For a child with autism to find success in school, they need a handful of important skills that they use every day. When there is a gap in these skills and a child struggles to participate in a group setting, parents may decide to pursue intensive, one-on-one ABA support.
“ABA therapy is never meant to replace school, but to help enhance the skills needed to be successful in school,” says Jamie McGillivary, BCBA, President and Founder of Healing Haven, an ABA therapy center for children and teens located in Madison Heights.
“For a child with autism, being placed in a mainstream environment like school doesn’t ensure they will pick up the skill sets they need. Some people do believe that if they can just get the child into a classroom, they’ll be fine. But that’s like putting a child into a calculus class before they’ve learned to add two plus two,” McGillivary says.
When a child with autism has profound disruptive behavior, struggles to participate in any meaningful way or has gaps in social or language skills, ABA therapy can provide a jumpstart, McGillivary says. “Then school is a wonderful place to practice those skills,” she adds.
Skills necessary for learning
The role of the ABA therapy team is distinct from the role of the classroom teacher. In ABA therapy, children don’t learn to read or do math. Instead, they build the skills that can help them learn in a classroom setting.
In ABA therapy, for instance, a child will learn how to tolerate a demand, such as a request to sit down or follow a routine. They learn how to smoothly transition from one activity to another and how to wait in line with their classmates. They also learn how to communicate their own needs.
Learning how to follow simple instructions is key to success in a group environment, too. “This skill alone in isolation is difficult for our kids. So to have to follow directions in the context of a group is a higher level skill,” McGillivary explains. “It’s like learning to run before you can walk.”
Schools have finite resources and, under certain circumstances, may find it difficult to support a student with significant gaps gain the skills they need to learn in a group environment.
“For these children, learning opportunities need to take place one-on-one, and schools are often unable to provide intensive learning of this type for students,” McGillivary explains.
Sometimes, a child with autism is able to learn all the skills needed to participate fully in school, but they don’t learn them at the required pace. ABA therapy can help close this gap through intensive individualized support. And, it is also important to provide opportunities for a child with autism to participate in an ABA therapy social group. In social and school preparation groups at Healing Haven, children learn and practice foundational skills needed for school.
“It’s not just what you learn but how much you learn,” she says. “There are children who are making some gains at school but they need to learn faster than they are. The best way to do that is to increase the intensity.”
In an ABA environment, therapists have the resources to work with just one child and isolate a desired skill and practice it again and again. “Then we can practice that skill by adding more people slowly and gradually to create a group-like environment. That’s the luxury that we have that schools don’t have,” McGillivary says.
Connecting the support of your child’s school
When a child reaches the level where they can participate in a classroom environment, parents can collaborate with their child’s teacher so everyone is on board and committed to the child’s success.
“There are so many wonderful teachers who can take what we are doing and carry the baton forward,” says McGillivary. “The best case is when the teacher and parents collaborate together to move forward to the child’s next step of independence.”
Parents can educate themselves about the resources available at their school district and build a collaborative team of individuals with distinct roles — all dedicated to helping their child thrive.
And, rather than waiting for a yearly IEP meeting, parents should get in the habit of communicating regularly with their child’s teacher and any support professionals at the school — just as they communicate regularly with their child’s BCBA.
“When you take the expertise of a variety of professionals and combine this with a strong desire to better the life of a child, you can have great outcomes,” McGillivary says. “No one person is more important than another. Parents should look for professionals who understand that and have a desire to work collaboratively.”
Healing Haven offers unique ABA therapy services to children and teens. Learn more at thehealinghaven.net.