Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can affect a person’s ability to communicate and socialize, which can impact their learning and development.
When discussing ASD, it’s important to remember that every child is different, and therefore ASD can manifest in vastly different ways with different children. Dr. Stephen Shore once said of autism “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
So, what can parents, caregivers and educators do to teach and accommodate children with ASD and similar disorders? A lot will depend on the person on the spectrum and their functional level. This is where Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) often comes into play.
Continue reading to find out everything you need to know based on our research about how ABA works and for tips on picking the right ABA specialist for your child!
What is Applied Behavior Analysis?
Applied Behavior Analysis has been around for over 50 years, although it’s improved rapidly in recent years. It is a framework for therapy/education used to assist children with autism spectrum disorder, to learn difficult skills.
ABA focuses on developing its learner’s skillset across life, not just in the classroom. Some key areas that ABA develops are:
- Communication skills
- The ability to keep and maintain attention and focus
- Social skills
- Intellectual and academic learning
ABA also focuses on reducing maladaptive behaviors that cause problems for its students’ learning and development. Every human being is conditioned by their culture towards prosocial and productive behavior. Sometimes our societies, which have limited awareness of ASD, aren’t very effective at communicating these same lessons to children with autism. ABA, actively and explicitly rewards productive and prosocial behavior, in order to help learners get the most out of society, achieving and accomplishing more throughout their lives.
To do this, ABA understands the science of learning and the psychology of behavior. It is especially interested in how behavior and environments can impact the ability to learn.
ABA attempts to analyze and address each area of a child’s development and address their individual needs. Practitioners regularly do broad-based assessments and keep detailed data on progress. A big part of ABA is helping a child to ‘catch-up’ with other kids in terms of navigating the school, home and social environment. Once they are caught-up, the children can take advantage of all the little opportunities that society creates for more neurotypical children. Therefore, often a small skill increases in the right areas can lead to compounding opportunities and results.
As we’ve said, ABA isn’t just about what happens in the classroom or during therapy. The right specialist for your child helps them apply these new skills to the real world. Let’s look at just how that works.
What are the types of ABA Specialists?
When it comes to ABA therapy care, there are multiple specialists that may work with children with autism or with other behavioral difficulties. We have summarized some of the most common ABA therapy provider titles you may hear of:
Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certification in behavior analysis. There are multiple tiers of this designation, but these are professionals who are certified and provide behavior-analytic services. The tiers are below:
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) - An undergraduate-level certification in behavior analysis.
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) - A graduate-level certification in behavior analysis.
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral (BCBA-D) - A doctoral designation for Board Certified Behavior Analysts with doctoral training in behavior analysis.
Generally, when people speak colloquially of a “BCBA,” they are speaking about either a BCBA or a BCBA-D. These are the individuals who are likely to be clinical supervisors or clinical directors at ABA firms and autism-specific education settings.
A Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) is a paraprofessional who is primarily responsible for implementation of behavior-analytic services that are provided by a BCBA. This certification is usually a requirement for ABA therapists if they are being reimbursed through private insurance or federal programs. In order to be an RBT, an individual must have at least a high school degree. In addition, an RBT must practice under close and ongoing supervision from a BCBA and/or BCaBA.
In addition, you may hear words like ABA Therapist, Applied Behavior Analyst, ABA/Behavior Technician, ABA Supervisor, LBT, or Behavior Analyst. Without knowing the details of how these professionals are credentialed, it can be unclear what skill level and education level they have. For our article, we are referring to them collectively as specialists or technicians. Many states have their own certifications for paraprofessionals, but the BCBA credential is the current gold standard, which is accredited by a private non-profit, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).
What Does an ABA Specialist Do?
ABA technicians or specialists, usually RBTs, implement ABA therapy programs. This means they work to address and overcome specific people’s learning obstacles.
Specialists can work in a variety of different areas, including schools, home therapy and at an ABA clinic. ABA is the study of all behavior, although it’s mostly applied to special needs, there are actually many BCBAs that work in typical business settings to improve employee performance, and the ABA techniques they use vary depending on the specialist.
Common ABA providers’ goals within autism include:
- Using positive reinforcement to encourage children’s achievements
- Improving language and communication skills
- Promoting self-care
- Working on their student’s motor skills
- Building social skills
- Exploring new learning techniques with their students
- Finding a balance between leisure and play that works for their students
- Developing an understanding of behavior and consequences to create better-informed decision-making strategies
By focusing on these areas, an ABA therapy specialist can improve your child’s quality of life. It will help their educational development and help them form long-lasting relationships. Strong relationships have been shown to affect physical health in neurotypical adults as much as diet or exercise. Relationships are perhaps no less important in people on the autism spectrum, despite the fact that it can be much more difficult for these individuals to cultivate these types of relationships. Helping individuals to achieve long-lasting relationships is just one of the benefits of good ABA therapy!
ABA techniques can work alongside regular learning over a long period or they might address a child’s needs in a more ABA focused setting. This can involve 25 hours or more in classes each week.
The length of the program depends a lot on both the student’s needs and the ABA specialist’s recommendations. To get the best ABA therapy for your child, you need to find the right specialist. How can you do that?
Do Your Research
Whenever it comes to introducing a new person into your child’s life, always check out their background and credentials. When it comes to ABA specialists, there are several things to look into.
First, you need to make sure they are qualified. Any practicing specialist must be a Board Certified Behavior Analyst or BCBA. This requires credentials from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (or BACB).
Some specialists may be Registered Behavior Technicians or RBTs rather than BCBAs. As mentioned above, this means they must work under the supervision of a BCBA. They require more extensive supervision because the requirements for becoming an RBT are lower, but this supervision ensures that they can still deliver great ABA therapy. Initially, you’ll be interacting with a BCBA who manages the learning program and the RBTs. The RBTs will often execute the actual therapy.
First check out a BCBA’s qualifications through the BACB website. Second, see if you can get feedback on the BCBA and potential RBTs through references from past students and parents. This is a great way to learn about their teaching style and preferred techniques. A good recommendation or referral can go a long way.
Finally, perform a proper background check. This includes looking into their criminal history, as well as their education experience. If you hire a specialist from a reputable ABA clinic or company, you might have greater peace of mind about each technician’s background. The company should carry out a background check of their own before they hire a new specialist.
Look For An Approach That Suits Your Child
Different specialists might take different approaches to your child’s learning, so take the time to find the best educator that suits your needs and goals.
Ask lots of questions when you meet prospective specialists. It’s easy to feel like “they are the expert,” but an active approach where you challenge the expert and learn from them is likely to yield the best results. In the end, the expert BCBA will likely end up providing better, more individualized care, and you’ll end up more informed about the process. There are several specific items that every parent should ask about when meeting a new ABA specialist.
First, ask the BCBAs about the program they can deliver. If you’re looking for a 40-hours per week intensive program, then you need to ensure they’re on board with it. If you want someone who can coach your child over a long period (we’re talking months or years) then you need to discuss this with them in advance. Many BCBAs are most practiced in particular types of programs, and while this doesn’t mean that they aren’t fully capable of taking on different challenges, it is something to consider.
Some ABA providers prefer to work over a brief, but intensive, periods to address particularly urgent needs. Others offer therapy that will work alongside their long-term development. Both approaches have their pros and cons, so it will depend on what works best for your child.
Finally, You should also discuss what ABA techniques they plan to use. There isn’t always a clear cut answer to what is right or wrong, but some approaches might work better for your child than others.
Make Sure They Communicate Well
Great communication should be a given for anyone involved in learning and development, and an ABA specialist’s communication skills are important for two reasons.
First, they have to communicate both ways with your child to help them develop their skills and overcome obstacles. This means they need to adapt their teaching style according to your child’s needs, and they should be receptive to new communication challenges.
Second, they need to communicate with the family of the student undergoing ABA therapy. The purpose of ABA therapy is to give the child skills they can use throughout their lives at home, at school and in public. This means that students benefit greatly from parents and family that understand and participate in the process.
A good ABA specialist will spend time training the family on how to effectively interact with the student and reinforce the lessons that they are learning in therapy. Therefore, a good BCBA will be able to avoid using confusing technical terms, replacing them with simple explanations where appropriate. They should be a useful source of knowledge, while also providing additional resources to the family.
In addition, your ABA specialist should collect specific and detailed data on your child’s progress. This allows them to carefully encourage learning, compare developmental trends, and also share the findings with you. By doing so, you’ll get a clearer idea of how your child is developing over time.
Please keep in mind, we are big fans of technology and electronic data collection. If your therapist uses such technology, they can easily share reports and printed graphs with you.
Discuss Your Budget
No one wants to put a price on your child’s developmental and educational success but sometimes you don’t have a choice. Hiring an ABA specialist privately is a real financial commitment. Discussing your health insurance options and budget alongside your child’s goals can help a specialist figure out the best and most affordable program for your child.
If you want long-term therapy on a small budget, you might need shorter sessions prescribed by insurance. This allows you to continue therapy over a longer period, but it might involve more effort on your part to implement ABA techniques on a day-to-day basis.
In contrast, doing more intensive classes will burn through your budget quicker, but it might help your child to make more progress if they struggle with memory and attention.
If you’re uncertain about a recommendation, then you may want to consult with another specialist to compare recommendations for your child.
Our article ABA Therapy Cost: What to Expect is a good resource for how to find help and reduce the cost of care through government mandated programs and services.
The Bottom Line
An ABA specialist can make a huge difference in the life of a child. It may be time to consider supporting your child’s learning and development by finding the right one.