Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), as I discussed briefly in my last post is the scientific study of behavior. Research gives us a proven base on which to model our treatment decisions.
ABA is currently the only proven effective treatment for Autism, although it's often not the sole treatment. Parents seeking answers for their children's behavioral issues often try multiple therapies at once. These therapies can include ABA, dietary changes, sensory therapies, Chelation therapy, and psychiatric sessions. Some of these options can be dangerous to the child's health, and none (except for ABA) have data to show a positive effect on behavior.
So ... What is ABA capable of? ABA uses learning principles ... principles that are in play in the natural environment anyway. We're not creating anything, we're just manipulating it. Manipulating sounds like a bad word. Think of it like this: We're chefs who are using the natural flavors of our ingredients and simply "manipulating" what's already there to bring out the flavors.
We use contingencies of reinforcement and punishment, stuff that already occurs in the natural environment of our daily lives, to encourage the behaviors we want to see and discourage the behaviors we don't want to see. Simple, right? Sometimes.
ABA uses lots of scientific principles to change behavior: reinforcement, punishment, extinction. The list goes on. We will get into those in future blogs.
For now I want to dispel some myths about ABA.
Myth 1: ABA is only for Autism/disabilities. Not true. ABA is relevant to everyone. BCBA's work not only with children with developmental disabilities, but with the elderly, with animals, with companies and organizations, with typically developing children in education, with adults in health and fitness ... the list goes on. I used a behavioral principle (shaping) to get my German Shepherd Dog to take her daily medication. Made things much easier for both of us.
Myth 2: ABA is only for "behavioral problems." Also not true. While ABA is the go-to treatment for the behavioral problems that are a common feature of Autism, there is certainly more to ABA than behavioral problems. ABA is often about increasing appropriate behaviors and teaching new skills. Children with Autism, for example, often lack certain skills like communication, toileting, social skills, etc. BCBA's frequently assess children's skills in a variety of areas, determine where they are lacking, and teach skills in those areas.
Myth 3: Anyone can do ABA. Not true. There is a lot of information out there (including this blog): internet, books, seminars, etc. It seems like there is a plethora of information on ABA and how to do it; however, ABA is still a science. BCBA's spend 2-4 years in graduate school and get approximately 2,000 hours of hands-on, supervised experience with their population (for me, children with developmental disabilities) before they can sit for the board certification exam. All that doesn't guarantee a candidate will pass the 4-hour exam.
Myth 4: ABA only uses food as rewards. Totally not true. Rewards, or reinforcers, like everything else in the field of ABA, are individualized. Some individuals will respond for food, some will respond for toys, some will respond for breaks from responding. It all depends on the individual. I would, personally, respond (to whatever the task was) for some online gaming time; and I've worked with some kids whose reinforcer was just that: a few minutes to play Minecraft. I've worked with some kids whose reinforcer was a break from working. For others, the reinforcer is Hot Cheetos, M&Ms, nail polish, a hug, iPad, music, visiting a certain teacher or friend, etc. etc.
Myth 5: ABA is out-dated. Nope. ABA has a long history; that part is true. But, ABA is modern. There are a large number of graduate school programs around the country; a massive number of certificants (BCBA's) in the United States: 711 in Texas, alone; and currently research going on in the field and being published in respected journals. The field is growing in the U.S. and around the world!
ABA is a proven treatment for Autism; it is not a cure. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Autism, yet. However, with ABA, we can make progress.