Does Every Child with Autism Benefit from the Same ABA Therapy?

Not sure if what’s recommended for your child is appropriate? What you need to know, from an expert at Healing Haven.

When your child was diagnosed with autism, were you surprised to learn they may need 15 to 35 hours of ABA therapy each week? This is appropriate for many children on the spectrum, but custom fitting a program to meet a child’s need is an art. It is important to find a provider that takes the time to find the best fit for each child.

Parents are often told to simply “seek out ABA” after a diagnosis. “This can leave parents with so many unanswered questions about where to even begin,” says Jamie McGillivary, president and founder of Healing Haven, an ABA therapy center for children, teens and young adults in Madison Heights.

How do you know what’s right for your child? There is so much to consider, including:

  • Do you need in-home or in-clinic services?
  • Do you want a provider that takes a naturalistic or a more structured approach?

And even when those decisions are made, there is still the looming question of how much intervention is needed.

“Many parents feel a sense of urgency. They are overwhelmed by their child’s diagnosis and eager to do whatever it takes to help them. But when they are in a rush to help and they don’t have all of the information to make an informed decision, sometimes therapeutic missteps can occur,” says McGillivary.

Autism is a spectrum, and effective treatment should meet your child where they are. This can be confusing to parents, especially if they are not given a road map, or do not know the right questions to ask.

Does your child need ABA therapy at all?

Your child’s evaluation may recommend ABA to help with social skills and behavior, but it may not define what that looks like. Parents may face extra challenges if their children are just struggling socially but are older and already in a general education environment.

“In situations where kids have little to no cognitive impairments, are classified as Level 1 and have age-appropriate language skills, ABA therapy may still be recommended,” McGillivary says. “In an effort to meet that recommendation, some parents will stumble across centers that recommend excessively intensive therapy regardless of their current level of skill.”

Parents who are told their child has mild autism often have the greatest challenges finding support.

“Words and classifications do matter. Lumping autism all together into one spectrum is confusing. When parents don’t understand the difference between interventions that suit someone with Level 1 versus Level 3 autism, it’s hard for them to find the therapy that matches their child’s needs,” she explains.

How do you know what approach is right for your child?

When you tour a potential therapy center, you should expect the board certified behavior analyst or other professional to ask lots of questions to determine your child’s needs.

If you automatically receive a wide sweeping recommendation for 20-40 hours of intensive center-based therapy, regardless of skill set, that’s a red flag, says McGillivary.

“One of the hallmarks of ABA is that we use data to make decisions. When we need to make a recommendation for a child that has never received therapy before, we have no data, so it’s hard,” she says.

A skilled BCBA will use the child’s current skills plus their history to make an initial recommendation. It can be expected that a better understanding of need will emerge after about six to eight weeks The team, at that point, should reassess to determine if modifications should be made to the original recommendation, McGillivary adds.

Why are there ‘different types’ of ABA therapy?

Each child is unique and some arrive at therapy with delays in development that do require intensive, center-based support. Others may need a treatment plan that focuses more on modifying behaviors and increasing social experiences. The science behind ABA can help both of these kids — in vastly different ways.

“From a professional standpoint, we have in our toolbox different approaches to draw from. Clinicians should select teaching strategies and intensities to suit the individual needs of each child,” McGillivary says.

“For some, naturalistic teaching strategies will help build rapport and teach in a non-threatening, unassuming way. Others may need a more structured, regimented approach, while others need a combination of both,” she adds.

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What other options fall under the ABA umbrella?

Alternatively, your clinic may recommend support for you and your child’s caregivers to help shape desired behaviors at home. Parent training may be a standalone treatment when less intensity and more consistency is what the child needs. This type of intervention, coupled with guided social groups with peers, can help many children thrive.

What should you look for when seeking support for your child with autism?

ABA is the science of changing behavior, and it can work for any child. “But when children come with many skills, we have to examine their profiles closely,” says McGillivary. “It takes a special skill set to custom fit both the therapeutic recommendation for hours and an individualized curriculum to meet each child’s needs.”

For your child with autism, ABA therapy will help build socially significant skills. It’s important to be comfortable with — and on the same page with — the provider you choose.

“There is a science that backs our profession. Seek out ABA that is customized and individualized, and fits the needs of your child and family,” suggests McGillivary. “Find a provider that identifies those needs clearly.”

Expertise from Healing Haven. Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique, comprehensive ABA services for kids ages 2-young adult.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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