of course, the old tried and true timer to indicate the end of a task. The more creative you can be, the more variation you will have, but again, just like with visual schedules, the student’s learning rates and skill levels need to be considered when determining the type of signal you use.

In addition, it is always true that you will need to teach the student with autism how to respond to the signals and that you will need to reward (reinforce) the student’s correct responses to the signals.

Does Research Show that ABA is Successful in Treating Children with Autism?

Yes—research does show that ABA is successful in treating children living with autism. As a matter of fact, since the early 1960s, the effectiveness of ABA based interventions has been very well documented particularly when helping children with developmental disabilities. Over 400 research articles were published between 1964 and 1970 alone and all have concluded that behavior analytic interventions demonstrated the most consistent results with individuals living with developmental disabilities. From the mid ‘80’s to 2010, there were over 500 peer-reviewed, published articles on autism and Applied Behavior Analysis.

Many families of children with autism are or are becoming familiar with the 1987 study published by Lovaas. That 1987 study was the first “group study” looking at children with autism receiving intensive ABA treatment (i.e., 40 hours per week) and children with autism that received 10 hours of ABA treatment or none at all.  In this famous study, Lovaas and his research team implemented many of the basic principles and techniques of behavior analysis into an early intensive intervention program for children with autism. After approximately two years of ABA based interventions, 47% of the children in his study made tremendous gains and were able to enter a typical first grade classroom without any additional assistance and scored in the average range in IQ tests when prior to the intervention these same children scored in the low range in IQ tests. Of the control groups, the children in the study that did not receive ABA interventions but only community supports, only one child was placed in a first-grade placement and scored average IQ.

While this study is over 30 years old, there are recent replications and research studies that indicate similar findings. While it’s beyond the scope of this post to go into all the research studies indicating the effectiveness of ABA programs for children with autism, ABA currently is widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for autism.  It has been endorsed by a number of state and federal agencies, including the US Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health. And for that reason, the use of ABA principles and techniques has rapidly expanded in recent years as more studies demonstrate that these principles help individuals with autism live more independent and more productive lives.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)? An elaboration

Applied Behavior Analysis is the applied science of behavior formalized by B.F. Skinner. It is sometimes referred to as Behavior Modification, ABA, or Behavior Analysis. The theories, laws, and techniques have their foundations in years of basic research and describe some of the most fundamental things we know about behavior. Some early influences on the field of ABA include Watson, Thorndyke, Pavlov, and groups of psychologists, philosophers, and scientists in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that pursued empirical science.

Contemporary hallmarks of ABA include the Law of Reinforcement, functions of behavior, contextualism, and determinism. Let’s briefly look at these areas to get a better understanding of the field of applied behavior analysis.

Simply put, the Law of Reinforcement states that behavior that is reinforced will continue to occur or will occur more often in the future. Conversely, a behavior that is not reinforced will not occur or will decrease in occurrence over time (though, sometimes we see a short increase after reinforcement is discontinued for a behavior that has been previously reinforced).

Through a great deal of clinical experience, it has become apparent that one challenge with really applying this law and understanding its fundamental truth relates to a not having a good understanding of what reinforcement is or can be. Some general misunderstandings include the assumption that consequences most people would describe as positive or pleasant will function as reinforcers. For example, most people would assume that receiving a thank you note would be a reinforcer for a job well done. In practice, this is not the case. There are individuals that would have no interest in a thank you note, but would rather prefer a pay increase. There are, of course, some that would.

Often times, people attribute what they would find reinforcing to another person. Life shows us, this is not the case. Conversely, when we talk about reinforcement, something that we think may be reinforcing may in fact be punishing (a consequence that causes a behavior not to occur or to decrease in the future). Similarly, reinforcers can vary in their magnitude or effectiveness dependent on the environment and on what has happened in the time before the reinforcer is being used.

One final thought is that behavior is often under multiple schedules. Some of the schedules are reinforcing and some of them are punishing. The effects of the reinforcers and punishers that are a part of each schedule vary. This makes it challenging for all but only the most skilled Behavior Analysts to have a good understanding of reinforcement, reinforcers, and schedules of reinforcement. The field of Behavioral Economics is making strides in empirically describing these concerns. However, the law of reinforcement remains one of the important concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis.

One of the more recent (relatively speaking as it dates back to the very early ’80’s) concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis is behavioral function. Previous to this notion, the field was more commonly known as behavior modification and behavior was mainly changed by modifying consequences (e.g., reinforcers and punishers).

Research in the early 80’s demonstrated functional relationships between problem behavior and the conditions that reinforced it. This research led to the concept of behavioral function. Simply, a behavior must be analyzed in terms of what function (i.e., purpose) the behavior served for the individual performing it.

Nowadays, we commonly look at the inappropriate behavior that children with autism perform in these terms. We ask, “are they performing this behavior for attention? Are they performing it to escape or avoid something that they do not like? Are they performing the behavior to get access to something that they want? Are they doing it because it gives them some sort of pleasure?”

Additionally, there are two questionnaire-based assessments, the Questions About Behavior Function (QABF) and Motivation Assessment Scale (MAS), that assist users with determining the function of the behavior in question. The QABF was developed with adults with developmental disabilities and the MAS was developed on children with developmental disabilities.

Contextualism is a concept somewhat close to behavior function. In short, contextualism refers to analyzing behavior in terms of the context that it occurs. What are the characteristics of the environment? Is it loud? Quiet? Hot? Who is there when the behavior happens?  What happens right before the behavior occurs? What happens earlier in the lead up to the occurrence of the behavior? What happens after?

All of these questions are things that we ask when we analyze behavior. Taking these things into consideration is why we refer to Applied Behavior Analysis as contextual.

Our final hallmark of ABA is one of the more ephemeral concepts. It is complex and philosophical in nature and often times needs to be reflected on to really get a grasp of it. This is the concept of determinism. This is also one of the more controversial concepts in ABA. Essentially, the concept of determinism says that our behavior is under the influence of our learning histories, the antecedents that occasion the behavior, and the consequences that reinforce or punish it. We are not operating under the umbrella of free will.

Like was said earlier, this is a controversial concept. Some say that our verbal behavior (i.e., thoughts) can control our behavior. In some cases, it may mitigate our behavior and, of course, it is behavior and therefore is under the same influences of antecedents, consequences and learning history. However, with the exception of the species-specific behavior we are born with, we are products of our learning histories and present environmental factors.

Applied Behavior Analysis is an elaborate science of behavior and it has been applied in many arenas (businesses, animal training, individuals with developmental disabilities, individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury, etc.,). There are many laws and principles and even more techniques based on these laws and principles. Some of the main hallmarks remain those referenced above (i.e., reinforcement, functions of behavior, contextualism, and determinism).

Why Does ABA Help Children With Autism?

Why is Applied Behavior Analysis treatment helpful when teaching children with autism?  What is it about these principles and techniques that seem to be a good fit in helping improve the lives of those affected with autism? These are very important questions to ask and their answers are imperative to understanding why individuals with autism often need specialized teaching environments to learn.

We all know that typically developing children learn throughout all waking hours, even when they are not being formally taught. Typically developing children watch other children, watch adults, watch TV, learn from school, and incorporate what they have learned into their repertoire.  Often times they only need to see something once or twice before it comes easily to them. Parents are often amazed at what their children are learning and frequently ask, “where did you learn to do that?” Furthermore, when children acquire language, they often begin to ask questions of others in their environment. From the basic “why” question that parents so often get asked to more elaborate questions about “How this thing works, or how that thing works”. They become their own information seeking beings.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for the majority of children with autism. Children with autism learn much less from their environment. They have a weakness in what’s called observational learning or learning via imitation, that is, watching someone else do something, and learning to do it themselves without any specific teaching.  Children with Autism typically have decreased language skills and thus attend less to others, or they understand less of what is said to them, or they ask fewer questions of others. For most children with autism, you cannot expect to put them in a classroom setting and have them learn and absorb what the teacher is saying, mainly as a direct result of the characteristics of autism.

However, ABA programs create a very structured environment where conditions are optimized for learning, and over time, this very structured environment is systematically changed so that it mimics what a child could expect if and when they are placed in the classroom. In other words, initially, an ABA program will create a somewhat unnatural or atypical learning environment for a child, such as teaching them in a distraction free, one-to-one environment in their home, but over time, this environment will slowly change so that it looks like every other classroom that a child may encounter in their school years.  It is important to note that the main premise of an ABA program is teaching a child, “how to learn,” so that they will no longer need such structured and specialized services.

Also, ABA programs take into consideration generalization and maintenance and plan accordingly for these issues. That is, another common challenge with children with autism is that they don’t easily apply something that was learned in one environment into another environment (e.g., if something was taught at home, the child may not do it at school). Last, it is sometime difficult for children with autism to remember something that was taught at some time in the future. That is tough for all of us sometimes. However, it is essential for children with autism as their programs often are composed of skills that build on one another.

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.