There are a lot of ideas and perceptions about ABA, and many prepackaged plans that ostensibly provide a family with an ABA program. It is critical to remember that there is no single program or plan that "is" ABA.
Applied Behavior Analysis is simply the application of behavioral principles, to everyday situations, that will, over time, increase or decrease targeted behaviors. ABA has been used to help individuals acquire many different skills, such as language skills, self-help skills, and play skills; in addition, these principles can help to decrease maladaptive behaviors such as aggression, self-stimulatory behaviors, and self-injury. There are many providers of ABA services, many of whom are quite good. Frequently, a parent will choose a qualified provider with whom they share similar philosophical approaches in the application of intensive behavioral interventions.
This guide is provided to assist caregivers in their decision-making process.
Applied Behavior Analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior(1).
ABA is a discipline that employs objective data to drive decision-making about an individual's program. That is, data is collected on responses made by the individual to determine if progress is being made or not; if there is no progress under a particular intervention, we need to re-evaluate the program and change it so that the child begins to make progress.
The short answer is: almost anything. If it is a behavior, and it can be observed, ABA principles exist that can be used to either increase or decrease that behavior. As a discipline, ABA providers are charged with the improvement of socially significant behaviors. Socially significant behaviors include communication, social skills, academics, reading and adaptive living skills such as gross and fine motor skills, toileting, dressing, eating, personal self-care, domestic skills, and work skills.
This commonly asked question has no single answer. Research supports, at a minimum, 25 hours per week of intensive behavioral intervention for young children diagnosed with autism for 12 months a year (2). The original Lovaas studies showed that approximately half the children were able to achieve typical development with, on average, 40 hours per week over at least 2 years (3). There is no single study that can inform a parent of the optimal number for their child. But, frankly, ABA, like breathing and eating, should be incorporated into a family's lifestyle. This does not mean doing flashcards all day long, or sitting at a desk for every waking hour. It does mean that the family should learn ABA principles and how to apply them in the context of daily activities.
Parents are indispensable in the child's program. They play a necessary and critical role. Studies show that children whose parents are actively engaged in the process make measurable gains (4). First, no one knows the child better than the parent; the parent's provide critical and insightful information that will help guide the ABA program. Second, parents are able to continue to prompt and reinforce the child through his and her various daily activities - an essential component to generalizing skills. Finally, parents are in a position to be able to record and track ABC data in the home and community setting. This information is vital in hypothesizing the function (the "why") of specific behaviors as well as for determining what conditions encourage behaviors to occur.
Children need, and education law supports, the use of effective interventions for children with autism. Based on the National Autism Center's National Standards Report,(note 3) the following components meet the criteria of research-based, effective interventions for children with autism:
Antecedent manipulation - modification of situational events that precede the target behavior. These alterations are designed to increase the likelihood of success of the targeted behavior. Examples include: prompt/fading procedures, behavioral momentum, contrived motivational operations, inter-trial intervals, incorporation of special interests, etc.
Behavioral treatment -programs designed to decrease problem behaviors and to increase functional alternative behaviors. Examples include: functional communication training, chaining, discrete trial training, mand training, generalization training, reinforcement, shaping, etc.
Comprehensive intervention - low student to teacher ratio (1:1, or low as appropriate) in a variety of settings, including home school and community. Effective programs are based on a treatment manual, provide intensive treatment (25hrs/wk+), and include data-driven decision-making.
Joint attention intervention - programs designed to teach a child to respond to the social bids of another, or to initiate joint attention interactions. Examples include: pointing to objects, showing items, activities to another, and following eye gaze.
Modeling - adults or peers provide a demonstration of the target behavior; the student is expected to imitate. Thus, imitation skills are a necessary prerequisite to this type intervention. Modeling is often combined with prompting and reinforcement strategies which can assist the student to acquire imitation skills.
Naturalistic teaching strategies - use of child-initiated interactions to teach functional skills in the natural environment. This intervention requires providing a stimulating environment, modeling play, providing choices, encouraging conversation and rewarding reasonable attempts.
Peer training - involves training peers without disabilities strategies for interacting (play and social) with children with autism. Some commonly known peer-training programs include: circle of friends, buddy skills, peer networks, etc.
Pivotal response training - program designed to target specific, "pivotal," behaviors that lead to improvement across a broad range of behaviors. These pivotal behaviors include: motivation to engage in social communication, self-initiation, self-management, responsiveness to multiple cues, etc.
Schedules - teaching a student to follow a task list (picture- or word-based) through a series of activities or steps in order to complete a specific activity. Schedules are accompanied by other behavioral interventions, including reinforcement.
Self-management - this treatment intervention teaches a student to regulate his or her behavior by recording the occurrence or non-occurrence of the target behavior, and secure reinforcement for doing so.
Story-based interventions - involves a written description of the situations under which specific behaviors are expected to occur. The stories seek to teach the: who, what, when, where and why of social interactions to improve perspective taking. The most well-known of these interventions is Carol Gray's "Social Stories."
Note (3) National Standards Report. (2009). National Autism Center.
The first step for parents wanting to start an ABA program is to get an assessment of their child's current skill level. There are a number of assessments available, and parents should try to get an assessment that is as comprehensive as possible. This could include:
Diagnostic Assessment. A diagnostic assessment provides information related to your child's diagnosis and is completed by a licensed psychologist. This is not a service that we offer but one that we highly recommend. A good clinician will differentiate your child’s diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) from other childhood related disorders. Diagnostic assessments should be conducted initially and then again each year. Common diagnostic assessments include the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2), Autism Diagnostic Interview Revised (ADI-R), PDD Behavior Inventory (PDD-BI), Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) and Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS).
Developmental Assessment. Norm-referenced developmental assessments provide information about how your child is developing in all areas compared to peers his or her own age. Developmental Assessments measure cognition, communication, motor, adaptive, and social skills. Some developmental assessments such as the Bayley Scales of Infant Development may only be completed by a licensed psychologist. However, other developmental scales may be implemented by anyone with advanced training in assessment. These assessments include but are not limited to The Battelle Developmental Inventory (BDI), Developmental Activities Screening Inventory-Second Edition (DASI-II), Developmental Assessment of Young Children (DAYC), and the Merrill-Palmer Revised Scales of Development (M-P-R).
Domain Specific Assessment. Specialized assessments are available for each area of development. For example, a number of assessments exist for the sole purpose of assessing language development. These measures are utilized to determine specific information about a child's delay. For example, a developmental assessment may reveal that a child has delays in language and social skills. Subsequent assessment must then be completed in those areas in order to determine the nature and extent of the delay. You may find it beneficial to consult with specialists to assist you in meeting your child's needs within each domain. Typically speech and language pathologists assist with language and speech issues while physical therapists assist with gross motor and occupational therapists assist with fine motor.
Neuropsychological Assessment. Neuropsychological assessments measure cognitive function and can only be administered by licensed psychologists. While we do not offer this type of assessment, we recommend having this assessment completed at least once in the early phases of your child's intervention program. These measures are more accurate if your child speaks. However, appropriate measures for non-verbal children are available.
Criterion-Referenced Assessments. Criterion-referenced assessments provide information about skills that in your child's repertoire. Criterion-referenced assessments are not designed to diagnose or to measure delay but rather to determine what skills your child is able to perform as well as what skills your child should learn next. Criterion-referenced assessments may be completed by anyone with advanced training in assessment. Additionally, criterion-referenced assessments are excellent to use for program development. Popular criterion-referenced assessments include The Brigance, the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS), the Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP), and the Hawaii Early Learning Profile (HELP).
Other Assessments. Your child should also have other assessments completed as often as necessary. These assessments include preference assessments, functional behavioral assessments, and skill probes. These measures should be regular components of your child's educational program.
Solid assessments provide a baseline upon which to begin building an ABA program. In addition, the assessment outcomes can provide year-to-year objective markers of progress (or lack thereof) of the interventions chosen. The American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society (6) has released guidance on appropriate assessments for professionals working with children with autism.
Second, parents will need to find a qualified provider of ABA services. There is a formal credentialing within the profession of Behavior Analysts coordinated by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (http://bacb.com). Certification under this process provides parents with some safeguards with respect to the services of the professional. It assures the parent that the professional has undergone specific training and supervision by qualified Behavior Analysts and has completed specific coursework related to behavior analysis and interventions. However, parents need to understand that a BCBA certification does not guarantee that the professional has any training or experience specific to autism or that that individual has the skills necessary to produce optimal treatment outcomes. Thus, a parent should always ask about the individual professionals' specific experience and training in the implementation and training of ABA programs for individuals with autism. Finally, since the BCBA certification process is relatively new, there are a number of professionals who have actively been working in the field for many years and who are in the later stages of their career who are not BCBAs. If you are not interested in working with a non-certified professional, parents are urged to request information relating to their qualifications and experience.
Third, parents will need to find therapists to implement the ABA program designed by the consultant. Some ABA providers can provide parents with trained therapists; others rely on parents to find and hire therapists which the consultant subsequently trains. Costs for programs vary tremendously. Comprehensive programs (where therapists are provided to the families) can run between $60,000 to $120,000 per year. Programs where parents find and hire their own therapists can run substantially less than comprehensive programs, and yet remain financially burdensome (between $20,000-$35,000 per year).
Costs can be alleviated by securing ABA services through early intervention services or through the school system. Federal law requires that individuals with disabilities be provided individualized and appropriate education that is research-based and effective (see http://idea.ed.gov/ ). ABA is the only intervention that passes such standard; thus schools and early intervention providers are required to utilize such interventions with students with autism.
Another avenue that parents can pursue for financial assistance is through their insurance plan. Insurance coverage will vary depending on your state of residence, and whether your plan is self-funded or fully funded.
For residents of Texas, H.B.451 requires that fully funded plans governed by the Texas Department of Insurance must provide coverage for children with autism up to the age of 10. FEAT-Houston has put together an informative page on autism insurance coverage.
In Connecticut, S.B. 301 requires that each group health insurance policy providing coverage of the type specified in subdivisions (1), (2), (4), (11) and (12) of section 38a-469 that is delivered, issued for delivery, renewed, amended or continued in this state shall provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders, as set forth in the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Policies must cover (given certain prerequisites) behavioral therapy. Dr. Olive currently accepts some insurance. Contact her for additional information.
For residents of Florida, the Autism Insurance Reform Law (a.k.a. Steven A. Geller Autism coverage Act) provides that a health insurance plan issued or renewed on or after April 1, 2009 must provide ABA coverage to an eligible individual for diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder.
If you reside outside of Texas, Connecticut or Florida, you are urged to find out your state's laws on insurance coverage for ABA therapy.
(1) Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991
(2) National Research Council (2001) Educating Children with Autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. Catherine Lord and James P. McGee, eds. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
(3) Lovaas, O.I. (1987) "Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 3-9
(4) Johnson, C.R., et al. 2007. "Development of a Parent Training Program for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders." Behavioral Interventions 22(3):201-221
(6) Filipek, P.A., MD et al (2000), “Practice Parameter: Screening and Diagnosis of Autism.” Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society.