Applied Behavioural Therapy (ABA) – teaching new skills

I have been working with children with autism and their families since 1999 implementing a treatment that is based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis or ABA.  ABA is something that I am very passionate about and I have seen first hand the power that it can have in improving the quality of life for children and youth with autism and their families.  There would never be enough room in a single post to convey all of the reasons why.

So when I was asked to write a series of posts on ABA I was delighted! In my last post I described some of the standards that an approach that is based on ABA adheres to when dealing with a person’s challenging behaviour.  In this post I want to focus on some of the standards that apply when teaching new skills.

Shortly after I began working with children and youth with autism in 1999, I was fortunate to meet and work with a 5 year old boy who shall remain nameless.  At the time we were working on teaching him all kinds of skills so that we could get him ready to transition into his school by the time he was 6.  We were working on academic skills like number and letter sense, fine motor skills like writing, printing and colouring, social skills like initiating play with a peer, self-help skills like getting out his snack from his lunch bag, and many many more.

All of the skills that we were working on were selected because of a comprehensive assessment that was conducted in which we were able to identify his strengths, preferences and areas of need.  We were working on these skills in his home, basically 1:1 and we were working with his parents so that they could use some of the same strategies that we were using in session, but also so that he could practice with them, when we were not there.

In order to prepare him for his transition to school a few months later, we started having him attend a centre-based program with ratios that were somewhat less.  In fact, at the centre that he attended there were 6 staff and 9 children.  The centre-based sessions were different from the home-based sessions because there were many more distractions, much like what you would find in a classroom.  For example, the walls were covered with different pictures and artwork that the students had completed, there were more children and more staff, so the noise was different and the routines were similar to what you might find in a classroom.

Despite all of our efforts to prepare him for the new setting, when we transitioned this 5 year old boy into the centre it appeared as though he had lost all of his skills that we had been working on, and furthermore, he started to engage in some challenging behaviour.

It would appear that we had failed to prepare him for this change. 

If you read my last post on how to deal with challenging behaviour, you may recall that whenever there is a challenging behaviour we need to identify why it is happening and address the why.  It turns out that he had a hard time sharing his teacher’s attention and tolerating delays which are inherent in any group.  We had him return to a home team program and we started to prepare him for the transition in a way we had not.  We started by having circle time with stuffed animals and working on getting him to tolerate delays to a teacher’s attention.  We also began to introduce him to the new setting for short intervals and we gradually changed the ratio so that he became comfortable in the new setting.

We knew we needed to prepare him and challenge him but we wanted to do it in a way that would prevent him from having to engage in challenging behaviour.  We worked at his pace.  In the end he was eventually able to spend his entire day in the centre-based program with no challenging behaviour and learn really important skills in that different environment.  He ultimately ended up going to a classroom in his school and as far as I know he has continued to do well. This is a classic case of the learner is always right!

This example is based on actual events that transpired with one of the clients that I worked with and it highlights some of the very important standards that any treatment that is based on ABA must adhere to:

1. Teach socially significant skills

As a Behaviour Analyst with knowledge on how to influence behaviour, specifically how to teach new skills like academic skills or social skills, it is our duty to ensure that we focus on teaching things that will improve the quality of life for those that we are teaching.  There are a plethora of things that we could be teaching but we need to ensure that we are focusing on the right things.  Any treatment that is based on ABA will include programs to teach a variety of skills.

Just because a client is really good at numbers does not mean we should just focus on improving his/her skills with respect to numbers.  In fact, we must include some programs because it is an area that may be considered a strength but what about the areas that they need help with?

In the most basic programs an emphasis on communication is critical.  Can this person get his/her needs met?  Needs may be basic needs like feeding themselves when they are hungry or clothing themselves.   They may be more complex like communicating that they are in pain or need help.  In the example above, it was really important that we teach this little boy what I might call “readiness” to learn skills in the context of a group.  He was able to learn and master all kinds of things in the context of a teacher and one student.  Once we switched that up he had a hard time with it.  It didn’t take us long to work on that with him and it improved his odds  of learning in a regular classroom.

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About Sarah Kupferschmidt

Sarah is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst who and Co-Founder of Special Appucations. She is a professor, TEDx Speaker as well as a top safety writer for Autism Parenting Magazine. Sarah has worked with hundreds of children and youth with autism and their families and has clinically supervised and trained staff on how to implement treatment strategies that are based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Her mission is to empower parents and educators who work with children with special needs with skills that will improve his/her quality of life. You can follow here on Twitter.

Comments

  1. nathalie dowling says:

    Every time I see the use of terms such as “treatment” and “clinical” in an ABA article, I feel that my child has a form of cancer and applications of ABA principles are the type chemotherapy treatments that are going to cure her malignant infection. As a parent of a child with autism, I find it rather disturbing in the context of an educational program. Of course, some applications of ABA principles are valuable in teaching critical skills to some children with Autism, but please be mindful that from a parent perspective, this is about education not about a medical cure. Regards, Nathalie