What is ABA? Myths, Facts, And Who Can Benefit
By Catherine Baker Simms, PhD, BCBA-D
There is quite a bit of misunderstanding about what Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is all about. Similarly, there are a lot of misconceptions about who can benefit from it. If you’re familiar with the ideas behind positive reinforcement, then you know just a very little bit about this work. But, there is a lot more to it than that. ABA is not a bag of tricks (like sticker charts and color wheels) and it’s not just for children on the autism spectrum. Here you’ll learn a little bit about what ABA is and who can benefit from it. We’ll also explore some common myths and facts about the work, which should help to deepen your understanding. For more information, or to learn more about how working with us could benefit you and your family, please contact the Florida Children’s Institute at 904-374-6403 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an appointment or phone consultation.
What is ABA?
Applied Behavior Analysis (or ABA Therapy) is quite simply the study of behavior. Defined in this way, “behavior” includes everything that someone does, from sleeping to reading to communicating with peers. Behavior Analysis is not just the study of problem behaviors. Instead, it also encompasses the study of the actions and interactions that we want others to engage in. Essentially, it’s the study of how learning behaviors, of any kind or sort, takes place.
An ABA approach is applied here at Florida Children’s Institute (FCI) via individualized programs which are custom tailored to meet the needs of each child exactly where they are. The work begins by building a better understanding of a individual’s behaviors and needs through one-to-one interactions with the child, and through feedback provided by parents, caregivers, doctors, and teachers. Next, we’re ready to begin preparing, and working through a highly individualized plan with the child, the school, and the family.
Because ABA is all about the study of behavior, it’s easily applied to fixing problems. But, this work is not just about the techniques and tools that are provided along the way. It’s just as much about the understanding and the analysis that brings those techniques forward. The primary word here is analysis. ABA therapists seek to understand what is happening and why it’s happening. Once that’s understood, strategies and techniques can start to be applied that can help to shift and change behavior. So, if learning has been derailed for any reason, whether it’s a biological issue, something in the environment, or even if a child experiences a trauma, we can apply ABA techniques to help the individual work through these challenges.
Behavior Analysis is simply the study of human behavior – why humans do what they do and how they learn new skills. We can help children to adjust their actions and interactions through better understanding the nature and root of the adaptive skills and unwanted behaviors they’re currently exhibiting. Then, we can put a highly personalized and individualized plan into place, and make adjustments along the way, in order to guide real change and real progress.
Who can benefit from ABA?
There are a lot of misunderstandings out there about how behavioral problems manifest in children, and about how diagnosis can help to parse this information out. There was scientific research in the late 80s that showed that ABA could make significant progress for kids with autism. So, when you google the term, the vast majority of the information that’s revealed relates to how the therapy works for kids on the Autism Spectrum. However, ABA can be beneficial for just about everyone.
At FCI, we work with children with all kinds of different learning and behavioral challenges through an ABA approach. The process can help ease struggles associated with ADHD, anxiety, or depression, for example. Really, anyone and everyone can benefit from this work, even if they have never received a diagnosis.
It should also be noted that Behavior Analysis isn’t just limited to children. There is a whole branch of the field called Organizational Behavior Management that is focused on business and employment. This work allows organizations to determine how to bring out the best in their employees and how to maximize the working environment. It’s a form of Applied Behavior Analysis, and many businesses utilize it to help their workers and their company to thrive.
Myths and Facts:
Let’s take a closer look at three important points about ABA in an effort to dispel some myths and get to the facts.
- FACT – EVERY PROGRAM IS UNIQUE
Some have learned to recognize ABA by the tools that its practitioners bring to the table. However, putting an entire classroom on a sticker chart in an effort to elicit good behavior might not always be as effective as adults might hope.
ABA can help everyone because it addresses each individual’s unique needs in the ways that are best for them. This is quite different than the way a medical diagnosis is treated, for example, and that has caused some confusion along the way.
Medical diagnoses are definitive and universal. The same treatments are assigned to individuals who’ve received the same diagnoses. If your tooth is infected, it’s removed. And, if another person’s tooth is infected in the same way, the dentist will apply the same treatment. However, the same rules don’t apply when it comes to a behavioral diagnosis.
This is because a behavioral diagnosis is simply a label for a group of behaviors that tend to occur together. So, groups of behaviors are categorized as indicating ADHD, or generalized anxiety, for example. But, even within those categories, things tend to manifest differently case to case. For example, one child with an ADHD diagnosis might have trouble sitting still or controlling impulses in a classroom setting while another might struggle to focus in class without being disruptive. The symptoms, as well as the treatments, tend to be more universal with a medical diagnosis. So, just as the challenges manifest in unique and individualized ways with a behavioral challenge, so too the treatment plan must be custom-tailored to meet each individual exactly where they are.
A good ABA treatment plan is unique and individualized. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in Applied Behavior Analysis or therapy. It’s much more complex and personalized than that.
- FACT – ABA IS THE ANALYSIS NOT JUST THE TOOLS
It’s essential to get to the root causes of behaviors in order to help a child forge another path. So, ABA is as much about the analysis itself as it is about the tools applied toward a solution.
So, for example, if a child is trying to get attention and that’s the reason they’re engaging in some kind of problem behavior, we have to teach them how to gain people’s attention appropriately. Understanding why the child is acting out is essential for plotting a course that fixes the problem. Or, if a child is avoiding social interactions because those interactions are innately hard for them, for example, we teach them how to fill in those gaps.
If we find that a technique isn’t working, we go back to the analysis in an effort to understand the child and the root cause of the behaviors a little bit better. This part of the work is crucial for determining which tools to apply. Therefore, ABA is as much about the analysis itself as it is about the fixes.
- FACT – ABA IS NOT ALL ABOUT PUNISHMENTS AND REWARDS
As stated above, ABA is about more than just the tools used to influence or adjust behaviors. It’s about the analysis too. Similarly, it’s important to understand that the methods we use aren’t just about rewards and punishments. The tools used in ABA don’t just reinforce or admonish behavior. We also go on the front end of the activity or interaction and promote actions that prevent behaviors from happening in the first place. We call this antecedent intervention, and it’s a very important part of ABA work.
Antecedent interventions and teaching the children what occurs before a behavior happens allows us to help children anticipate and prepare for challenges. Let’s say, for example, that you’re going to a restaurant. Talking about the rules and challenges that may arise ahead of time can go a long way to prevent a problem. For example, you might review two simple rules with your child before heading in. You might tell them that the rules are no yelling and that they have to stay in their seat. You might also say that if they follow these rules, they can have ice cream for dessert. But, this reward is contingent upon them avoiding the problem behaviors of yelling or running around the restaurant. This type of antecedent intervention, or pre-teaching, can also happen in much more complex and nuanced ways.
All kinds of different strategies and methods come into play with an ABA approach. But, the work is about a lot more than just rewards and punishments.
ABA is about helping children to adjust their behaviors in ways that serve them better in the long run. This work helps children to be happier and more successful because it addresses their specific and precise needs. The successes tend to build on themselves as kids gain first hand experience with the benefits of making the changes.
For more information, contact the Florida Children’s Institute.