ABA Therapy vs School: Making the Right Choice For Your Child

Children can be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as early as 18 months old. For many children, they receive a diagnosis soon before they start preschool or kindergarten. A diagnosis made at any time can be stressful, but it can be especially tough for caregivers when they have to choose between school options and ABA therapy. It is one of the first and most crucial decisions parents must make, and the weight of making the right choice can become overwhelming for many parents.

As they start making these decisions, parents want to ensure they understand their options thoroughly. The following information can be used to help parents better understand their options, what factors to consider when choosing, and some questions they should be asking before making a decision.

What is ABA Therapy for Autism?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, in a nutshell, is a treatment used to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder develop essential skills and reduce challenging behaviors. It’s the most commonly prescribed treatment and is backed by decades of research. ABA therapy focuses on understanding and modifying behavior through manageable and achievable steps. Therapists use methods based primarily on positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors and discourage challenging behaviors. It usually involves one-on-one for multiple sessions weekly to improve communication, social, and daily living skills.

The goals of ABA therapy focus on improving a person’s ability to function independently and participate more effectively in daily life. ABA therapy is data-driven and evidence-based, proving time and time again to be effective in improving behavior, communication, and social interactions for those with autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions.

How Does School Work For Kids with ASD?

School experiences for children with autism vary depending on multiple different factors including the support needs of the child, parental involvement, school resources, and how well school staff is properly trained. In inclusive programs, which many schools offer, children with autism spectrum disorder are incorporated into general education classrooms with support, such as an aide. Special education resources, such as resource rooms, provide smaller group instruction more tailored to their needs.

Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are also common for children with autism and are required for eligible students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IEPs outline more specific accommodations, such as visual aids or sensory breaks, and set personalized goals for the student. Support staff, like paraprofessionals (commonly known as paras) or special education teachers, help to implement strategies from IEPs. Caregivers are also typically involved in IEP meetings, which allows for important family input on significant problematic behaviors, specific concerns, and preferred goals. Some schools also offer other services such as occupational therapy, social skills groups, and speech therapy sessions to address various challenges.

For children with lesser support needs, general education classrooms with other students can be suitable, with teachers incorporating inclusive practices. Visual schedules, structured routines, and peer support may be a part of their school day. At times, an individual paraprofessional may be assigned to assist a child in a general education classroom, however, the assignment of a paraprofessional is not guaranteed. In cases of children with higher support needs, specialized classrooms or schools designed for students with autism offer a more structured environment.

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Does ABA Therapy Replace School?

It is important to mention that ABA therapy does not replace formal education. ABA therapy is a treatment that is designed to address specific behaviors and teach skills to individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism. ABA therapy plays a crucial role in supporting the development of communication, social, and daily living skills, however, it should not be considered a substitute for learning in a traditional school setting.

Formal education offers a comprehensive curriculum that covers a wide range of subjects, serves as a platform for social interaction, and promotes overall academic growth. Skipping out on school in favor of ABA therapy alone could limit a child’s learning opportunities and social interactions.

Does School Replace ABA Therapy?


Skipping out on ABA therapy in favor of school alone can result in missing support for challenges more specific to autism spectrum disorder. ABA therapy is designed to address the unique needs of individuals with autism, while school is focused more on academic growth. Without a treatment for autism, a child might miss out on learning strategies to help them navigate aspects of their development beyond being a student.

The emphasis on individualized treatment in ABA therapy should be heavily considered when comparing ABA to formal education. ABA provides personalized interventions, often in a more intimate setting. This may not be as readily available in school, especially in general education classrooms or public schools. Children with autism often require additional support that ABA therapy is well-equipped to address.

Choosing formal education over ABA therapy can limit behavioral changes, the development of social skills, and independence in everyday tasks. Parents need to recognize that ABA therapy and formal education work best when working hand in hand. When the two work in tandem, children can receive a balanced and complete approach to support their overall development. Both ABA programs and school settings contribute to a child’s well-rounded education, addressing specific needs while fostering a broader spectrum of skills and experiences.

ABA Therapy in Preparation for School

ABA therapy before starting school can help in equipping children with some prerequisite skills that are needed for success in a classroom environment. Short-term ABA interventions focus on building basic foundational skills, such as communicating needs and behavioral self-regulation. For example, ABA therapy can help children to communicate their needs to teachers and peers, teach them to follow basic instructions related to learning readiness and reduce challenging behaviors that would otherwise impact themselves and others in the learning environment.

ABA therapy can also target more general skills like sitting in a group, participating in class activities, and managing transitions between different tasks. By addressing these skills in the short term, ABA therapy can lead to a smoother transition into the school environment.

Consideration: Where is Your Child on the Spectrum?

Wherever a child falls within the autism spectrum plays a significant role in how their paths may unfold. A child with lesser support needs may receive targeted ABA therapy interventions to enhance their social skills and communication. As these skills develop, they might transition into an inclusive classroom and use some type of special education support such as an IEP. The level of support may gradually decrease as the child progresses, making them increasingly independent.

A child with more significant support needs may receive more intensive ABA therapy before transitioning into a specialized educational setting, such as a special education classroom. There, a combination of ABA principles and educational approaches can continue to support their unique needs while keeping them in an academic environment with other peers. They may also receive other services from occupational or speech therapists.

Consideration: Would Your Child Enter Pre-school or an Elementary Grade?

The decisions regarding services may differ depending on the child’s age, developmental level, and type of school they will be entering. For a young child entering preschool, considerations would be focused on early intervention and building foundational skills to prepare them for a group setting. For children entering elementary school, similar things would be considered, on top of the child’s readiness to attend school, the available support services that the school district offers, and the child’s ability to thrive in a classroom setting.

Can ABA Therapists Come to School?

ABA therapy vs school

Choosing between school and ABA is not always necessary. Some schools offer ABA programs and allow for ABA therapy during school hours. This is entirely dependent on the individual school, so caregivers must research what type of services are offered when choosing school placement. If the option is available, choosing to have an ABA therapist working in the school system may be incredibly beneficial for those who require heavier support when navigating a school environment. If services are not available in the school setting, parents may need to consider services outside of school hours.

Questions to Ask

When making decisions regarding ABA therapy and school, caregivers should consider some of these questions when weighing their options:

  • What programs do the prospective schools offer for special education?
  • What types of services does insurance cover?
  • What level of support does the child need?
  • What is the typical day-to-day schedule like for family members?
  • Does the child engage in behaviors that could be dangerous for themselves or others?

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it can help begin to guide a parent in deciding for their child’s future.

Summary: ABA Therapy vs School

Ultimately, families just want to do what is right for their children. There are an infinite number of options to consider when choosing pathways for children with autism, and it is easy to become overwhelmed with service options. Thankfully, there is also a vast amount of information available to caregivers. Equipped with this knowledge, caregivers can better navigate decisions to achieve the best possible outcomes for their families.

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