ABA programs can make a big difference in the life of a child with autism. This kind of individualized therapy can greatly decrease negative behaviors and improve skills, allowing the child to excel in life. A high-quality ABA therapist or technician is essential to the process.
High-quality ABA therapists are certified, experienced, and follow the ethical guidelines laid out by the Behavioral Analysis Certification Board.
What Is ABA?
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that uses the science of learning and behavior to help people with developmental or behavioral conditions, like autism. The goal of ABA is to increase positive or helpful behaviors, and decrease harmful or negative behaviors.
ABA therapy programs can bring about many benefits. They can improve communication skills for clients in a range of social situations, boost attention and focus, and decrease problematic behaviors.
This type of therapy has helped children with autism since the 1960s. It can be adapted to each unique person, so the focus is on the individual’s needs for managing daily life.
Positive reinforcement is the main tool of ABA practitioners. The therapist or technician identifies a goal behavior and then rewards the child for each skill that is performed successfully. This reward is meaningful to the individual. It may be a toy or book, time spent watching a favorite show, or simply praise for doing well.
How Is the Treatment Plan Created?
ABA therapy plans are designed by a qualified board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA). This person directly oversees the creation and customization of an ABA program for your child.
The analyst will evaluate your child’s skills, needs, preferences, interests, and family situation. Then, they’ll develop a therapy approach that focuses on treatment goals. This plan will be centered on your child’s age and ability level.
While a BCBA will usually create the treatment plan, it is most often implemented by a registered behavior technician (RBT). This professional is the person whom your child will meet with regularly for ABA sessions. An RBT will always practice under the guidance of a BCBA.
Assessing ABA Practices Based on Overall Structure
Typically, ABA goals fall under distinct categories like:
- Communication and language abilities.
- Social skills.
- Self-care and hygiene routines.
- Play and leisure.
- Motor abilities.
- Learning and academic skills.
The goals are broken down into smaller steps with concrete, assessable outcomes. The technician will break each step down. For example, to verbally form a word, the technician will start by breaking down each sound.
Measurements of progress are recorded by collecting data in each therapy session, so progress in the treatment plan can be understood. If the child does not show progress or shows sporadic progress, the ABA therapist can reevaluate how to approach the goals.
ABA practitioners also help parents and teachers understand children with autism, so they can create a better environment, interact more effectively, and support growth throughout the treatment plan. Even in this setting, ABA therapy requires consistent monitoring and continuous evaluation. A technician that does not keep meticulous, evidence-based notes and report measurable progress may not be an effective ABA professional.
Training & Certifications for ABA Providers
The first, and most important, way to assess an ABA therapist or technician is to look at their credentials. These credentials will vary according to the level of specialty.
- BCBA: These ABA specialists have a license, clinical experience, and training. The Behavioral Analyst Certification Board (BACB) approves ABA therapists and issues licenses to practice. This certification appears as board-certified behavioral analyst (BCBA) after the therapist’s name. A BCBA requires completion of a master’s degree in a related field like psychology, speech therapy, or special education. Then, the individual must complete ABA-specific training courses and pass a board exam. Finally, they must complete a minimum of 1,500 hours of field work while reporting to a board-certified supervisor.
- RBT: These professionals have a registered behavior technician (RBT) credential. This certificate was created by the BACB as well. RBTs are behavioral paraprofessionals. They can work with learners directly, while their methods, measurements, and conclusions are supervised by a BCBA. Most often, ABA therapy is carried out by an RBT, though the plan is designed and supervised by a BCBA.
Besides certifications and credentials, there are other qualifications that matter when choosing an ABA therapist. Ask potential therapists about:
- Specific approaches to therapy sessions. Different therapists may use different methods of therapy, ranging from play-based to highly structured. An ABA technician who is equipped to employ several different approaches is desirable. They can then adjust their approach depending on the child’s needs.
- How they find underlying causes. ABA providers are continually looking for the “why” behind challenging behaviors. Oftentimes, a child with autism will act out negatively because they lack a certain skill. For example, a child may scream or hit because they are unable to express their need due to a language deficit. The ABA professional can then help them to build that skill and thereby reduce the negative behavior. This ability is incredibly important for an ABA therapist or technician. Ask providers about how they pinpoint underlying causes of “bad” behavior.
- Background checks. You need to know that your child is in safe hands. Ask about background checks for the therapist, technician, and any other staff members your child might interact with. These background checks are standard practice. Verifying this information can help you and your child to feel safe.
- Past experience. Some ABA providers have simply been practicing for longer, and experience (or lack thereof) can greatly shape their approach to the therapy. Ask them to share a bit about their experience using ABA therapy and what kind of results they have seen.
There are some potential red flags that parents, teachers, and caregivers can look for in ABA programs or any treatment program. Steer clear of programs that:
- Lack evidence. The program should have scientific or medical studies supporting its use.
- Don’t document progress. There should be an ongoing collection of data on the child’s behavioral changes and skill levels.
- Have insufficient supervision. New or inexperienced clinical practitioners should be closely supervised by more experienced therapists.
- Offer general care. Therapy should be tailored to each child. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for ABA therapy.
- Don’t use positive reinforcement. This kind of reinforcement is the foundation of modern ABA.
- Use punishment. Studies have shown that punishment is both ineffective and detrimental in ABA therapy.
- Focus only on getting rid of problem behaviors. While ABA therapy reduces negative behaviors, there should be a primary focus on learning new skills and improving understanding of behaviors.
- Guarantee success. Each child is different, and there is no guarantee that any form of therapy will work for every child. If an organization or individual therapist makes grand promises of success, be wary.
Part of a Team
An ABA therapist will be a valuable member of your child’s treatment team. But you are still the most important team member. A good ABA therapist knows that parental involvement is essential to success.
Make a list of skills you want your child to learn. The ABA therapist should listen while creating the treatment plan and take your input into account. They may have noticed many of the same behavioral struggles that you have, so you can discuss approaches to these further. A qualified ABA therapist will value your feedback.
While ABA treatment plans are long term, they don’t go on indefinitely. There should be an end goal of moving the learner out of therapy and into more direct use of the skills, such as in school. Your child may return for sessions consistently for years, but sessions should decrease in frequency and intensity as your child is able to manage certain areas of life with their new skillsets.
Looking for a Personal Fit With an ABA Therapist
As with any therapist, a lot comes down to how well you and your child click with a potential behavior technician.
You should be able to observe at least a few sessions with your child and their ABA technician. If you notice anything that makes you uncomfortable, or if any of the responses to your child do not seem helpful, ask about it.
After you have covered the basics in confirming credentials, experience, and approaches, you’ll best determine the quality of a provider by observing how they work with your child. Ask questions, be honest, and set the foundation for open communication.
You’re forming the basis of an important, long-term relationship. It’s worth it to find the right fit.
- What Is Applied Behavioral Analysis? Autism Speaks.
- Applied Behavior Analysis. Psychology Today.
- How to Know if You’re Getting Good ABA. Child Mind Institute.
- Tips for Choosing a Provider for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). (2014). Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community.
- The Top 10 Reasons Children With Autism Deserve ABA. (2011). Association for Behavioral Analysis International.