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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.