What is ABA therapy?
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy is considered the gold standard treatment for children struggling with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and many other cognitive issues.
Based on learning theory, ABA therapy is the systematic application of the scientific understanding of learning and behavior.
Used by trained professionals, ABA therapy can support improved behavior, learning, communication, and social engagement. Unfortunately, implemented by poorly trained individuals, this highly effective intervention can prove not only unhelpful but problematic.
ABA therapy was formed in the 1980s for use with children on the autism spectrum by Dr. O. Ivaar Lovaas and is based on the work of behaviorists like B.F. Skinner.
The intention of this form of therapy is to identify behaviors that create a problem and provide retraining to help your child develop behaviors that are more beneficial to them. Training takes place with the use of rewards or reinforcers. ABA therapy should not be punitive in nature.
ABA therapy isn’t a rapid therapeutic intervention. It isn’t unusual for ABA therapy to take several hours a week. The ABA therapist, or an ABA team, will work one on one with a child to break down behaviors into small steps. Each of these steps is taught to the child and reinforced with a reward.
Intensive learning of a specific behavior is called a drill. Your child will practice drills many times to support learning. Repetition of the individual skills they are learning will not only help your child learn a skill, it will also strengthen your childs’ long-term memory, making them more likely to remember the learned skill after not using it for some length of time. Each repetition of the skill your child is being trained to use will be reinforced.
Who Conducts ABA Therapy?
ABA Therapy is practiced by an assortment of professionals and paraprofessionals with varying levels of education. Though there is no licensing body within the United States, many states require certification of their ABA practitioners. Generally, you will find a variety of certifications in the individuals that work with your child. Most ABA providers work in a team with individuals with higher levels of certification supervising other team members.
ABA providers who engage in ABA therapy use a team approach to support your child in developing improved behavior, social skills, communication, and learning. Providers often prefer the team approaches because ABA therapy is an intense process and it isn’t always necessary to have a highly trained individual working one on one with your child to train small incremental behavior changes.
However, it is important that the professional designing the interventions that will be used with your child, have a full understanding of ABA therapy and the principles it is based upon. ABA therapy is performed one-on-one and can be done in your home or at a provider’s place of business.
BCBA (Board Certified Behavioral Analyst)
A Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA) is a professional with a minimum of a masters level degree and training in Applied Behavior Analysis. Individuals seeking a BCBA must have their masters degree in an appropriate field. These individuals may hold master’s degrees in areas like counseling, psychology, or social work. They will take any additional training needed before scheduling to take their certification exam.
Professionals with this level of certification have the training necessary to work independently as ABA professionals. They are also required to pass a certification exam and to maintain their skills by acquiring Continuing Education Units (CEU). BCBA therapist will recertify every two years. To do this they must take 32 CEUs (4 CEUS must be in ethics) and apply through the certifying board.
BCaBA (Board Certified Assistant Behavioral Analyst)
A Board Certified Assistant Behavioral Analyst (BCaBA) is a professionally trained ABA therapist with a bachelor’s degree level of education. To acquire certification, these individuals must take training coursework in ABA Therapy and pass an examination. They are also required to maintain their learning through CEU’s to keep their certification active. BCaBA therapists must work under the direction of BCBA level professionals.
A BCaBA therapist is required to complete 20 CEUs every two years to maintain their certification. A minimum of 4 CEUs must be in the area of ethics.
CAS (Certified Autism Specialist)
A Certified Autism Specialist (CAS) is an individual who has obtained a master’s degree level of education and worked in a field with individuals with autism for a minimum of two years. You may find teachers, counselors, doctors, and other professionals with this certification. Just like the other certified specialists we had discussed, individuals with this certification must meet CEU standards to maintain their certification.
AC (Autism Certificate)
An Autism Certificate (AC) requires a minimum of 14 hours of continuing education related to autism. This certification requires that the individual also take and pass an exam. Individuals with this level of certification are required to maintain CEU’s and reapply for certification every two years.
RBT (Registered Behavior Technician)
A Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) certification provides identification that the individual has:
- Obtained a high school diploma
- Completed 40 hours of specialized training
- Passed a background check
- Completed a competency assessment
- Taken and passed the RBT Exam
These paraprofessionals must work under the supervision of another professional, renew their certification annually, and adhere to RBT ethical standards. Individuals with this level of certification may not work as independent ABA therapists.
This certification is appropriate for individuals working in special education. Individuals with this credential can be found working as teachers, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals both within and outside of the education system.
What to look for when choosing an ABA therapy provider
A qualified ABA therapist is a licensed clinical therapist with additional ABA training and the appropriate certification level. A BCBA certification identifies an ABA therapist with a master’s level education and a BCBA-D identifies an ABA therapist with a doctoral degree.
You should look for highly trained ABA therapists who use data and the most up to date techniques. An ABA therapist without a BCBA or BCBA-D certification must work under the supervision of an independent ABA therapist.
Although individuals who make up your child’s ABA therapy team do not all require BCBA level certification, it is essential that the individual leading your child’s team have the certification to be an independent ABA therapist.
Can ABA therapy be harmful?
Just like any other form of therapy, ABA therapy can be harmful if practiced incorrectly. A professional ABA therapist must have the appropriate training to be able to identify the functions of the problematic behaviors your child is displaying, to create an appropriate training plan, and to provide consistent and appropriate learning opportunities for your child.
Although you will find horror stories when searching for information on ABA therapy online, it is important for you to remember that some of these issues occurred before certification of ABA therapist was widely required. It is also important for you as a parent to have a good understanding of your child and the goals you have for your child.
Disrespectful and abusive practices have unfortunately happened under the guise of ABA therapy. So, it is important that parents understand what to look for in an ABA therapist, understand the behaviors that the therapist is seeking to change, and feel comfortable with the way the therapist approaches teaching their child. Just because your child exhibits unusual behavior doesn’t mean that that behavior must be altered.
Being an active participant in your child’s care will help you to find the appropriate ABA therapist for your child. You will want to pay particular attention to how your child’s ABA therapist identifies and deals with “problem” behaviors.
If your child’s therapist identifies behaviors as problematic that you disagree with, you should be concerned and feel free to discuss your concerns with your ABA therapy team. If you feel uncomfortable asking questions, or your questions aren’t well-received, this is concerning.
When they reflect back on their experiences in ABA therapy, some adults with autism believe that some of the behaviors that are distinctive to children on the autism spectrum aren’t either problematic or in need of being discontinued.
Many adults with ASD feel that this particular approach is disrespectful to individuals diagnosed with autism. There are some ABA therapists that have attempted to retrain children on the spectrum to discontinue non-harmful behaviors, referred to as stimming, like flapping and rocking.
Many adults with ASD would suggest a more balanced approach to dealing with these symptoms. This is an important issue for you to consider and discuss with your child’s ABA therapist.
ABA Horror Stories
Many of the stories you will see in the media are shared by adults who struggled with autism spectrum disorders themselves. Some individuals indicate that their ABA therapists focused not only on re-training them out of problem behaviors but sought to do away with behaviors that were not actually problematic.
No doubt, if you have a child on the spectrum or work with children on the spectrum, you have noticed behaviors that though they may look odd are not disruptive in a classroom environment or harmful for your child. Historically, there have been some therapists and educators intent on making children struggling with ASD discontinue these behaviors.
One of the reasons that certified ABA therapists are required to take CEUs in ethics is to help end the practice of retraining children on the autism spectrum to stop behaviors that aren’t harmful or problematic. Clearly, there can be an economic temptation for professionals to support perfection among children on the autism spectrum. However, ethical professionals will not seek to over train your child.
It is important that you are clear about what you want for your child in regards to stimming types of behavior. Some people feel that these behaviors increase a child’s vulnerability to bullying, so there are times when people will disagree about ending these particular behaviors.
As the world moves toward more inclusion of diverse behaviors and away from an idea of classroom conformity, you should see more tolerance for stimming behaviors. Having a conversation regarding these types of behaviors with the professionals supporting your child should help you to develop a plan for how to deal with such behaviors that make you and your family comfortable and confident.
Historically, some individuals have participated in practices that feel abusive to children. For example, some autistic adults endured punishments like “Sticky hands” where their hands were stuck down with tacky glue as a form of punishment. This type of punishment is especially traumatic for autistic children who experience hypersensitivity to physical sensations and should not be tolerated. Again, most of the horror stories you will hear in the media predate the current certification standards.
One early source of criticism placed against those practicing ABA therapy comes from the fact that the early forms of ABA therapy weren’t based completely on the principles of positive reinforcement.
As the Child Mind Institute indicates, the early ABA therapists sometimes used aversive reinforcement, or punishments, to obtain positive outcomes. Although these practices were generally used only in extreme cases, their use is no longer considered acceptable.
The best ABA therapy provider in the Atlanta area
Hidden Talents ABA offers a team of experienced BABA’s who lead caring professionals in providing loving and ethical care for your child. Hidden Talents provides both in-home and community-based therapy to help your child improve their social and communication skills and to ultimately enjoy a richer life with a more rounded sense of community engagement.
If your child is demonstrating problematic behaviors or struggling with communication or social skill development consider reaching out for the support of Hidden Talents ABA professionals. Our therapists take pride in developing individualized plans for your child’s particular needs. We work with children from birth to 12, supporting the development of your child’s hidden talents.