Applied Behavioral Analysis for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"I've heard that ABA therapy is very effective for children with high functioning autism. Is this true, and how does it work?"

It is often difficult to understand why the child with Asperger's or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) behaves the way he does. However, there is a reason for his behavior, and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) helps us understand the behavior and determine a method of support for the child so that he no longer needs the behavior to meet his needs.

Using ABA, you can determine the antecedents to behavior, identify the behavior, and identify the consequence for the behavior, or what is currently maintaining the behavior. Using this process, you can determine alternative behaviors that are more appropriate, yet will meet your child's needs, without displaying the inappropriate behavior. This aids moms and dads in understanding their child better and helps outline a method to change their behavior.

ABA is widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorders. It has been endorsed by a number of state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health. Over the last decade, the nation has seen a particularly dramatic increase in the use of ABA to help children and teens with HFA to live happy and productive lives. In particular, ABA principles and techniques can foster basic skills (e.g., looking, listening and imitating) as well as complex skills (e.g., reading, conversing and understanding another person’s perspective).

ABA treatment can include any of several established teaching tools:
  • verbal behavior
  • pivotal response training
  • incidental teaching
  • fluency building
  • discrete trial training

1. An ABA-related approach for teaching language and communication is called "verbal behavior" or VB for short. In VB, the therapist analyzes the youngster’s language skills, then teaches and reinforces more useful and complex language skills.

2. Pivotal response training uses ABA techniques to target crucial skills that are important (or pivotal) for many other skills. Thus, if the youngster improves on one of these pivotal skills, improvements are seen in a wide variety of behaviors that were not specifically trained. The idea is that this approach can help the youngster generalize behaviors from a therapy setting to everyday settings.

3. Incidental teaching uses the same ideas as discrete trial training, except the goal is to teach behaviors and concepts throughout a youngster’s day-to-day experience, rather than focusing on a specific behavior.

4. In fluency building, the therapist helps the youngster build up a complex behavior by teaching each element of that behavior until it is automatic or "fluent," using the ABA approach of behavioral observation, reinforcement, and prompting. Then, the more complex behavior can be built from each of these fluent elements.

5. In discrete trial training, an ABA therapist gives a clear instruction about a desired behavior (e.g., “Pick up the paper.”); if the youngster responds correctly, the behavior is reinforced (e.g., “Great job! Have a sticker.”). If the youngster doesn’t respond correctly, the therapist gives a gentle prompt (e.g., places youngster’s hand over the paper). The hope is that the youngster will eventually learn to generalize the correct response.

Through ABA, moms and dads can learn to see the natural triggers and reinforcers in their youngster’s environment. For example, by keeping a chart of the times and events both before and after Michael’s temper tantrums, his mom might discover that Michael always throws a temper tantrum right after the lights go on at night without warning. Looking deeper at the behavior, Michael’s mom might also notice that her most natural response is to hug Michael in order to get him to calm down. In effect, even though she is doing something completely natural, the hugging is reinforcing Michael’s temper tantrum.

According to the ABA method, both the trigger (lights going on at night without a warning) and the reinforcer (hugging) must be stopped. Then a more appropriate set of behaviors (e.g., leaving the room or dimming the lights) can be taught to Michael, each one being reinforced or prompted as needed. Eventually, this kind of approach will lead to a time when the lights can go on without warning and Michael still does not throw a temper tantrum.


More resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:

==> Preventing Meltdowns and Tantrums in Asperger's Children

==> Discipline for Defiant Asperger's Teens

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's: How to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Everything You'll Ever Need to Know About Parenting Asperger's Children

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

==> AudioBook: Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism



Parents’ Comments:

•    Anonymous said... my 12 year old son started 3 weeks ago. It is hard right now, but I know it will get better when we get past all of his manipulation. he likes to control situations if they become difficult he will refuse and shut down . we are trying to stand our ground and undue some bad behaviors that have formed over years of us giving in...
•    Anonymous said... my 7 year old son has been in ABA therapy for about 6 months (only 3 hours per week). We are seeing slight improvement in eye contact and listening skills. From a parent's perspective, it seems like they are just playing with your child, but they have assured me that there is a method to their madness.
•    Anonymous said... it's a therapy. It will only work if the child is receptive. Our 7 year old likes the attention and is doing okay. I would like to more results, but anything is better than nothing. I love my boy and I want him to be able to function happily through life so i want more than he is getting but that is what it is.

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