What is Compassionate ABA Therapy?

An expert from Healing Haven shares wisdom — and a little history lesson — on what you can expect from compassionate ABA therapy for your child with autism.

ABA therapy is effective because it helps children with autism build important life skills and reach their full potential. For many families, the ultimate goal of ABA therapy is to help their child learn to live as independently as possible. In its methods and approach, ABA therapy has come a long way since its inception in the 1960s.

Like many behavioral and medical fields, ABA therapy has evolved during its relatively short history. Where practitioners once followed behavior modification techniques, today’s ABA therapy recognizes the value of cooperation and willingness on the part of the child.

Today, parents should expect their child’s experience with ABA therapy to be positive and compassionate. Not only is this method more comfortable for the child, but it’s also more effective, says Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, an ABA therapy center for children and teens in Madison Heights.

What is compassionate ABA?

Compassionate ABA includes taking the perspective of both the client and the parents, while showing empathy for their struggles. It involves developing a relationship with the client to fully understand their needs and desires. It is a flexible approach where the clinician is mindful of their own behavior and its relationship to their client’s behavior. Compassionate ABA is an approach that helps the client become more independent and live a meaningful life while focusing on the individual as a whole person.

Families should be aware that ABA clinics vary vastly in the application of their science. Additionally, training, staff management and company culture all play a significant role in how someone’s experience with ABA therapy plays out. Sadly, there have been some families or individuals that have had a less-than-optimal experience with ABA.

“We are happy to see that the idea of compassionate ABA is coming to the forefront of the field. While this may be a novel concept for some centers, we have practiced this way since our inception, says Dr. Thomas.

“The leadership here at Healing Haven have spent our careers educating families about the life-changing outcomes this therapy can have. Science is forever evolving. We study, we learn, we grow, we do better,” explains Thomas. “This is the reality for our field. We seek to listen to the voices of families and individuals with autism to continue to understand their needs to help us improve upon the treatment we provide.”

Finding the balance

Compassionate ABA aims to be in tune with a child’s willingness to participate in therapy and be responsive to the needs and desires of the child. It’s important to balance this aim with the need to teach the skills necessary for the child to be as independent as possible.

Herein lies the balance between what the child wants and what the child needs.

For example, a child might want to engage with his iPad all day long, but scientific studies suggest that too much time on electronics will lead to challenges in socialization and increases in problem behavior, Dr. Thomas says. “There is also data to support that children fare better with boundaries. How we develop and communicate those boundaries is paramount. When possible we give choices, and we make the child feel supported and heard even if they are unhappy about the boundary,” she adds.

Parents who seek out ABA therapy want their child to learn practical skills that will help them live as independently as possible. “Caring for a child necessarily involves some limitations and we have to navigate that on an individual and situational basis,” says Dr. Thomas.

What compassionate ABA looks like

Compassionate ABA at Healing Haven begins with the understanding that kids are having a lived experience of childhood. “They may experience the same level of emotion or frustration as any of their neurotypical peers,” Dr. Thomas explains. “As such, they deserve to be supported through that. We need to understand as clinicians that a diagnosis is not the reasoning behind a behavior.”

All children can become tired, overstimulated or anxious. A skilled therapist recognizes these challenges and provides support before reaching for complex behavior plans. “Sometimes a rest or a snack can help a child move past the struggle,” Dr. Thomas says.

One method used to support children who are struggling is a skills-based treatment pioneered by Greg Hanley, Ph.D., BCBA. Therapists and technicians at Healing Haven observe, watch nonverbal signs and listen, continually assessing and waiting until the child is open and ready to learn. “When they’re happy, relaxed and engaged, the technician can introduce another opportunity to teach a skill,” says Dr. Thomas. “Many centers have adopted Hanley’s approach.”

Over time, this baby-step approach builds the trust of the child, and they begin to better tolerate and engage proactively in the learning process.

What to look for

Parents who want to work with an ABA therapy center that practices compassionate ABA therapy can ask if the therapy team follows the child’s lead and creates an environment that’s an inviting place to be.

Learn the team’s philosophy for when a child is resistant to learning. “Do they listen to the child and follow the child’s lead? If they say they just work through behaviors, this would be the opportunity to ask more questions. How do they work to ensure the child wants to be an active participant in their treatment?” says Dr. Thomas.

Each day, the Healing Haven team engages children with empathy and caring, always thinking creatively and presenting options so clients can meet their goals and grow toward independence. This child-centered approach is an effective and compassionate way to help children learn skills that are important for life, she says. “We’re teaching skills so our clients can be happy and independent and have their dignity.”

Expertise provided by Healing Haven. Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique ABA therapy programs for children and teens, ages 2-young adult. Visit thehealinghaven.net.

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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