Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is a widely used therapeutic approach for children with autism and other neurodevelopmental differences. ABA therapy uses the science of learning and behavior to improve socially significant behaviors. When children are diagnosed with autism, parents and caregivers are faced with many decisions regarding their child’s care plan.
While ABA is not necessarily the right fit for every family, many medical professionals recommend it for newly diagnosed children, as it is widely considered the gold standard of care. To help you make an informed decision about whether ABA is right for your family, this article will discuss the vast benefits of ABA therapy.
Core Benefits of ABA Therapy
ABA therapy utilizes principles of learning, backed by decades of research, and is, therefore, an evidence-based treatment. The methods of teaching have been proven to be effective through numerous studies.
One of the biggest benefits of ABA therapy is that it is highly individualized. Not every child’s therapy program will look the same. Everyone’s needs are unique and therefore, therapy goals, methods, and treatment plans are curated to exactly what your individual child needs.
One key component of ABA therapy is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is used to increase behaviors. To positively reinforce a behavior, a desired item, activity, or other stimulus, is provided immediately following the behavior. The result is an increased frequency of the behavior. For example, your child washes their hands after using the bathroom. While giving your child a high five, you say “Great job washing your hands!” Your child is then more likely to wash their hands the next time they use the bathroom. In this example, the behavior of hand washing has been positively reinforced.
Research shows that reinforcement is more effective at modifying behaviors than punishment and has fewer potential side effects or unwanted effects.
Focus on observable and measurable behaviors
In ABA therapy, behavior technicians and behavior analysts focus on observable and measurable behaviors. While behavior analysts recognize the impact that internal events such as emotions and thoughts have on an individual, they primarily target behaviors that can be directly observed and therefore measured through data collection. By doing so, there is a clear and objective way to evaluate each child’s progress and ensure that their treatment plan is tailored to their unique needs.
ABA therapists collect and analyze data on skill development and interfering behaviors. All decisions about the progression of therapy are made based on an analysis of the data. For example, if the data shows that a child is not developing a targeted skill, the BCBA would make modifications to that goal. Each child’s data is closely monitored on an ongoing basis to quickly identify when a procedure is not proving effective.
Another key component of ABA therapy is systematic instruction. In ABA, therapists teach new skills by breaking them down into small, manageable steps that allow the child to learn complex skills one step at a time. Before progressing to more complex tasks, a foundation of simpler tasks is established.
Benefits for Communication and language skills
Deficits in communication and language skills are one of the most prominent aspects of autism. ABA therapy can greatly benefit children in this area by supporting their ongoing communication development.
One of the primary benefits of ABA is improved communication. An estimated 25-30% of children with autism are non-speaking. Many of those who do have vocal verbal communication abilities experience delays and challenges in their ability to communicate effectively. ABA therapy offers many options for teaching children to better communicate. For some children, they may work on developing stronger vocal-verbal communication skills. For others, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) may be used to facilitate communication. For example, ABA therapists may teach a child to communicate via sign language, picture exchanges, or using a communication device.
Every child deserves a voice, even if they are unable to effectively use theirs. ABA therapy makes that happen by meeting each child where they are and developing effective strategies to communicate with others.
Communication benefits vary widely, depending on the child’s current abilities and areas of need. Some areas of communication development that ABA can support include
● Simple requests for desired items
● Following receptive instructions
● Labeling or describing items in one’s environment
● Back-and-forth conversation
Enhanced conversational skills
An ability to conversate with others is vital for many aspects of one’s life. As a child masters basic communication skills, ABA therapists work on addressing conversational skills such as expressing their feelings, asking questions, and responding to questions or statements made by others.
Increased ability to express needs and desires
It’s so important for every child to be able to express their needs and desires to others. From basic needs like asking for a snack to more advanced needs such as advocating for a break or modification in a task. ABA therapy can help teach children how to express these desires using methods of functional communication.
Benefits for Social skills
As social skill delays are common in children with autism, this is another primary area of focus within ABA therapy.
Improvement in peer interactions
Children interact with peers in many areas of their lives–at school, in community settings, and eventually, they may need to interact effectively with peers in a vocational setting. Teaching effective peer interaction skills is beneficial for long-term success, though this can look different for every child, depending on their abilities and areas of need.
Targeted peer skills in ABA therapy may include:
● Parallel play
● Cooperative play
● Developing friendships
● Conflict resolution
Enhanced understanding of emotions
Human emotions are complex. ABA therapy can help a child identify emotions in themselves and others, express emotions in a healthy way and manage their emotions in difficult situations.
Understanding of social cues
Children with autism tend to be concrete thinkers, making understanding nuanced social cues a challenge. ABA therapy can support children in this way by teaching them the more subtle ways people socially interact. Teaching a child to understand the meaning behind the ways people use body language, facial expressions, nonverbal cues, and figurative language can help them better relate to and understand others.
Benefits for Daily living skills
ABA therapy can also support children in developing healthy habits and increasing independence in daily living activities.
Improved self-care and hygiene routines
ABA therapy can help children develop self-care and hygiene routines including hand washing, dressing, brushing their teeth, and more. Since these skills are often more complex, ABA therapists break a larger skill down into manageable steps and chain the procedure, teaching one step at a time.
Development of independent living skills
As a child grows up, more independence is typically expected, as they prepare for the future. What the future holds can vary significantly from child to child. Some children with autism grow up to lead fully independent lives. Others may live in a group home or with family. Regardless of their living situation, independent skills can help them live a more fulfilling life. ABA therapy can support this by teaching children independent living skills such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and any other daily living tasks.
Increased participation in family and community activities
Community participation can greatly improve one’s quality of life. However, many children with autism struggle to fully participate in the community. This can also have an effect on their family who may not be able to fully participate in community events. ABA therapists can support this in many ways. They may start by establishing foundational skills in safe settings such as in their home. Following this, therapists may attend community events with their learners to help them work through challenges in the community, gradually increasing their participation as they develop the skills needed for full inclusion.
Some children with autism experience behavioral challenges such as engaging in aggression, self-injury, or destructive behavior. All behavior is communication and therefore, these behaviors often occur due to challenges in effectively communicating their needs. There are many ways ABA therapy can support a child in reducing interfering behaviors and increasing adaptive behaviors.
Reduction of harmful behaviors
Reducing harmful behaviors typically goes hand-in-hand with developing other skills. ABA therapists work on reducing harmful behaviors, while simultaneously teaching the child more effective strategies for meeting their individual needs. For example, if a child engages in aggression toward other children because they are overwhelmed in a classroom environment, ABA therapists would teach the child functional communication to express when they are overwhelmed before it gets to the point of aggression. When the child is able to communicate they are overwhelmed, then the therapist would further support them with accommodations, whether that be taking a break in another room, using noise-reducing headphones, or another individualized strategy for working through the situation.
Development of coping strategies and self-regulation
Coping strategies are another key area of focus for ABA therapists when addressing a learner’s interfering behaviors. ABA therapists can help a child better understand settings or events that trigger unpleasant emotions and develop personalized strategies that allow them to cope with difficult situations. Coping skills are not one size fits all. While taking deep breaths, for example, may be beneficial for one child when they are upset, it may not work for another child. This is where the individualized nature of ABA is so beneficial. Therapists help their learners identify strategies that work effectively for them.
Benefits for Academic success
Some ABA therapists, especially those in school settings, also work on academic skills. ABA therapy can be very beneficial for pre-academics and academic skills due to the way skills are systematically taught, with each skill building on to the last.
Improved problem-solving skills
ABA therapy can be beneficial for improving problem-solving skills, as therapists teach children to break down complex problems and identify effective solutions. ABA therapists also teach children to understand that behaviors have consequences and help them make adaptive choices based on the outcomes of their behavior.
Enhanced learning readiness
Many ABA programs place an emphasis on teaching learner readiness skills at the start of therapy. These skills set the foundation for lifelong learning. Some of the learner readiness skills ABA therapy may address include:
● Task completion
● Attending to stimuli and instruction
● Following instructions
● Transitioning between activities
● Imitation skills
Increased motivation for learning
ABA therapists use reinforcement, both natural and contrived, to increase adaptive behaviors. Some people express concerns regarding whether reinforcing behaviors may lead to reduced intrinsic motivation. However, research has found that using rewards to improve behavior and increase skills only reduces intrinsic motivation if the child was already intrinsically motivated to complete the task (LeBlanc, 2004).
For example, if a child loves reading and you begin rewarding them for reading, their intrinsic motivation to read may decrease. However, if they are not motivated naturally to read and you reinforce tolerance to attending to books, this may actually increase their motivation for reading. As such, ABA therapy can be beneficial for establishing a lifetime love of learning.
Benefits for Parents and Caregivers
Beyond the direct benefits for children receiving therapy, ABA provides many benefits for parents, caregivers, and other family members as well.
Enhanced understanding of autism and behavior management
One key component of ABA therapy is caregiver coaching. In addition to your child working directly with a therapist on developing skills and reducing behaviors, the BCBA will work with you to ensure the carryover of skills from therapy to home life.
In these coaching sessions, your BCBA will help you to better understand why your child engages in certain challenging behaviors and how to address these behaviors. They will also work with you and your child together to ensure your child is generalizing the skills they learned in therapy, with you.
Improved parent-child relationships
Parenting a child with special needs can be emotionally and physically draining. By engaging in parent coaching, parents can better understand their child and learn more effective ways to interact with them.
Learning More about ABA Therapy
In conclusion, ABA therapy is a highly effective and beneficial therapy to support a broad range of needs for children with autism. By focusing on individual needs and research-supported methods, children with autism can make substantial gains across numerous areas of their lives. We encourage parents to continue exploring ABA therapy to determine whether it’s the right fit for their child and family. Learn more about how to choose the best ABA therapy provider near you.
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