As a parent or caregiver of a child with autism, you play an integral role in your child’s progress and success. Expanding your knowledge surrounding your child’s behavior and how to build their skills can empower you to take a more active role in your child’s treatment. The more you know, the better you can advocate for your child’s best interests.
With most medical diagnoses, we seek treatment from doctors. We trust that they have it covered and either take a prescription or follow through with whatever the treatment recommendation may be. Even if it’s ongoing, like physical therapy, we may be given some exercises to practice outside of clinic, but we mostly depend on the PT to help while we are there in the office. Why is ABA and treatment for autism different?
The problem with this hands-off approach to ABA is that therapy/treatment is all about behavior, both yours and your child’s. There are so many contingencies at play affecting both your behavior and your child’s behavior throughout the day. Those contingencies don’t stop when the therapist leaves your house or when you leave a clinic, and it’s important to know how to respond when behavior occurs. While there are plans your therapist or BCBA can set in motion, it’s up to you as a parent or caregiver to continue to implement the plan outside of therapy sessions.
Understanding the Basics
In order to understand how all of this works throughout your day, you need to understand some ABA basics.
At the core of ABA and behavior theory is the concept that all behavior is surrounded by antecedents and consequences. For example, if I’m thirsty, I take a drink of water, and I’m no longer thirsty.
My thirst is the antecedent, drinking water is my behavior, and the consequence is that I’m no longer thirsty.
Taking that a step further, behavior theory states that the consequences that follow a behavior determine whether that behavior will increase or decrease in the future.
What do I mean by that? A basic example would be if I’m not receiving recognition at work, I work really hard on assignment, and my boss compliments me in front of my peers or maybe I even get a promotion.
I’m likely to work really hard the next time I have an assignment.
For your child, maybe he wants a cookie, asks nicely for the cookie, and gets the cookie.
If he gets the cookie for asking nicely, he’s likely to ask nicely again the next time he wants something.
Now, this may not be how it goes down in your household. Maybe this sound more familiar:
You’re at Target and your child sees a toy he wants, so he proceeds to throw a tantrum on the floor in he middle of the aisle. Of course you want it to stop, so you say fine and throw the toy in the cart.
Totally understandable. Most parents wouldn’t pass judgment on that one. Unfortunately, the same thing that was at play with the cookie applies here to that challenging behavior. If your child got the toy following the crying, he’s more likely to engage in crying the next time.
This is where those little moments throughout the day become so important. If you understand the concepts behind ABA, the path to managing your child’s challenging behavior and teaching your child new skills becomes a lot clearer. It’s really important to understand these concepts to know how to change life for you and your family.
So, why am I talking about managing behavior and teaching skills? Every individual with ASD is different. What is common to most children with ASD, is that there are some behaviors you would probably like to see decrease, maybe crying, screaming, hitting, and some skills that your child may be missing, such as communication or social skills. As such, treatment focuses on managing those challenging behaviors, while building those skills. They go hand in hand, as often increasing those skills is part of decreasing that challenging behavior.
Learning to Manage Challenging Behavior
If you’re reading this, then it’s likely your child exhibits some challenging behaviors and you probably realize that something isn’t working. Typical punishments (what most of us go to automatically) don’t often work in the long-term and can actually end up increasing a child’s challenging behavior. So, why is ABA different? ABA looks at behavior in a different way. Though it makes a ton of sense once you learn, it’s counter-intuitive, so it’s important to gain a good understanding of the principles, as well as to practice implementing strategies. Here’s some of the basics as to why it may be different:
- Function For starters we look at why behavior is occurring. In ABA, we call this reason a function. There are 4 main functions of behavior, differentiated by what we get from the consequence:
- Why knowing function is important
In the work example I gave, my boss’ praise gave me attention. If I continue to work hard for that purpose, we could conclude that the function of my working hard is to gain attention. In the example of the child at Target, the function of the crying is to gain access to the toy. This may seem obvious once we paint the whole picture, but there are often situations where how we intuitively respond, may be ensuring that the behavior is going to continue to occur. It’s important to know what the function of a behavior is, or why someone is engaging in it, in order to change the behavior.
Here’s an example of why this is so important in a typical classroom, what tends to happen when a child is “acting up”? They get sent out, right? If we were to look at this situation from a behavioral perspective, we’d want to know what the function of this behavior is.
Let’s say a child throws her pencil during math class and gets the typical consequence of getting sent out of the room. If a child is really struggling during Math time because it’s difficult for her, and throwing things gets her sent out of class, she just accomplished her goal of escape from Math. Since we know that the consequence following a behavior determines whether this behavior will happen again in the future, we know we just reinforced the behavior, ensuring that she will likely continue to “act up” again the next time she wants to get out of something. So, our typical punishment of sending her out of class, maybe stopped the behavior in the moment, but actually increased the likelihood that it will keep happening in the future.
If instead, we learn how to look at this through the lense of function, we can provide our children with the tools necessary to get their needs met without this challenging behavior. ABA provides a framework for this.
Teaching New Skills
Teaching new skills is a big part of that. For instance, maybe the student didn’t have the language to ask for help or a break from the difficult math assignment. Teaching her how to communicate and make a request would not only help to decrease this challenging behavior of throwing pencils, but would help her to become independent and get her needs met. This ends up serving as a replacement behavior for the tantrum.
I’m sure most of you are aware that children on the autism spectrum often learn differently. Sometimes this means really breaking down a skill and usually getting repeated practice until it’s mastered. What we do to teach those skills (what we say and what our consequences are) can be the difference between a child learning a skill or not. There are a lot of nuances in teaching these skills. It’s important we know how to present things, because it can be easy to inadvertently teach inappropriate skills or behavior.
I’m willing to bet that many of you have to try very hard to get your child’s attention at times. Maybe you do this by saying or calling their name repeatedly. Pretty normal for a parent. Let’s think about this from the child’s perspective: For example, I’m calling my child’s name because I want him to come down for dinner. “Bobby…. (No response)…Bobby….(no response)……Bobby…(no response)” Does this sound familiar? But, What’s the big deal (besides the fact that I’m now getting really frustrated that my child isn’t listening)? Well, there’s no consequence, but I’m also teaching Bobby that he doesn’t need to listen the first time. Maybe I eventually go up there and get him, but if I call his name 10 times first, why would he listen the first time? Maybe I’m giving him more time to play video games by ignoring me. I’m also not showing Bobby what I want him to do.
Maybe your child doesn’t know that this is what you want. So, we need to show them. How we do this is important. We want your child to be successful and ABA provides a very systematic way to move your child toward independence. This doesn’t have to be done in a robotic way, either. Skills can be incorporated into fun, natural learning opportunities, but there are still specific strategies that aid your child’s learning.
Learning how to teach those skills and how to create more opportunities to teach them is really important. There are a lot of hours in a week outside of therapy time. Using that time to teach a child new skills or manage behavior can be invaluable to progress. The more a parent can incorporate those skills throughout the day, the faster the progress. Let’s just say I’m teaching my child to talk. One of the best places to start is teaching them to communicate their needs by making requests. Think about how many opportunities there are throughout the day for this to happen: water, milk, bathroom, food, hugs, playing, etc. If I’m capitalizing on all of those moments, I’m providing my child with so many learning opportunities and chances to practice this skill.
Educating Yourself About Services
In addition to learning the behavior basics, strategies for managing challenging behavior, and how to teach your child new skills, it’s important to educate yourself about the services available to you and your child. Knowing your child’s rights when it comes to school, learning about the IEP process, and what kinds of treatments are available, can help you become a better advocate for your child. There is so much noise out there, that it can be difficult to know what’s best. Researching reputable organizations and those that promote using evidence-based practices is a good place to start.
It’s also important to know which questions to ask. For more information on what to expect from ABA therapy, the benefits of ABA, as well as what questions to ask when looking for a provider, visit the attached blogs. Knowing what to ask can be the key to finding the right services for you and your child. The more you know, the better you can advocate for your child. It’s important for parents to learn and understand what evidence based treatments look like, what their child’s rights are for services in home and in school, and how to carry out behavior techniques and strategies.
I’ve just scratched the surface of how behavior works here. You can learn more through our foundational course on behavior management, as well as by reading our blog for tips on helping your child throughout the day. Gaining a deeper understanding will help you to support your child, set them up for success, and create a more peaceful environment at home.