When choosing ABA therapy as a treatment for autism spectrum disorder, caregivers must maintain a collaborative relationship with their child’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to achieve the most meaningful outcomes. One big part of this relationship is developing specific treatment goals. As an evidence-based treatment, it is imperative that chosen goals are measurable. In this way, BCBAs act as artists, reframing general skills into specific, tangible targets for teaching.
Rather than writing out generic goals such as “following directions”, the following information can give caregivers a better idea of the process for choosing specific and achievable goals that are tailored to the unique needs of the child.
How Goals Are Used in ABA Therapy
The process of choosing goal setting begins as soon as the BCBA meets with the family and the child with autism. Through discussions with caregivers, direct assessments, and collecting data, the BCBA can get a basic idea of what goals may be included in the child’s individualized program. Parents are asked about challenging behaviors, current social and language skills, and overall priorities in care. Using this information, behavior analysts can create achievable goals for meaningful behavior change. Instead of tackling a big goal all at once, they transform specific behaviors into more concrete steps that contribute to the larger objective.
With that in mind, it is important to remember that many of these specific goals that ABA therapists work on may look different than what one would expect. Many of the chosen targets of an Applied Behavior Analysis program are evidence-based and contribute to the development of broader skill sets. These targets are created as building blocks in decreasing challenging behavior, teaching new skills, and encouraging prosocial behaviors in the natural environment.
Typical & Specific Goals of ABA Therapy
There are many different sub-goals one may come across when discussing goals such as more independence in daily routines, better time management, learning to speak, following directions, and so on. Many of these types of skills are kept in mind when making behavior-analytic goals for children with autism, but their importance in treatment is always dependent on the child’s current skills and the caregivers’ perspective on what is important. These various skills that are commonly brought up by parents can be broken down in various ways. Here are just some of the ways these goals are incorporated into a treatment plan.
Parents often desire more independence in common daily living skills such as toileting, hygiene skills, feeding and mealtime skills, getting dressed, and so on. To make progress in these areas, more specific targets are placed into the treatment plan. These targets are always tailored to the child and intend to boost their overall self-sufficiency.
The ultimate aim is to enable these individuals to navigate daily life with increased independence, and to generalize the behaviors learned to other situations and settings. More specific targets related to achieving goals related to daily routines may be…
- Benny will complete all steps of toileting in the absence of challenging behavior.
- Benny will be able to feed themselves using a utensil.
- Benny will be able to put on a shirt correctly in the absence of challenging behavior.
- Benny will be able to complete all steps of showering with only verbal prompts.
- Benny will complete the hand-washing steps using visual prompts.
Concerns with social skills and communication are frequently mentioned as priorities for treatment when it comes to treating children with autism disorder. Goals related to expressive communication skills can include a lot of different components including learning to speak with words, using more complex language, improving conversational skills, greeting others, asking for help, requesting items, answering questions, saying please and thank you, responding with yes and no, and improving social functioning. Goals related to expressive communication may be written as:
- Benny will request items using 3+ words.
- Benny will be able to label 30 household items.
- Benny will point to an item as a request.
- Benny will imitate the actions of peers during a play session.
- Benny will engage in 5 verbal exchanges on a preferred topic.
Receptive Language Skills
These work hand-in-hand with expressive skills when it comes to communication. These types of skills may take the form of following directions, identifying objects when asked, completing actions when instructed, attending to a speaker, answering questions, listening comprehension, understanding and identifying details, understanding vocabulary, and more. Improving overall receptive language skills may include goals such as:
- Benny will orient towards a speaker when called on.
- Benny will respond correctly to 5 directions related to instructional control.
- Benny will be able to perform 4 motor actions when instructed.
- Benny will be able to receptively identify objects in an array of 3 for 10 different objects.
- Benny will be able to receptively identify 10 different body parts.
Improving overall social abilities includes many of the various skills described above as prerequisites. If a client is struggling with expressive communication in general, they will also likely struggle with social behaviors. Along with those described above, some other skills related to improving social ability include taking turns, sharing with peers, engaging with peers, responding to new people, greeting others, understanding nonverbal communication such as body language, identifying emotions, asking questions, and so much more.
- Benny will be able to label 5 different emotions from others’ faces.
- Benny will respond to requests given by his peers.
- Benny will engage in 5 verbal exchanges on a preferred topic.
- Benny will respond to greetings by saying hello or goodbye.
- Benny will engage in parallel play with another peer for 3 minutes.
Parents also commonly express the want to teach and improve behaviors related to being out in public settings. It should come as no surprise that these types of skills also rely on many of the different skills described above.
Having a firmer grasp of social, expressive, receptive, and even daily living skills is essential before being able to generalize the skills to other environments such as grocery stores or doctor’s offices. Target behaviors related more specifically to community skills include responding to a cashier, purchasing items, managing money, grocery shopping, playing a restaurant order, speaking to public servants, walking safely on sidewalks, understanding signs and symbols, safe engagement with strangers, understanding personal space, requesting help when needed, and so on.
- Benny will be able to label 10 different community helpers.
- Benny will correctly follow 5 different signs related to safety.
- Benny will be able to wait in line without engaging in challenging behaviors.
- Benny will be able to identify different currency values (e.g., $1, $5, $10, etc.).
- Benny will be able to identify individuals who can help them in the community.
How Are ABA Therapy Goals Achieved?
Behavior is complex in that many different skills are used to accomplish a goal. For example, a behavior analyst may be working on a client’s overall ability to follow directions. There are many prerequisites to consider when tackling such a skill. Are they able to scan an array of items? Do they attend to a speaker when their name is called? Do they have the ability to imitate the speaker to learn what they need to do to follow an instruction?
These are the types of questions a BCBA must consider when developing a learning program. During treatment, many of these prerequisite skills may be targeted at a time to build a foundation for the more complex overall goals. Focusing on these basic skills throughout therapy brings about improvements in the child as a whole.
How Long Do ABA Therapy Goals Take to Achieve?
Notice how nearly all of these overall goals require mastery of other foundational abilities. Depending on various factors, it may take longer before the greater goals can be observed in natural settings. Most ABA therapy services recommend at least 15 hours weekly for progress, with some children receiving up to 40 hours weekly. The speed of a child’s progress depends on a variety of factors including how many hours of ABA services per week, the child’s current abilities, severity of problem behaviors, level of parent involvement, and how much caregivers transition learned skills into everyday life.
For children who engage in more dangerous or severe problem behaviors, it may be crucial to focus more on reducing those behaviors before teaching social skills. If children cannot request items from others, this may take priority over teaching them to follow instructions. Behavior analysts are aware of how seemingly unrelated behaviors work together, and so ongoing conversations between parents and ABA professionals are essential in enhancing effective understanding, collaboration, and program success.