There are lots of ways to try to educate yourself as a parent or professional on the principles of an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program. For professionals, bringing in a knowledgeable speaker on the topic of ABA is probably the most common way to begin. This can often “jump-start” enthusiasm for ABA but will take time and money to sponsor a speaker. For parents, finding a BCBA may be the first step, but with wait lists and limited funding this could also take time. Luckily, there are tips that you can implement right now in your home or school. That’s why I’m going over my top tips for starting an ABA program at home or in school.
Use ABA Therapy for the Right Things
One of the biggest problems I see in the autism world is well-meaning parents and professionals simply working on the wrong things. This is caused by not assessing the whole situation and then not using that assessment to make a plan for the child, both at home and school.
Let me tell you about Brentley. Brentley’s mom, Kelsey, was driving little Brentley, who was only two and a half years old, an hour each way to an ABA clinic. He was working on colors when he was at the ABA clinic but he shouldn’t have been. Because Brentley was banging his head on hard surfaces up to 60 times a day. He was running into streets and into the water, requiring Kelsey to put a harness and a leash on while Brentley was out in the community.
I worked briefly with another boy who was about 10 years old. The staff was trying to teach him prepositions, colors, intraverbal webbing, and all these more advanced language topics. But, this 10-year-old couldn’t even wash his hands independently. He also insisted on sitting on a sofa during all meals, refusing to come to the table with his parents.
We have to look at the whole picture. Make a plan based on the child’s strengths, needs, age, and as well as family priorities.
The number one thing you should do when starting an ABA program for a child with autism is an assessment. This includes counting any words or pop out words they can say or understand, making note of when problem behavior occurs, and what life skills they are capable of doing on their own like toilet training or brushing their teeth. An assessment can help a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and even a child’s teacher to see what level the child is at and plan for what to do moving forward. I did assessments for all of my former clients and for my son, Lucas.
In all situations, I recommend a thorough assessment. But it doesn’t have to be super thorough on day one. In fact, I created a one-page assessment form several years ago, that can be completed in about five or ten minutes.
Make a Plan
So after the assessment of the whole situation is done, we want to look at creating a plan. That plan needs to be based on the child’s strengths and needs and based on the assessment that you just completed. It also needs to take into account the child’s age and family priorities.
It’s common to have a lot of issues that you want to address. You might have a strength column on the planning form that’s very short and a need column that is very long. In Brentley’s situation, potty training was a need. But he was only two and a half or three at that point. He was banging his head on hard surfaces and running into the street. Brentley had no safety awareness and no ability to come to a table and to request things. Working on potty training was not a need to prioritize right then. We can’t tackle all the needs at the same time. This is where we have to really work with the family and the professionals to come up with a plan that is right for the child.
If I were teaching you how to fly a plane or play the guitar, it would take months to master even the most basic concepts. So it’s best to start at ground zero, as a team. The first note you would play on the guitar or the first main panel with just a few buttons. We need to go back to more basic, very simple tasks before we get to harder tasks. You can update the assessment and planning forms every few months. This will allow you to go back and see how much progress your child or client makes, and see how their strengths and needs change over time.
If a child is in school, try to get a BCBA with VB expertise in the child’s IEP for a specified period of time each month (i.e. 4, 6, or 8 hours) for program oversight. Putting staff training (for example 6 hours before anyone new works with the child) in the IEP also can also be essential and the BCBA whose services are the IEP can provide that training. There should also be a specific place either at home or in the classroom for therapy to occur. This can be the corner of a classroom, a specific table, or whatever you can come up with. Make sure that table or corner is stocked with materials such as edibles, drinks, electronics, and games.
If services are in the child’s IEP, the BCBA and staff training requirements will follow the student to middle school and then to high school. This may mean that you won’t have to start your advocacy efforts over again as the child transitions and as staff come and go over the years. Getting BCBA services and staff training in the IEP may be difficult but since the IEP legally drives services, I believe it might be something worth pursuing.
If you have difficulty getting things going in a child’s classroom or school, start small and focus on getting ABA for the child only (not for the whole classroom). I have an assessment checklist in my program that can help parents, professionals, and educators to be on the same page. Early intervention is key when working with a child with autism. The more you can do at home or with a BCBA, the better.
Practice Manding, Shoebox Program, and Matching
Select 3-5 items that the child loves and can be kept at room temperature. Things like candy, pretzels, apples, bubbles, and books. Bring them to the table or corner of the room during therapy. Practice manding and reinforcement with these items. You should choose items that you can bring out mostly during therapy sessions that they don’t get on a regular basis. For food and drink, healthier items are better.
You can also start a Shoebox Program or mini Shoebox Program. Take a shoebox or wet wipe box and make a slit in the top. Take either memory game cards or pictures of items that a child sees daily and hold them up to your mouth. Say the word three times and have the child put the card or picture in the box. Another thing you can do with pictures is to have the child match two pictures of the same thing, like their parents, food items, or other things they like.
Object Imitation and Receptive Tasks
Grab some toys or other objects that match and teach the child how to match the motions you are doing with them. For instance, tapping a spoon on the table or getting a fast food restaurant toy to bounce off the table. This you do with the child and they imitate what you are doing. Receptive tasks are asking a child to touch a picture or a body part when you say the word out loud, like “touch your arm.” The child doesn’t have to speak for these activities, but it does show they understand the names of different objects.
Keep Calm and Record Any New Skills, Words, or Word Approximations
Don’t label problem behaviors or avoid saying the word “no.” Positive reinforcement is better than pairing demands with either their name or the word “no.” Make a list of the words that the child learns to say or any new skills they learn. Even word approximations should be recorded and celebrated. Keep a pen and paper handy at all times.
You can implement an ABA program both at home and in the classroom. I hope you found my top tips to be helpful. Remember, you are not alone. If you don’t have a local autism support community, or even if you do, my online community of parents and professionals of kids with autism can help you, too.
To get the free assessment form and planning form, go to marybarbera.com/join. Even if you are a seasoned professional, this guide will help you look at things possibly a little bit differently and will give you some handy resources that can help you and the families that you work with start turning things around today.