abaWorking With Autism’s evidence based curriculum utilizes the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as the treatment protocol for children and adolescents diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ABA is a science devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behavior. The primary focus of ABA is to objectively define behaviors, particularly those that have social significance. ABA is proven to effectively reduce challenging behaviors as well as promote the acquisition of developmentally necessary skills, which enables individuals with ASD to independently access, and learn from their environments.

ABA Basic Mechanisms

The core components of ABA include an Antecedent, a Behavior and a Consequence (this is a 3 Term Contingency). Based on the behavioral perspective, all behaviors are controlled by and are in response to events that occur in a person’s environment.

  • Antecedent
    An Antecedent (what occurs before a behavior) is a stimulus or event in the environment that “triggers” a specific behavior.
  • Behavior
    Behavior (interaction of a person with the environment that can be observed and measured), in turn receives a specific Consequence (something pleasant or unpleasant).
  • Consequence
    The Consequence increases or decreases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. If the behavior continues to occur in the future, it is said that the behavior has received reinforcement. Conversely, if a behavior does not consistently occur in the future, it is not receiving reinforcement.

For example, a child may tantrum several times per day. However, the child only tantrums when he/she is asked to put on his/her shoes (Antecedent). After being requested to put on his/her shoes, the child begins to tantrum (Behavior). The adult then immediately helps the child put on his/her shoes (Consequence). In this example, tantrum behavior was reinforced (continues to occur when an adult requests him/her to put on his/her shoes) because it resulted in the child not having to put on his/her shoes independently (escaping the demand by having the parent put on the shoes). Once these patterns (3 Term Contingencies) are determined using specific assessment procedures, behavioral intervention strategies tailored to the child’s individual needs can be developed and implemented to reinforce appropriate behavior (having the child put on his/her shoes independently).

Following the 3 Term Contingency, the first major steps are to identify the antecedent of a behavior, define the challenging behavior, and then determine the function of the behavior. Once the function of the behavior has been identified, a treatment plan can then be developed and implemented that will teach an appropriate replacement behavior which serves the same function of the challenging behavior. Heavy reinforcement procedures will be delivered to increase the future frequency of the replacement behavior, while reinforcement for the challenging behavior will be with-held, thus decreasing the future frequency of the challenging behavior. For example, if a child yells (challenging behavior) to gain attention from others, then a behavior intervention plan that specifically teaches socially appropriate ways to obtain attention (replacement behavior) will need to be implemented. If the function of the challenging behavior is not identified, then an appropriate intervention plan cannot be developed.

As a science, ABA incorporates data based decision making and evidenced based practices to ensure treatment is effective. Measurement systems and ongoing data collection are crucial and essential in order for practitioners to optimize and constantly monitor the effectiveness of the behavioral intervention program. These systems also allow practitioners to be accountable for the services provided. In addition to the trained professionals, many people can implement behavioral strategies once properly taught to do so; including parents, classroom teachers, coaches, and even children. WWA supervisors work in collaboration with parents and other professionals to ensure that an effective and individualized strategy will be developed, and easily applied.

The History and Evolution of ABA

Dr. Ivar Lovaas
Dr. Ivar Lovaas is considered a pioneer in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis, as he was one of the first researchers to utilize and document ABA as a successful long-term treatment for children with autism. In 1987, Lovaas published a now well-known, breakthrough study called “Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children”. Lovaas reported the results of behavior modification treatment for two groups of young autistic children. Follow-up data from an intensive, long-term experimental treatment group indicated a 47% achievement of normal intellectual and educational functioning. Another 40% were mildly impacted and assigned to special classes for the language delayed, while only 10% were profoundly impacted and assigned to classes specifically for autistic children. In contrast to the experimental group, only 2% of the control group achieved normal educational and intellectual functioning. Prior to this study it was believed that children with autism would always have significant developmental and social delays that prevent them from attaining any sense of normalcy.

Numerous studies continue to support the efficacy of ABA as a successful form of treatment for individuals with ASD. Through Lovaas’ work, treating children with autism evolved to the hopeful, multifaceted present therapies of today where those with the autism diagnosis may now be functioning members of society.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
One component of ABA is Discrete Trial Training (DTT), which uses a highly structured, one-to-one approach to teach new skills. The instructor presents a stimulus or direction and will either reward an appropriate response or correct a wrong one. These trials are repeated and will continue during separate sessions until the child consistently responds correctly in generalized contexts (typically with 80-90% accuracy). This process ensures that the child truly learns the new skill and is able to adapt it to multiple situations. DTT is most often used with intensive early intervention for young children with ASD, and can also be used to instill more advanced skills, including expressive language, and manage disruptive behavior (Smith, 2001).

Naturalistic Teaching, Incidental Teaching and Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)
There has been a movement to integrate the principles of ABA with more naturalistic techniques, such as Naturalistic Teaching, Incidental Teaching and Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT). These approaches utilize learning tendencies frequently exhibited by the individual with ASD, and practice the application in natural environments.

  • Naturalistic Teaching
    Naturalistic Teaching uses a child’s natural environment as the instructional setting for teaching skills. It emphasizes the child’s own motivation by presenting highly preferred activities or items in the environment, and teaching skills via engaging in these activities. It allows for more child directed activities, which the practitioner can use to target specific goals. It allows the child to initiate the learning process by letting the child choose the item or topic of interest. The instructor uses this motivation to teach desired skills and appropriate behaviors.
  • Incidental Teaching
    Incidental Teaching follows Naturalistic Teaching, but also incorporates setting up “contrived opportunities” to target specific goals. Learning can best occur if the child has many opportunities to practice the skill or goal. By creating opportunities, practitioners increase opportunities to practice the new skill in a functional and meaningful way. Consistent with ABA practices; correct responses are reinforced by the instructor to increase the desired behaviors.
  • Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT)
    Robert Koegel developed PRT in the 1970’s. By utilizing natural learning opportunities and ABA principles, PRT aims to teach the child to be responsive and to engage in appropriate behaviors while reducing the need for adult prompting. The term “pivotal” refers to the key behaviors or skills in which other behaviors and skills are built. Motivating factors, natural consequences, self-management, and self-initiations are also important components of PRT, and are utilized by the instructor to provide the child with a sense of control. Naturalistic interventions such as Incidental Teaching and PRT are often combined with other ABA practices in order to maximize learning in settings that the child encounters on a daily basis.

How ABA Can Help Your Child

While the ASD diagnosis can potentially be a devastating one, through intensive treatments that use ABA practices, children are able to overcome obstacles, which were previously thought to be impenetrable. Working With Autism utilizes these ABA-based treatments to effectively help children with ASD. ABA has been scientifically-proven to increase abilities in communication, social relations, play, academics, and life skills for all ages from toddlers to adults. Studies have shown that intensive early ABA intervention has the most significant impact on development and promotion of skills. By utilizing ABA practices and targeting behaviors with positive reinforcement strategies, children with ASD become capable of learning socially acceptable behaviors and other pertinent skills which will increase their opportunities to access and benefit from their surrounding environments.

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