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One of the most significant factors that determine a child’s success with ABA therapy is how invested the parents of the child are in the process.
At Circle Care Services, we have noticed that a child with parents and caregivers who ask questions, take notes and carry out the procedures that the child is learning during ABA sessions, is at a wonderful advantage and has higher hopes for long-lasting results. On the other hand, a child whose family is outwardly oppositional toward ABA practices and questions the methods rather than learning them is unwittingly putting their child at a painful disadvantage.
The Biggest Challenge in ABA Therapy
Ask any Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) that has worked in the field for a good amount of time what the biggest challenge regarding ABA Therapy is, and it won’t take long before one of them answers “getting parents on board with ABA”.
Why is this? Why would a parent go through the task of getting their child (or children) diagnosed, researching ABA agencies, applying and processing with an ABA agency, and committing to 20-40 hours a week of at-home therapy, only to become oppositional to the specific remedy that they sought after so ferociously?
Well, for one: ABA is a lot of work. It works for the therapist, for the child, and for anyone and everyone that is involved with the child. There is a specific method for ABA that needs to be learned. It isn’t extremely complicated, but it does require follow-through for it to be successful. This includes mom, dad, sister, brother, grandma, grandpa, auntie, uncle and you get the picture. The moment one person runs against the program, the child who is receiving therapy will instantly catch on to that and use it to their advantage. No one ever said that children with autism are not intelligent- they can ingeniously manipulate situations to their own benefit like any other child, which is why everyone who is in contact with the child needs to be consistent.
ABA also runs counterintuitive to what we do as parents much of the time. For example, in ABA therapy when a child is using inappropriate behavior to gain attention from an adult, we would find a way to provide frequent attention at regular intervals to keep the child’s behavior appropriate. As long as the behavior remains appropriate, we would shower the child with praise and keep giving attention to the child, slowly lengthening the time between each praise so that over time, as the child is able to maintain appropriate behavior on their own, we would fade the continuous attention out.
As parents, if our child is acting inappropriately, we are not likely to feel like showering them with frequent attention and praise every 30 seconds for the smallest positive behavior. Parents are usually agitated by their own child’s behavior and they find it difficult to get into the ABA mindset of turning the inappropriate behavior around. This is how ABA can feel counterintuitive to parenting. With enough modeling by therapists and enough turnaround in their child’s inappropriate behaviors, many parents will begin to see how these methods can be successful.
Why Parents Are Important in ABA Therapy
Every family is different. When an RBT visits a home, some parents will sit in on sessions and watch everything that goes on during the sessions so that they know what to do when the therapist leaves. Other parents completely disappear and take a break from the child when the therapist shows up because it is the only time that they get to themselves apart from the child. Both are valid options! Outside of ABA therapy, some parents are on duty 24 hours a day without a break. For the parents of children with severe symptoms, this can mean little to no rest, especially if the child does not sleep well.
Depending on the circumstances, there should be some opportunity to teach parents or caregivers basic principles of ABA so that they can carry on with what the children are learning during sessions after the therapist leaves. With some agencies, this is done in the form of mandatory parent training by BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analysts). For other agencies, it might be part of the job description for RBTs to invite the parent to sit in, model, and describe one or two of the programs they are teaching while they are running a session with the child.
The main focus during the session will be on the child of course, but parents should always be welcome to join in and participate, learning how to deliver instructions and follow through with their child.
When there is little to no interest in how ABA therapy works from parents, caregivers, and teachers, it becomes obvious rather quickly. You might have a situation where mom is following everything note for note and dad doesn’t want to follow the program. The child will eventually notice the difference between mom and dad, responding well to one parent and defying the other. This lack of consistency eventually leads to tension between the parents and questions as to whether ABA is working or not.
The same lack of consistency can happen in a classroom. If a teacher has been given the tools to work with a child and knows what to do to avoid triggering tantrums, for example, but does not follow through because of a lack of time or energy, then the child will not progress in the classroom.
Parent training is not only important, but it is crucial when it comes to ABA therapy because it ensures the child with autism is making meaningful progress. Children with parents who are not trained in basic ABA principles and who are not receiving regular parent training by their child’s ABA agency are less likely to be successful in therapy.
Repetition and consistency are at the foundation of learning for children with autism. They learn best with predictable routines. When all of the adults that are part of their learning work in cooperation with one another, they are much more likely to feel comfortable and remember what they have learned.
The Parent’s Role in ABA Therapy
As a parent, it isn’t enough to find an ABA agency, secure a therapist and assume that everything is going to be okay from thereon. Finding ABA services is just one step toward helping a child with autism make progress toward becoming independent and successful.
Parents need to be advocates and ensure their children are getting what they need at school. They might need speech and occupational therapy. There may be a need for family therapy if siblings are not responding well to a sibling with special needs. Marriage counseling might be in order if parenting styles aren’t matching up.
ABA therapy can change the way that everyone in the family interacts – in a good way. One of the basic principles of ABA is that it works by using positive reinforcement. Imagine how that could change the dynamics in a family for the better!
Parent training in ABA is absolutely essential. Without it, a child might take one step forward and two steps back. But if parents and caregivers learn and understand the principles of ABA and apply them with consistency, then these children will have much greater success in all areas including academics, the workplace, community settings, and peer relationships.