- Autism & Developmental Services
By: Tara Karen, M.S. Ed, BCBA, LBA
ABA therapy is a career field that is growing exponentially each year in the United States. As Autism diagnoses continue to increase each year, ABA therapy has become the gold standard of helping people with ASD learn skills to increase communication and social skills to become more independent. ABA, or applied behavior analysis is based in radical behaviorism, part of behavioral psychology. In ABA, practitioners use the premises of behavior analysis and apply them to teaching others. ABA is used in fields such as higher education, organizational behavior management, animal training, safety in the workplace, environmentalism and sustainability, medicine, and as it is most known for, autism therapy.
ABA focuses on the behaviors, or actions of organisms, and how they can be changed by the environment. Behavior Analysts observe behaviors in the context of a three-term contingency: that the antecedents (actions before a behavior occurs) and consequences (actions after a behavior occurs) can be manipulated to have an effect on the probability of a behavior occurring again in the future. For instance, the ABC (antecedent, behavior, consequence) could be
Also, the antecedent of me spilling something on my sweater (it happens way more than I’d like to admit) also impacts my behavior- if I spill things less frequently, my behavior of changing clothes will decrease. ABA therapy focuses on these ABCs to help change behaviors so that we naturally increase behaviors that lead us to access positive consequences, or reinforcement.
Reinforcement is a consequence of a behavior that leads us to do that behavior more often. It is, essentially, what motivates us to do things and are either naturally occurring (think food, water, sleep) or are taught (iPads, praise, money). We all strive to access reinforcement often, so as behavior analysts, we work on plans to help everyone change their behaviors to access reinforcement more frequently. For example, if a child is unable to effectively communicate that they would like juice, they may drop to the floor and cry, and a parent may not know what the child wants, leading to the child getting more and more upset. In order to more easily have the child gain access to the reinforcer of juice, the behavior analyst may teach the child to say “J” for juice, point to the juice, or point to a picture of juice (antecedent change), so that they are able to clearly communicate (change of behavior), and gain access to the juice.
Once a function of a behavior is determined, the behavior analyst examines what can be changed before or after the behavior occurs (antecedent or consequence) to promote the individual obtaining reinforcement and increasing the behavior in the future. These actions by the behavior analyst are called interventions, and in ABA therapy, they are carried out with data being collected on them to determine whether the intervention is the cause of the behavior change.
ABA therapy typically occurs with a behavior therapist enacting the interventions in the behavior intervention plan or treatment plan that the BCBA creates. The BCBA creates these plans after working with the individual and caregivers to determine the behaviors to increase in order to help an individual be able to communicate effectively and become as independent and self-sufficient as possible. Each and every treatment plan is individualized for each unique person, and a behavior therapist must first become knowledgeable on the ethics and principles of behavior analysis, as well as familiar with the individual and their preferences as well. The behavior analyst, behavior therapist, individual, and their family are all active participants of a team, and work together to create and implement the treatment plan so that reinforcement is accessed constantly.
The team identifies specific, observable, and measurable targets to help accomplish goals, and collects and analyzes data to determine progress and courses of action. When a great team is in place, frequent access to reinforcement available, and functional and attainable goals are worked on, amazing progress can be seen! Most ABA therapy takes place in the natural environment and is done through play and fun activities, allowing for the child to be motivated and engaged, which is the best way to actively learn.
As an ABA therapist, one can expect to work in various locations, such as homes, clinics, schools, and the community. ABA therapy should be fun, and as a therapist, one should expect to be high-energy, active, and passionate about helping others. A good ABA session should get a therapist their 10,000 steps for the day! While most sessions may look just like play, it also involves a lot of planning on the therapist’s part. A therapist would need to know the targets in the treatment plan and how to intersperse them throughout a session so that the child is able to work on the skill while involved in a fun activity.
The therapist also needs to learn the prompting hierarchy, or how to prompt a child so that they can assist the child in learning the correct response, while building confidence, but also while fading their presence out so that the child can become independent. All of this must be done while the therapist collects accurate data, gives the child feedback and reinforcement, and teaches caregivers, peers, and others how to do the same, which is no small feat.
ABA therapy is a wonderful way to help individuals reach their potential by setting goals, and changing behaviors by adjusting the antecedents and consequences so that a behavior change is made, and the individual frequently accesses reinforcement from the change. Anyone looking to pursue a career in ABA therapy should refer to the BACB website, as they are the governing body for BCBAs and RBTs, and can provide information on the requirements to become a BCBA or RBT, as well as resources on ABA therapy.
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