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If you are a parent or caregiver who has recently had a child in the family diagnosed with autism, chances are that you are starting to explore options to help your child, and you are probably hearing the acronym “ABA” being tossed around a bit.
Like many parents or caregivers who are new to this world of autism and behavior therapies, you probably have a lot of questions about behaviors, behaviorism, and ABA therapy.
The most obvious questions are likely to be: what is behavior therapy? What is all of this talk about ABA?
To better understand the world that you are entering into with your child, a little background and definition might be helpful. So, let’s get to it!
Behavior Analysis is an ever growing field that is one of the primary therapies for treating children with autism. Although autism is currently the most prevalent field that behavior analysts are employed in, there are several other career path opportunities for BCBAs (board certified behavior analysts).
Behavior Analysts work as social workers, occupational therapists, non profit organizations, organizational management, personal health, and wellness trainers, and more. Behavior Analysts practice the science of behavioral modification in all of the above mentioned career paths. The end goal is always to produce changes that are appropriate, helpful, life changing, and inspirational.
How did this science grow and become one of the most popular forms of treatment for children with autism? Well, autism at its core is a developmental and neurological deficit that presents itself in various forms in each individual.
Due to autism being neurological and developmental, there is no true “medication” to prescribe. ABA provides a way to teach and redirect behaviors in a way that helps the person with autism communicate better, socialize more appropriately, and become aware of behaviors that are hindering the individual’s quality of life.
There are four main branches associated with this particular science. Understanding each branch can help one to understand the progression that led to Applied Behavior Analysis becoming an evidence based science that has been so successful for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other psychosocial neurological deficits.
Here is a brief overview of the development of ABA as we know it today.
Back in the late 1800s, the science of behaviorism was introduced by a man named John Watson. He is the father of the behavioral sciences, and he helped to establish the most foundational philosophies of the behavioral sciences as we know them today. Behaviorism includes concepts such as determinism and empiricism and can be considered the knowledge seeking branch of the behavioral sciences. The focus of behaviorism has always been to examine the relationship between living organisms and their environments. For example,one way to examine living organisms and how they relate to their environments is to observe how plants respond to (behave) various amounts of sunlight, water, and oxygen. In ABA, we can observe how a client responds to various amounts of praise, access to preferred items, or some other form of reinforcement. In other words, we can observe changes between the living organism (a human subject in this case) and their environment as it is manipulated or adjusted to suit the needs of the client.
The experimental part of behaviorism is exactly what it sounds like- filled with research and experiments. These experiments don’t always involve people, and they are not always concerned with social validity. For a behavior to be socially valid means that the research and experiments are appropriate, socially important, and the end result is meaningful. In ABA, the goal is always to improve the client’s quality of life. Anything that isn’t safe or relevant to improved quality of life for the client is not socially valid.
Applied Behavior Analysis
By way of a psychologist named B.F. Skinner, applied behavior analysis begins to take shape with a foundation in operant conditioning, behavioral shaping, and experimental analysis. Operant conditioning is a type of learning (operant response) that is made to increase or decrease a specific behavior by manipulating the consequences in the environment. For example: a baby cries (operant response) >> mother picks baby up and feeds the baby (changes in the environment) >> the baby learns to cry to summon mom (change in response).
By the mid 1940s, conferences focused on “Experimental Analysis of Behavior” were being held; by the late 1960s the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis was founded and the field continued to grow. More recently, ABA has become the cornerstone treatment for individuals with autism and other pervasive developmental disorders. ABA is a direct result of the work that has been accomplished since those early days with Watson, Skinner, and others up to the present day. With a foundation in operant conditioning, reinforcement schedules, data collection, and continual analysis, ABA will likely remain the number one “go-to” for autism treatment because the evidence shows that it works. No other treatment options have shown the same success with science to support the results.
This refers to the direct application of the behavioral sciences. If you are a parent who has a child with autism and you are currently receiving applied behavior analysis services for your child, you are directly witnessing the professional practice of applied behavior analysis.
Why Does All of This Matter?
The relevance in all of this history of behaviorism is simply to educate. Applied Behavior Analysis has been in use for far longer than most people are aware of. ABA is more prevalent because the diagnosis of autism is more prevalent. Thirty and forty years ago, autism was rarely spoken of and far more mysterious to the public. Celebrities who had children on the spectrum kept their children out of the public eye and avoided questions about their child. Families who had children on the spectrum very frequently did not have a concrete diagnosis for their child and could not find the proper resources for them.
Today, thanks to further research and experimental analysis, we have a greater understanding of autism and how to work with children and families to help them with the symptoms and deficits that autism presents.
There is still much to learn, of course. The cause of autism is not fully known and a cure for autism is not available. What we do know is that one in 54 children that are born in the United States are diagnosed with autism and there are options for treatment that can enhance the quality of life for both children and their families.
Knowing the history and progression of behaviorism gives ABA the validity that it has earned and deserved as an evidence based science that has helped countless numbers of individuals and their families to communicate, socialize, increase academic skills, increase employability, increase independence and more.
Circle Care Services in New Jersey is ready to help you and your child to see the same benefits that so many others who live with autism enjoy.
Give us a call.