ABA Therapy for Autism: What To Do When It Doesn’t Work

Many parents and professionals in my online courses are waiting for ABA or they are there because they don’t think that the ABA therapy for autism that’s currently in place is working to its maximum extent. So today I’m going to give you my thoughts on what to do if you feel that ABA therapy for autism isn’t working.

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What is ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)?

So before I get into ABA therapy for autism as a treatment package for kids with autism, I do want to explain that ABA, which stands for Applied Behavior Analysis is the science of changing socially significant behavior. It is a science. It’s like the laws of gravity. If the behavior is reinforced, it goes up. If it’s not reinforced, it will go down. But ABA is also a treatment package. So when people say ABA is not working or we used to do ABA and it wasn’t good, they are talking about a treatment package, not the science because the science is never wrong.

Once I heard a really renowned behavior analyst, Dr. Dave Palmer speak at an ABA conference and he was talking about a feather and how if I had a feather and dropped it, it would drop. And it would, the laws of gravity would make it drop. But if I had a feather in a closed room with fans going to a certain degree to basically keep the feather in the air, it would look like we are going against the laws of gravity, the feather wouldn’t fall.  But that’s because of the fans or the external variables that are causing the feather to stay up.

So when people say ABA doesn’t work, the science is clear. If you reinforce the behavior, it will go up. This has been proven over decades and decades of work. But if you have all these confounding variables, the current treatment package of ABA may not appear to be working. So just like the external variables of the fans keeping the feather floating around seeming to defy the laws of gravity, confounding variables such as the environment, the people, how much stuff is in the room, what people are saying and doing in the presence of problem behavior, can complicate things and make it seem like ABA therapy for autism is not effective.

So in that situation, it’s kind of like weight loss programs. The laws of science are calories, exercise and hormones, all contract control, weight loss, and weight gain. But you can do different treatment packages of weight loss programs. You can try Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers. But just because you try Weight Watchers and you probably aren’t following it to a T and you’re going to parties and making exceptions you may not lose weight, but that doesn’t mean the science doesn’t work. There are other variables at play. So you decide Weight Watchers is not for me. Usually what people do if they still want to lose weight is they go to another type of weight loss system or treatment package. You don’t just then say, well there’s no point in doing anything because weight loss systems, in general, don’t work. You would then say this program didn’t work for me. We would need to go to a different weight loss approach all within the same science.

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When ABA autism treatment isn’t working

So I really encourage people to look at it like it’s a science. The science is not wrong. The science will always work. But if someone is doing ABA therapy for autism, Applied Behavior Analysis, and the child is not making progress, the child continues to throw himself on the ground and elope from the building and not make progress, then you have every right to question what’s going on and what the treatment package is that is being used. No one should stop making progress. Just because you’re a teenager with severe autism doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to continue to make progress. It may not be very fast progress, but we should always be looking for the way to make progress with the language, self-care, imitation, and vocational skills eventually and to be looking to decrease problem behaviors so that each child can reach their fullest potential.

So if you don’t think ABA therapy for autism is working currently with your child or clients, there are some things I would recommend that you learn more about:

  1. First, I would encourage you to learn more about functions of behavior and ABA principles such as reinforcement, extinction, shaping, and chaining, all of which are very important to make sure that the treatment package is working.
  2. Second, I would also encourage you to learn as much as possible about verbal behavior principles, including the importance of the mand or requesting and how to teach children using errorless teaching procedures and transfer procedures.
  3. Thirdly, I would also encourage you to learn as much as you can about how to assess and make a plan based on the skills of the child so that you’re not using cookie cutter type goals or transferring goals to kids that aren’t ready for those goals.
  4. Lastly, I would encourage you to learn how to collect the right data in a simple format and help make treatment changes that result in the best progress possible for each child, both at school and at home and in the community.

We have to work together. Both parents and professionals can learn all of these skills. Members of my online courses and community are learning together every day and they’re collaborating with each other to make sure that they can apply all of these procedures that make the science of ABA work as good as possible for each child. We will always have those confounding variables, those fans in the room making the feather kind of fly when it shouldn’t be flying and we just need to get to the bottom of it.

It’s going to be slightly different for each child. When people feel that ABA isn’t working, they’re usually stressed out so gaining new knowledge and having a community to ask when treatment struggles arise is key. To find out more about joining my online courses and community, which include type two BACB CEU’s for the behavior analysts out there, I would encourage both parents and professionals with toddlers through teens to check out a free workshop at marybarbera.com/workshop. And I hope to see you here next week.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?
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