One big goal you may have for your child with autism is a successful transition from ABA therapy to a traditional school environment. When the time comes, the transition from ABA therapy to school should be a gradual, intentional process, says Reena Naami-Dier, M.S., BCBA, LBA, owner and director at Spark Center for Autism, the Farmington Hills ABA center dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
Good ABA therapy providers help kids build lifelong skills, but ABA therapy isn’t designed to continue forever. “Our job is to get your child into the least restrictive, but most successful environment and to see them thrive,” says Naami-Dier.
Children should begin the transition from ABA therapy to school long before the actual move. “It’s important to have the discussion about a transition with your service providers pretty early on,” says Naami-Dier. “We try to have the conversation six to 12 months in advance so that we can lay out expectations and work through any questions that the family has ahead of time.”
With so many goals to work on, Naami-Dier recommends a gradual transition — what she calls a titration of services — rather than an abrupt ending of ABA in favor of a move to a school setting full time.
There’s a lot to know, so Naami-Dier shares some considerations for helping your child transition from ABA therapy to school.
Group skills are important
For a successful move, Naami-Dier recommends engaging in ABA programming where a child can develop group skills while still having the benefits of one-on-one support when necessary.
“We start with these skills very early on with all of our clients to ensure that any child, whether they have seen or been in a school setting before, will have the opportunity to practice the skills that will be necessary in school,” she says.
A great example is circle time, a group activity led by one teacher and a mainstay of preschool and kindergarten classrooms. In the ABA therapeutic setting, circle time is led by a behavior therapist and each child attends alongside their individual therapist. “We work on group questions, stories, songs and learning the days of the week or the weather. This allows us to pinpoint deficits in group and classroom skills early on to try to set specific goals for each child,” Naami-Dier explains.
Spark Center for Autism also conducts other small group instruction to gradually decrease a child’s need for one-on-one support. This might be a working group of two to three children and one or two behavior therapists.
The school transition and readiness (STAR) program at Spark Center for Autism puts children who are either working toward a school transition or who are in school part time and still need ABA support into a classroom-like setting to target specific, individualized skills.
“These can vary from working independently for longer periods of time to attending to broad instructions from a teacher to even reducing problem behavior related to non-preferred or difficult tasks,” Naami-Dier says.
STAR includes reinforcements common to classroom settings like red-yellow-green color charts, or the ability to earn points for a treasure box or fun activity at the end of the day. “It’s important to pinpoint specific barriers an individual child might have in a classroom because it may not always be the same from one child to the next.”
When transition moves too quickly
ABA therapy services are largely provided one-to-one, but this is very rare for a traditional classroom setting. A combination of gradual decrease in ABA services and gradual increase in school allows a child to be supported while behavior therapists determine what barriers may crop up, Naami-Dier says.
“We have had situations where a family may choose to pull their child from ABA entirely and start school because they made so much progress in ABA, but when they get to school, situations that may not have come up during therapy may present themselves, and at that point, the child may have had such a poor experience in school that it takes more time to try to recover,” she explains. “A slow transition gives your child’s behavior analyst an opportunity to observe in the classroom and work more closely with the teachers to assist with specific concerns.”
The behavior therapist can then recreate the setting during ABA and help the child work through the challenge on a one-to-one basis. “If the transition moves too quickly, it’s OK to take a step back and reevaluate,” Naami-Dier says.
How parents can support the transition
During this transition, expect your ABA provider to provide support and training to you as well as your child.
“Every child is unique, and they may have their own specific barriers that we will want to work on with caregivers. The benefit to this, too, is that caregivers can give more insight to teachers and paraprofessionals and share strategies that are effective for their child,” Naami-Dier says. “Typically when we have a transition plan in place, we also provide the families with other resources for activities, social skills groups and other potentially relevant programs that could be beneficial to your child.”
Learn more about Spark Center for Autism at sparkcenterforautism.com.