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Do You Know the ABCs of ABA?

As you know, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is the research-proven, evidence-based process of empowering individuals with autism to change specific behaviors. Such behavioral modification allows children on the spectrum to learn appropriate social and communication skills, and it promotes an increased sense of self-command as well.

The core principle of ABA is that an individual’s behavior is …

  • Lawful (Guided by principles)
  • Observable (We can see it)
  • Measurable (We can count it)

When you take data on a regular basis, you can start to detect consistent patterns over time … and when you recognize those patterns and uncover the motivations behind them, change becomes much easier.

If you’re dealing with maladaptive behaviors such as self-injury and aggression, data sheets help track and therefore understand the forces driving your child’s behavior.

A is for Antecedent

A is for Antecedent

The term “antecedent” refers to what came before the behavior in question. What was happening before your child started engaging in meltdown behaviors?

Put on your detective hat and describe the prior scene as best you can. Take note of sensory details, transitions, interactions … anything that might be significant from your child’s point of view.

Be as specific and concrete as possible. “We walked into a store” is good, but “We walked into a store where there were flashing lights and buzzing alarms sounding” is better.

B is for Behavior

B is for Behavior

“Behavior” refers to what your child did that is problematic. Describe the action in detail. Did your child throw himself on the floor, or cover his ears and scream? What behavior came first, and what came last? At this stage, don’t include your interpretation of the behaviors; simply describe what you saw with your five senses.

C is for Consequence

C is for Consequence

“Consequence” refers to what happened after the maladaptive behavior. After your child had the meltdown, what happened next? Did you buy him the toy that he wanted, or did you leave the store together? Again, simply describe what happened in measurable terms, without judgment.

Once you’ve completed your data sheet, file it in a safe place. Each time your child engages in the behavior of concern, fill out another sheet. After a few days or a week, gather the data sheets together and start looking for trends.

For example, does your child frequently meltdown around lunchtime, or after he’s had a difficult night’s sleep? Does he often get your undivided attention when he screams? Once you’ve spotted a trend, you can work on making changes that reinforce healthy, positive behavior instead.

ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) data is a helpful tool for collecting information when conducting direct observations. Which brings us to our final letter:

D is for Data

D is for Data

(aka “How to observe and measure behavior”)

When it comes to changing maladaptive behaviors, data sheets are a key piece of the puzzle. As such, your ABA therapist may ask you to take data on your child’s behavior at home. Data collection will help the clinician to assess patterns, tailor future lessons, and evaluate progress over time. Likewise, your child’s IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) may specify data collection during school hours.

Even if you don’t have access to an in-person clinician, you can still take data and learn from your reporting. FirstPath Autism offers lesson-specific data sheets, so that you can track your child’s progress as you work through our video library.

As we wrote in our blog post Autism Resource: What is ABA Therapy?:

“Data sheets give you spaces to write down what was happening before the given behavior occurred, how you responded to the behavior, and what happened afterward. And once you’ve collected a series of sheets, trends begin to emerge.”

Get access to ABA therapy 24/7

Want to help your child grow and develop through ABA therapy sessions … but feeling stuck because you don’t have access to an in-person clinician? Never fear; you can access our full library of video lessons and use them to learn at home.

ABA therapy tips for Parents

If you ask parents what they want most for their children, you’ll often hear them say, “I just want him/her to be happy.” That’s a wonderful, heartfelt sentiment. The problem is, often people don’t fully understand what it means to be happy.

One popular misconception of happiness is that it’s a static state, both unchanging and unchallenging. But research shows that the opposite is true. Humans need new learning to thrive.

As Gretchen Rubin observed in her New York Times bestselling book The Happiness Project:

“To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”  

An atmosphere of growth is essential to happiness, and it’s something that you can help to cultivate.

Here at FirstPath Autism, we understand that family support contributes mightily to a child’s success and happiness. That’s why we’re providing some Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy tips for you as parents.

TIP: Practice, practice, practice! 

We can’t emphasize this enough: the work that you do with your child outside of school and therapy sessions is vital. As FirstPath Autism founder Romina Kiryakous says in our free Parent Training video:

“The [ABA] treatment cannot stop when professionals are in your home and school …. It’s got to go on. Weekends, evenings, constantly. [And] parents need to know how to reinforce a behavior accurately.”  

For more on this topic, check out our blog post Why ABA reinforcement at home makes a huge difference. 

TIP: Team up with your child’s ABA therapist.

On one hand, you are the expert on your child. You’re the one with the most intimate knowledge of his or her habits, preferences, and problems.

On the other hand, that closeness may make it more difficult for you to view his or her behaviors with objectivity.

That’s why it’s so important to seek outside help when you’re dealing with problematic behaviors. A clinician can give invaluable input into the behavior management process.

As we wrote in our blog post Tips for getting the most out of ABA therapy:

“Behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and myriad factors influence an individual’s actions at any given moment. That’s one reason why it’s helpful to work with an ABA specialist: they are trained to see connections and deduce the functions of behaviors.”  

So be open to learning from your child’s therapist. We know that it’s easier said than done and it can be challenging to hear even the most well-intentioned feedback on your home life, routines, and behaviors.

But you can do these hard things, because your child needs you to do them. So when you feel yourself getting defensive and needing to prove your worth as a parent, take a breath and refocus on your child.

Know that you don’t have to be perfect; you just need to be willing to learn. You don’t need to have all the answers, either. You’re allowed to ask for help and guidance from others!

TIP: Model appropriate emotional regulation skills.

Many parents don’t have well-developed emotional self-management skills of their own, which makes it tough for them to teach their kids.

Such parents pay too much or too little attention to their children’s emotions. And in turn, this hinders the child’s development.

You’ve probably seen it happen. One parent overreacts to the point of panic if their child expresses a hint of sadness or anger, while another prohibits any emotional reaction at all.

That first parent overreacts to their child’s emotions because they themselves are afraid.

Rather than allowing their child to take ownership of feelings, the parent swoops in and tries to fix the negative emotions. As a result, the child misses important learning opportunities.

The second parent feels threatened by strong emotions, so they shun expression. They imply that it’s not appropriate to feel very much at all! And their children struggle to name and process “off-limits” emotions.

Neither style helps children to develop an appropriate understanding of the role that emotions play. Fortunately, there is another way.

TIP: Find a balance between ignoring emotion and letting it take over.

You can model healthy emotional engagement for your child. This means naming and acknowledging emotions, making space for processing feelings, and changing course where needed.

You treat your emotional responses with respect, but you don’t imbue them with too much meaning either. It’s a balance.

In his December 2015 Harvard Business Review article You Can’t Manage Emotions Without Knowing What They Really Are, Art Markman clarifies the role emotions play in our lives:

“Emotions provide valuable information about the state of your motivational system. Ignoring them is like driving around lost, not only refusing to ask for directions, but refusing to consult the map or the GPS, or even to look out the windshield. You will still be moving forward, but who knows where you will end up. Conversely, paying too much attention to your feelings is also bad. That’s like staring at your road atlas without ever turning on the car: you can’t get anywhere that way.”  

In short, don’t ignore or overemphasize emotions, but rather, heed their wisdom as navigational guides … and teach your children to do the same.

TIP: Use therapy tools to aid in transitions.

We’ve discussed the importance of honoring emotions, but what does that look like in real time? What specific techniques should you try?

One simple but powerful principle is to anticipate strong emotions in times of change and transition. When a promised play date cancels or a beloved movie draws to a close, recognize that these change points may elicit strong emotional responses from your child.

We noted this in our blog post, 10 signs you need ABA therapy support:

“ … ABA therapy is a fantastic way to practice coping with uncertainty and change. Clinicians use visual schedules and auditory prompts to train children to anticipate transitions, and they teach practical strategies for how to navigate unexpected changes too.”  

If you can identify a common “pressure point” in your child’s routine—say, making the transition from school to home—then you can work to improve it.

You might create a visual schedule to illustrate the routine, or identify ways to make it a little easier.

For example, rather than asking your child questions and interacting directly after school, you could designate ten minutes as decompression time, and then converse after that.

You could also include margin time between appointments for your child to engage in relaxing solo activities, such as reading or listening to music. Even small breaks can make a big difference in stress levels!

Creating an easy autism plan for the new year

According to the most recent data from psychologists at the University of Scranton, 45% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions … and 8% are successful in keeping them.

What happens to that other 37%? Why do some people manage to keep their resolutions while others do not?

One key reason is that we tend to take on too much too fast. We’re impatient to change our circumstances, so we make superhuman resolves to effect overnight transformations.

What does this look like in real time? Let’s say that, despite your best intentions, you didn’t do any social skills exercises with your child last year.

But this year, you are resolved to do them every single day for two hours straight! That will really make a difference!

Your heart is in the right place, but that kind of sudden, radical shift is a recipe for frustration and burnout.

As New York Times bestselling author, and former Harvard sociologist Martha Beck, Ph.D. writes in her O Magazine article, 5 Pieces of Advice Everyone Ignores (But Shouldn’t!):

“[The] tiny-steps approach applies to any difficult thing …. The bigger the task, the smaller my steps. If I feel myself tiring or avoiding tasks, I cut my steps in half, then in half again, until each step feels easy.”  

That’s why we’ve created an easy autism plan for you: because small steps really do make all the difference.

Here, we’ve outlined a few essential tasks and paired them with possible “tiny step” action items.

Educate yourself on the autism basics.

If you’re in the initial post-diagnosis period, chances are you have a lot of questions. The autism world may seem unfamiliar and overwhelming.

You’re trying to stay calm and set up supports for your child, but sometimes it all feels like too much.

Medical professionals throw around terms you’ve never heard before, and you’re Googling them between appointments.

You may feel as though you’ve traveled to a country where you don’t speak the language. If so, we understand, and we’d be glad to help translate.

Possible Tiny Steps:  

Look into beginning Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

As you plan ahead for the new year, we recommend integrating ABA therapy support into your family’s daily routine.

This is perhaps the most important part of your easy autism plan, as it will empower your child’s social and emotional growth.

ABA is the research-based process of helping individuals to change and better specific behaviors. To quote our blog post Autism Resource: What is ABA therapy?:

“Applied Behavior Analysis seeks to apply procedures of behavior analysis to socially significant problems to produce practical change. The effectiveness of those procedures is always measured.”

Furthermore, it’s one of very few autism treatments that passes the “safe, worthwhile, and effective” test with flying colors. In a market filled with false promises, ABA stands apart.

ABA has been approved as an autism intervention by the US Surgeon General, The American Academy of Pediatrics, The National Institute of Mental Health, and many more reputable organizations. (Check out this page for a full list of ABA endorsements.)

Possible Tiny Steps:  

But what if an ABA clinician isn’t accessible to my family?

Ideally, you’d schedule in-person therapy sessions with a trained professional (that is, a Board-Certified Behavioral Analyst, or BCBA).

As we noted in our blog post 10 signs you need ABA therapy support:

“An ABA specialist can design a program for your child based on specific social skill gaps. Such individually-tailored learning can make a big difference in a relatively small amount of time.”

However, we understand that working with a BCBA is not possible for everyone. Geographic distance, lack of quality local services, and financial constraints all prevent families from accessing vital ABA services.

Given the tremendous rise in autism diagnoses over the last decade, it’s no surprise that the demand for behavioral services often exceeds their availability.

And that’s why we created FirstPath Autism: so that every family can have affordable access to proven, professional autism treatment.

Possible Tiny Steps:

  • Need help locating high-quality ABA providers nearby? Check out our post How to find autism support in a services desert for a step-by-step guide.
  • If you can set up therapy sessions, consider FirstPath to supplement your child’s learning by providing regular in-home reinforcement.
  • If in-person therapy isn’t a possibility at present, utilize the FirstPath video library for in-home learning.

Student Story: How ABA Therapy unlocked Kyle’s world

This guest post was written by Terri Baker whose son, Kyle, was treated by our FirstPath Autism Founder, Romey Kiryakous and her team at the Genesis Behavior Center.

Our son Kyle was born a little over 20 years ago.  He was our 4th child and very different from the day he was born.  Physically you would not have guessed he was any different from any other baby. Even though Kyle could run by 9 months he did not say a word, make eye contact, or smile. He preferred limited physical contact and to have everything the same- no change in routine. He did not answer or come when his name was called.

“Kyle was still locked away in his own world…”

At 18 months Kyle was evaluated because, though he was spoken to a lot, he did not say a word. He started receiving speech and OT therapy. It helped some, but Kyle was still locked away in his own world. At 4 years old he was almost choked to death by another kid in the neighborhood, because he never called for help or tried to stop the other child. If my husband had not come around the corner at the time that he did Kyle would no longer be with us.

“No one ever mentioned the word Autism…”

Starting at age 3 the school district had Kyle evaluated several time by impressive title experts. No one ever mentioned the word Autism. Kyle started a program through the school district, but he was becoming harder and harder to deal with.

We had had enough!  We had trusted the school district but felt we were getting no answers or true help for Kyle. We took Kyle out of system to be privately evaluated; finally at age 8 Kyle received his diagnosis of Autism, and we knew what we were dealing. Best of all? We could finally get him the help he needed.

“We finally learned why the school never uttered the word Autism…”

But no, we finally learned why the school never uttered the word Autism: all along they did not want to have to pay for ABA Therapy (Applied Behavior Analysis). When we had our diagnosis in hand, then came the claims from the school district that he was too old to benefit from ABA. Through a very good lawyer and numerous (up to 12 hour) IEP meetings, Kyle finally, at age 9, received his ABA therapy from Genesis Behavior Center (parent company of FirstPath Autism Inc.).

ABA was the key to the world around him.

ABA gave Kyle his voice and saved him.  We learned from him about the hidden school district-wide condoned mistreatment of him and others with Special Needs. Kyle had been physically, mentally, and verbally abused by teachers, principals, and administrates for years. This had been the reason his behavior had been so out of control; he had had no voice to get help.

Kyle has been let out of the cage of Autism through ABA. And who did we find? A very loving, kind, smart and funny soul with a great imagination.

fp_blog_kyle_mom_final.png

Today Kyle is fully in the world around him. 

I love to hear him say, “Mom, I have a question,” when he does not understand something. He now seeks out the help and information he needs from the people around him.  He has several typically developing friends.  He loves to be hugged. He takes care of all his own personally hygiene issues. He cooks; we are still working on expanding what he will eat. Kyle goes to the movies and other events with his friends.

Most importantly, Kyle has received through ABA the help he needed to fix his behavioral problems. He recognizes his emotions and can read them in others around him.

One of the most important things we did as a family is learn how to reinforce ABA at home.  Kyle now writes social stories for children and young adults with autism to use, along with ABA, to help them negotiate their world. Kyle is also working on a novel which will be published soon.

Terri Baker (Mother of Kyle)