ABA Therapy encompasses changes in the environment to provide teaching opportunities for children with disabilities. Teaching opportunities are moments when new skills can be taught – anything from how to repeat the syllables of a new word to correctly placing a jigsaw puzzle piece to planning a bus route to a new location. When teaching opportunities arise, the environment must be clear of distractions and processes should be clearly defined with specific verbal and/or nonverbal instruction and/or expectations.
ABA adjusts and calibrates for each of these things while ensuring the experience is as intrinsically motivating as possible as well as providing motivational responses and items. Through repeating these conditions to increase teaching opportunities at many sessions over time, the individual with the disability is able to accrue new skills and synthesize those skills for use within larger complex action sets (such as completing a group project at school or going on a day trip to the museum). ABA therapy also aims to systematically fade these structured supports and generalize/maintain new skills across a variety of environments and people so that the individual with disabilities build independence.
ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis, and in the world of autism services, it is a therapeutic method founded on the belief that strategically changing the environment around the person with autism is the best way to promote meaningful reduction of symptoms, as well as lay the groundwork for pivotal gains in skills. ABA is also research based, with over forty years of scientific studies supporting its efficacy in improving quality of life for people with autism.
ABA began in the 1970s as a novel methodology of teaching skills to children who were very limited in terms of community access and participation, even in their own homes. In its earliest iteration of what we now recognize today to be a very robust and diverse therapy and education infrastructure, ABA was a targeted approach that utilized a well-defined space, clear instructions, reward-based feedback, and lots of repetition to teach simple daily living and communication skills. Today, the world of ABA is an ever-expanding universe. For example, today we know that ABA doesn’t necessarily have to be done while seated at a table in order to be effective. In fact, with the right team in place, ABA is virtually unlimited in its applications. It can even be merged with other therapies without contraindications. Diagnosticians will almost always include ABA therapy in their list of recommendations at the end of an evaluation report in which a diagnosis of autism is given, and pediatricians will often prescribe ABA therapy as medically necessary on an ongoing basis.
The majority of the research in the early 2000’s centered around ABA as an early childhood intervention strategy, utilized to systematically decrease or eliminate challenging behaviors by implementing strategies whereby the challenging behaviors were ignored or redirected consistently and new, “replacement” behaviors were taught and reinforced consistently. Reinforcement simply means identifying what objects and activities are so highly preferred by the individual that they will motivate them to complete a task or demonstrate a new skill in order to access the “reinforcer” (the preferred item or activity). The ultimate goal is that therapeutic or educational activities and the resulting new, positive behaviors eventually become intrinsically motivating, so that intensive ABA is no longer needed when the child ages out of early childhood. At this point many children will matriculate into their neighborhood school, with decreased “focused” ABA services continuing to augment and enhance primary learning environments.
The 2010s have brought landmark innovations to the field of ABA. Now, ABA can be used concurrently with ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) to provide a wraparound approach to the mental health as well as behavioral health of people on the spectrum. ABA is also used in much more contextualized programs now, supporting teens and young adults in acclimating to the workplace in modern fields like tech as well as in succeeding in vocational training programs. ABA is also now integrated within parent consulting and teacher consulting models, so that networks of support can infuse behavioral strategies across disciplines and environments. While retaining its evidence based foundation, ABA has evolved along with the children and families it serves – both in research and in practice. Because of this, we believe ABA remains and will continue to remain the most viable and flexible option for holistic change-making in the lives of our clients.