When a child is diagnosed with autism, the evaluation team often recommends the child start Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy. Most parents have probably never heard of ABA therapy and may turn to Google to learn more about it. Depending on what website they land on, the information could provide reassurance, or trepidation. But what is ABA therapy, exactly?
For the child with autism, ABA therapy can help build communication, play and social skills. It’s often considered the gold standard among autism therapies because it is evidence based and highly measurable.
“While ABA therapy has been around for several decades, it has changed dramatically to better provide supportive techniques to help children build skills. We take large skills like communication, socialization and play, break them down into smaller components and use a system of prompts and rewards to teach step by step,” explains 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.
“The overall goal of ABA is to use a child’s strengths to build upon their weaknesses to help them live a rich and fulfilling life with as few barriers as possible,” says Dr. Thomas. Unfortunately, there are also myths circulating about ABA therapy which have, in some situations, dissuaded families from pursuing life-altering therapy.
It’s important for parents to understand that ABA therapy is not a cure for autism, but it can support a child’s learning experiences. It is highly effective, especially when children engage in therapy early on. Careful consideration should always be given to supporting the emotional needs of both the parent’s and the child’s experience when they undergo this therapy. While ABA strives to teach skills that will have a strong social impact on the family as a whole, it does not look to extinguish the characteristics that make a child unique and wonderful.
“If I were looking for an ABA provider,” Dr. Thomas adds, “I would look for a provider who has strong empathy and understanding for the child’s lived experience. An environment rich in nurturing and perspective taking will yield meaningful relationships and results.”
Families may have many options for ABA therapy, and each provider has a unique approach to ABA therapy, so Dr. Thomas suggests families ask lots of questions and spend plenty of time with potential therapy centers to learn about their particular ABA therapy philosophies. ABA should not focus on suppressing a child’s uniqueness or personality, but rather leverage their interests and unique qualities to help them build skills to set them up for better success in school and in life.
Children with autism learn by interacting with their environment, and a key element in that environment is their teacher, or therapist. “Children learn through opportunities that are provided, and the way we approach this at Healing Haven is special because we work hard to establish a bond with the child initially,” Dr. Thomas explains.
At Healing Haven, Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and the clinical team follow each child’s lead to learn their motivations and interests. “We are more likely to experience a lot of learning opportunities if it pertains to something meaningful for the child,” says Dr. Thomas.
Through a play-based approach, the team at Healing Haven works with the child on target skills, like language or cognition, and they use what Thomas refers to as “incidental teaching opportunities.” If, for example, a child reaches for an item on a shelf, the tutor will use the opportunity to encourage the child to ask for what they want, a key skill for children with autism.
“They can use that opportunity to say ‘ball’ or ‘bubbles’ or, if they use an augmented communication device, we will help them learn how to press the correct button,” says Dr. Thomas. “They are interested in and motivated by the interaction and it’s pleasurable. We want children to be happy because learning is more likely to occur when we include lots of play. There’s so much to learn through play.”
The ABA therapy team might intentionally leave batteries out of a toy so that a child will need to ask for help or will have to open a box in order to discover what preferred item might be inside. “It’s a gentle approach to helping them learn,” Dr. Thomas says, adding that skills are also taught through “embedded instruction,” which gives children the opportunity to learn concepts through games and play that they are already familiar with and enjoy.
The ultimate goal
While ABA therapy may be intensive at times, it’s not designed to be needed for the rest of a child’s life. Rather, a child learns important life skills like communication that, once mastered, will help them continue to learn and grow on their own. Parents should look for a provider that has a thoughtful plan for how to gradually decrease the amount of services each child needs. The end goal is to teach a child to thrive in the least restrictive environment.
Through ABA therapy, Dr. Thomas says, children’s personalities and preferences guide their experiences as they gain important skills that will help them live their lives with as few barriers as possible.
“What’s really important to us is that we watch and follow their lead to learn about them. We know what they like and who they are and how their personalities shine,” she says. “We help them reduce barriers so they can bring what they have to offer the world in their own way.”
Learn more about ABA therapy and Healing Haven’s unique approach to supporting children and teens with autism at thehealinghaven.net.