JC Ellinger speaks with an autism mom and a behavior therapy provider to offer readers an inside perspective into ABA therapy.
“At three and a half my son was barely talking. His speech and social-emotional delays qualified him for developmental preschool with our local school district. E was hypersensitive to noises. He stimmed a lot and had sensory issues. The diagnosis process seemed to take forever. In the end, every medical expert we met agreed—my son met the criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).”
This is the beginning of Ms. Hallahan’s journey with her amazing son, E. Like the opening of the gates at the start of a horse race, the emotions brought on by retelling the starting point of a very personal life experience can bring about a flood of intense emotions. Once a parent receives the confirmed medical diagnosis it is normal to ponder: “Now what?”
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is just one therapy service offered to our kids on the spectrum, but ABA provides support in other ways you may or may not be familiar with.
When I heard Ms. Hallahan’s story, I couldn’t deny that it brought back some familiar emotions for me as an autism parent. So reader, what if you’re an autism caregiver and you are standing on this exact stepping stone, taking the next steps to ABA therapy?
Brandi McGee, a Clinical Director with the Center for Social Dynamics (CSD), shared some behind-the-scenes ABA information with me to offer insight for autism families.
ABA clinics offer parent/caregiver therapy
Ms. Hallahan recalls the start of ABA for E: “Looking back, I had so many questions and apprehensions. I was nervous and anxious. I didn’t know what kind of activities to expect at therapy, either.”
Ms. McGee confirms that such feelings are common: “It is nerve-racking for any parent leaving their child in a new environment or starting a new service, and understandably so.”
Clinics, such as CSD, may provide therapy for the parents/caregivers even before service starts to help support the family in what can be a stressful transition. Ms. McGee adds: “Communication with the therapist detailing what to expect and what the session will consist of should occur prior to the first session, as well as a debrief after the session.”
Dedicating a notebook for ABA may also help you remember and organize comments and questions. When the time comes to ask or share anything on your mind, you can easily refer to your notebook to address whatever you would like to share.
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ABA therapy is customized to each and every child
“Each ABA session should be individualized based on the child’s skill level, deficits, any behavior challenges, and input from the client and their families,” says Ms. McGee.
Their individualized ABA plan incorporates a range of teaching methods deemed to be most beneficial for your child. How would a parent know if the method(s) the specialists are using are the most beneficial?
As an autism mom whose son demonstrated major strides, Ms. Hallahan goes on to detail what unfolded: “The ABA concepts were so foreign to me in the beginning. The daily acts of visual cues, prompts, positive reinforcement, and routine building were almost like speaking another language. Eventually, the ABA language became our family’s language. We developed routines that helped E to predict his day. We learned how to reduce his meltdowns by anticipating activities that might trigger him. We were fluent in ABA and loving our newly functional life with a speaking child who threw less tantrums.”
With the Hallahan family, the service took place in their home. Ms. Hallahan observed, took notes to learn, and applied the methods in their own household. She could see the progress and effectiveness of ABA taking place right in front of her.
Just as each child differs in their needs and wants, so will his/her developmental plan. Ultimately, however, ABA’s goal is to support the growth of the learner.
Each child’s ABA plan is a collaboration of the clinic’s director/specialist, the child’s parents, and any other chosen support deemed necessary. Such support can be your child’s speech pathologist or your case representative from your regional center. If you have someone you would like to bring to any meeting, you just have to ask. Remember, any meeting or session in support of your child involves the collaboration of an entire team!
ABA welcomes children of all ages
Although kids on the autism spectrum typically begin therapy between the ages of four and seven years old, support can be provided for children of high school age as well. Ms. McGee adds: “Some of them have been receiving ABA since they were young, and others are new to the program. There is no age limit to ABA.”
Target goals for older children can include development in areas of social skills and communication. This can include conversational skills, leisure skills, and self-advocacy skills to increase independence. These are important skills that should be taught to all young adults.
An individualized therapy program can cater to all ages, including young adolescents. Whatever your child’s age, seek answers to your questions to enable you to find the right support to fit your needs and to meet your child’s requirements.
Therapy should fit real-life scenarios
Although E no longer receives ABA support, his mom gratefully says: “I strongly believe that early intervention with ABA therapy is what helped my son become so adaptive and successful today.”
Any therapy program should seamlessly teach and provide the child with the means to practice their skills in realistic situations. Although the initial instruction in learning can seem monotonous and robotic, once the basics fundamentals are grasped, skills such as back-and-forth conversations or getting dressed should be practiced in an environment that mimics what would be done at home or school. This transfer of skills can require the dedication of the parent to support learning, but the potential it gives your child has no limits.
“E is now 13 years old and attends mainstream middle school. He is very social and has lots of friends in and out of school,” Ms. Hallahan concludes. “If you took me back to 2011 when he was first diagnosed and gave me a glimpse of our lives today, I would not believe that any of this would be possible.”
This article was featured in Issue 125 – Unwrapping ABA Therapy