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Applied Behaviour Analysis at Inclusive Directions. A Parent’s Guide

What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?

Written by Laura McGill, BpsySc, MSpecEd

Applied Behaviour Analyses (ABA) is the science of behaviour. ABA uses the application of reward systems to make positive changes in behaviour and increase in development in areas of language, play, skill acquisition and social behaviour (CooperHeron, & Heward, 2007). The reward method works where when a child does a preferred outcome they receive something they like. ABA uses this to not only decrease problem behaviour but increase learning.

Why choose ABA?

ABA is considered an evidence-based “best” practice intervention by the US Surgeon General and by the American Psychological Association. “Evidence-based” means that ABA has been studied to be effective. An example of this research is by Prior et al., (2011), who found that programs implementing ABA were the only interventions eligible for funding based on established research evidence of increased positive outcomes for children with a range of needs.

At what age should my child commence an ABA programme?

ABA can be effective in working with individuals of all ages. However, research shows that skill development programs that are provided at a young age, between 18 months and 6 years, show better outcomes and can often reduce the likelihood of more severe or dangerous behaviours later in life.

A study conducted by Wash, (2009) found that early intervention programs for very young children with autism – some as young as 18 months – is effective for improving IQ, language ability, and social interaction:

Is there an age limit for accessing effective ABA programs?

No there is no limit. Although research does indicate that best practice is targeted at ages 18 months – 6 years, there is some emerging research to suggest that ABA can assist a wide variety of disabilities across a wide range of ages. Due to the small quantity of such research currently available, it is advised that if your child is older than the recommended early intensive intervention age (6) an adapted ABA program is sought out, for example seeking Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) programs that are tailored to a wider variety of developmental ages.

What is the difference between ABA and PBS?

PBS programming is an intervention method that takes a person-centred, proactive approach to decreasing problem behaviours, whilst also focusing on best methods for the individual in accessing their community and quality of life to its full extent. PBS focuses on determining the cause of the behaviour, teaching new behaviours, and rewarding desired behaviours. Therefore this makes PBS similar to ABA, which also focuses to assess, change, respond to, and monitor behaviours (Weiss, DelPizzo-Cheng, LaRue, & Sloman, 2009).

Where it differs from intensive ABA programming is that PBS involves an increased amount of time mentoring and coaching families, support staff and teachers on the implementation of strategies and intervention plans and they are inserted more frequently into the development of strategies. The amount of therapy and timing of PBS is determined in discussion with the individual’s family and therapists to ensure the best possible chance of success, as opposed to data-driven decisions found in ABA.

How often does a child need to attend ABA?

The Early Intervention for Children with ASD ‘Guidelines for Good Practice’ (2012) states: ‘High-intensity interventions which address the child and family’s clearly documented needs, using behavioural, educational and/or developmental approaches have been shown to be the best of currently available early interventions’. Fifteen to twenty-five hours per week is recommended for early intervention in the research literature, therefore many providers suggest an in between benchmark of 20 hours (Roberts & Prior, 2006).

What happens if a child does not attend the optimal number of hours of ABA?

As the research states 20 hours a week intensive therapy is the goal, however, there can be flexibility around this. If you are accessing any form of ABA intervention weekly you are still likely to see benefits, just not as quickly. Let’s think about it like exercise – the more you increase workout time and workout sessions the faster you are going to see the physical results – it’s the same with ABA, a small amount will still lead you to a positive outcome just at a slower acquisition rate in comparison to a more intensive schedule.

For how long does my child need to continue ABA?

The research indicates that 1-2 years of intensive (20 hours per week) ABA therapy shows the best outcome for children under the age of 6. There are, however, other things to think about:

  • The severity of acquiring new skills
  • The extent of their communication abilities (this ranges from spoken communication to the understanding of spoken language)
  • The extent of their current cognitive functioning (for example placing objects with purpose, conversing, engaging in visual perception tasks such as matching etc.)
  • The extent of their social functioning (for example extent of sustained, independent and imaginative play)
  • The frequency, duration and intensity of experienced problem behaviours that get in the way of their functioning

To help answer these questions it comes down to early diagnoses and treatment, finding the service that suits you and your child and making the right decision for your family.
“We have done between 20-25 hours a week for the past 2 years (since my son was 2.5). it is pretty
invasive, and quite embarrassing for someone to constantly see how messy you are, but the therapists
become firm friends, members of our families and absolutely our sons best friends” – Handers.

 “We do 2 hours a day table top ABA with our 3 year old son with Asperger’s [10 hours a week]… any more than this it would be counterproductive… Whilst children with more severe forms of ASD will no doubt benefit from intensive hours, kids like my son are doing really well with 10. I am using ABA principles all day with him, and his progress has been one of the fastest his senior therapist has seen” – Sharon.

Autism Speaks, (2012)

Does ABA work for children with ASD and other Intellectual disabilities?

Data collected at May Institute (2009) support the findings of hundreds of other studies that indicate ABA is best to teach children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), as well as other intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as Dyslexia, Global Developmental Delay and Down Syndrome, brain injuries and other forms of trauma.

ABA has been shown to help children with ASD in the following areas

  • Teach skills to replace problem behaviours. So your child can learn what “to do,” not just what “to stop doing.”
  • Increase positive behaviour. For example, reward procedures increase on-task behaviour or social interactions and reduce behaviours like self-injury or tantrums.
  • Maintain behaviours. For example: continue practicing skills
  • Change parent responses to your child’s behaviour. These responses could unintentionally be rewarding problem behaviour.
  • Increase your child’s academic, social, and self-help skills.
  • Improve ability to focus on tasks, comply with tasks, and increase motivation to perform.
  • Aim to improve cognitive skills. Helps your child be more available for learning.
  • Generalize or to transfer behaviour from one situation or response to another (For example, from completing assignments in the resource room to performing as well in the mainstream classroom).

(Autism Speaks, 2012)


What does ABA at inclusive directions look like?

At Inclusive Directions a 20-hour per week program typically involves two to three-hour sessions, with breaks, each morning and afternoon, five days a week. Less intensity programs are also offered to tailor to every family.

The teaching tool of Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is used to target learning. DTT is based on the understanding that practice helps a child master a skill. It is a structured therapy tool that uses a one-to-one teaching and involves intensive learning of specific building blocks of each skill. This intensive learning of a specific behaviour is called a “drill.” Drills help learning because they involve repetition. The child completes a task many times in the same manner. This repetition is especially important for children who may need a great deal of practice to master a skill.

Children will work with the therapist for a few minutes at a time with short play breaks that also give the therapist an opportunity to record information and prepare the next task. Each hour, one long break of 10-15 minutes is taken.

Every two to four weeks, the program supervisor will arrange a review meeting with the parents, therapists and other professionals working with the child. These meetings typically run for around two hours and are held to review progress, make program changes where required, and to provide feedback to therapists.

What will my child’s program look like?

Upon intake an assessment to determine your child’s current developmental level will be conducted with a Program Supervisor or Senior Behaviour Therapist to inform a baseline of teaching. Programs are tailored to your child’s individual needs and at Inclusive Directions we have a multidisciplinary team comprised of Speech Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Psychologists and Behaviour Therapists who are dedicated to working closely on each program to ensure that development in all areas of need are met.

Overall your child’s program will comprise of tailored programming, maintenance and generalisation of acquired skills, as well as evidence based programming found in the SPECTRA manual by Dr Robyn Young.
What skills are addressed in the SPECTRA manual?

The SPECTRA program is broken down into developmental domains and targets skills from the bottom up. This means that teaching begins at a very simplistic level to establish a solid foundation for higher, more complex skills. It targets areas of compliance such as attending, using eye contact, facilitating functional and independent play and imitation. It further targets cognitive functioning teaching skills in receptive and expressive language, for example following instructions, identifying objects, labelling and commenting, as well as essential skills in gross motor and fine motor movements. Each SPECTRA program interlocks with one another to ensure that skill acquisition is happening in synchronicity across skill sets.

How can I help as a parent?

Parents are their child’s best advocate. It is important to ask questions, stay informed about your child’s current programming, stay consistent and communicate when you may have a concern or idea – we are here to help!

For more information you can contact us via email  InclusiveDirectionsClientSupport.sa@benevolent.org.au or by calling our friendly reception team on 7325 8600

Posted by Inclusive Directions / Posted on 19 Dec
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