What is ABA Therapy?

A behavior analyst with Henry Ford explains Applied Behavior Analysis therapy that's commonly used for kids with autism.

Parents of children with autism have surely heard the acronym ABA.

It stands for Applied Behavior Analysis and it’s often considered the “holy grail” of autism treatments. If you’re wondering, “what is ABA Therapy?” – and why it’s so popular – we’re here to help.

Jason Majchrzak, a supervising behavior analyst with the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders, says ABA is a method of behavior modification that aims to increase appropriate behaviors and reduce undesirable behaviors.

“We use what we know about how people learn about how people behave in order to achieve that goal,” he says. “There are a lot of different things that go into it.”

ABA includes a variety of teaching methods, such as Discrete Trial Training – one of the most commonly used strategies for kids with autism. This style of teaching uses a series of trials to teach each step of a desired behavior and offers positive reinforcement for correct answers and behaviors, Majchrzak says.

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“A lot of times discrete trial is used in order for a child to acquire a skill,” he says. “It’s discreetly done – to a parent it looks like we’re playing but in fact we’re slipping in little learning opportunities and the child a lot of times isn’t even aware of that they’re learning something.”

Who applied behavior analysis helps

Though ABA is often associated with autism, the therapy method can be used for people with a wide range of developmental disabilities.

“In my career I’ve used ABA to treat a variety of different things,” Majchrzak says, pointing out that it can be used with children who have problem behaviors, conduct disorders or oppositional defiance disorder, ADHD, anxiety disorders and intellectual disabilities. “There are a lot of different applications for ABA.”

At Henry Ford’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders, most children who receive ABA therapy are between 2 and 6 years old – though older children can receive treatment as well, he says.

Where and when therapy takes place

ABA therapy is offered at centers throughout the metro Detroit area and by providers who offer in-home treatment.

“There are advantages to both,” Majchrzak says. “For the family, the home-based is an advantage rather than going somewhere. My professional belief is I can teach more and do more in a center-based program than a home-based therapy can do.”

At Henry Ford’s center, most kids are seen 15 hours per week in three-hour sessions at the clinic. The child works one-on-one with a therapist and also has interaction with other children in the program during the day.

“The ebb and flow of the day is kind of like a preschool,” he says.

How to get started

The first thing parents should do when considering an ABA program for their child with autism is find out whether their health insurance will cover the therapy. If it’s covered, parents usually need to visit one of Michigan’s Approved Autism Evaluation Centers to get a formal diagnosis.

“You can’t go to your private psychologist. You can’t use a diagnosis from school,” Majchrzak says.

Henry Ford’s center is one of the approved evaluation sites, along with centers at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, Beaumont Hospital and the University of Michigan, he says.

After you have the diagnosis, “then you come to somebody like me on the treatment side,” Majchrzak says.

ABA treatment centers will perform their own evaluation and skill assessments and then work with the family to develop goals based on the child’s needs. The therapy can address social skills, toilet training, academic skills and more, such as teaching a child to respond to his name or greet other people.

Children can stay in ABA programs anywhere from a few months to several years.

“Once we’ve met those goals, for me it’s about getting them out of here and getting them into school,” Majchrzak says.

Parents also receive training on how to help continue the strategies at home.

“There’s a lot that goes into autism and it’s really stressful I think for the families,” he says. “A lot of our mission too is to be able to work with the families and make these things realistic for them. We’ve got to be realistic and this has to work for everybody.”

Why it works

Applied Behavior Analysis is successful because it is based in data, Majchrzak says.

“We’re working with what we know. We’re not guessing. If we can observe it and measure it then we can do something about it to change it,” he says. “There’s a lot of research behind it that shows it works very well with this particular population of folks.”

Majchrzak cautions parents against believing claims about less-researched forms of therapy that seem too good to be true.

“There is no easy fix, no easy cure,” he says. “Everybody’s hoping for a happy, healthy child and something goes wrong and you don’t know what to do or where to turn to. Let us help point you in the right direction.”

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