Myths and Realities of ABA

ABA Therapy in Houston

A recent article highlighted many of the misunderstandings of what current ABA practices include. As mentioned in the article, and observed through personal experience, some parents and therapists alike reject the use of ABA, but tend to have some confusion about what ABA truly entails, how it is delivered, and for whom it can be helpful. As ABA is a very effective and evidence-based intervention for children with autism, as well as other developmental concerns, this very informative and insightful article prompted an interest in summarizing some of the myths and realities of ABA:

ABA Is Only for Children with Autism

Although ABA is an evidence-based intervention for children with autism, the true definition of ABA describes a much broader science of learning and human behavior. Many of the learning principles that guide the practice of ABA are applicable to broader group of children with other disabilities, typically developing children, and even adults! We all have things that motivate and shape our behavior, sometimes it just takes some extra work and creativity to use those motivations to help children with autism learn from and connect with their world!

ABA Equals Discrete Trial Training

Many parents fear that ABA means your child will be sitting at a table for 40 hours per week completing learning drills that will turn him or her into a robot. Although this sort of technique has been used in the past (and may still exist at some practices), recent research suggests that a much more flexible, and play-based approach to learning is better for child development and generalization of skills to other settings. While some skills are still taught at the table, particularly those that are designed to prepare children for school-readiness, parents are encouraged to pursue ABA therapy that is described as play-based.

ABA Rejects Sensory Needs

It is often obvious to parents and therapists that some children with autism have unique sensory aversions or interests. These strong sensory preferences can sometimes cause challenging behavior–whether that is to escape an environment that is unpleasant, or to gain access to preferred sensory input. The trick is to be mindful of how and when access to these preferences takes place. For example, children may quickly learn that throwing a tantrum gains them access to pleasant things, such as the sensory room. However, ABA therapists would encourage (1) teaching the child to appropriately request access to sensory input, or (2) providing sensory input in a proactive way (e.g., before tantrums or other challenging behavior occurs), and/or (3) using sensory input as a reward for other behaviors. Put simply, we don’t want to teach that tantrums gain rewards, whether it’s candy from the grocery store, or deep pressure from the squeeze machine.

ABA Doesn’t Allow Play

As the field of ABA has developed over time, so has our understanding of how best to teach children with autism. Not surprisingly, the best way to teach children with autism is most similar to how we teach all children-through play! Contributions from the fields of behavioral science and developmental science have come together to hone in on the optimal strategies for teaching children with autism. Access to toys, movement, and preferred motivating rewards are now hallmarks of play-based ABA.

Parents should be encouraged to ask their therapists questions about the ABA strategies being used, and be thoughtful consumers about which ABA practice best fits their child’s needs. As always, open communication between parents and therapists is key! Further information about ABA can be found here.

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