Why is ABA Therapy Not Working?

Many parents and professionals in my online courses are waiting for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. Or they are in my course because they don’t think that the ABA therapy that’s currently in place is working to its maximum extent. Today I’m going to give you my thoughts on what to do if you wonder: why is ABA therapy not working?

What is ABA Therapy?

Applied Behavior Analysis is the science of changing socially significant behavior. It’s like the law of gravity. If the behavior is reinforced, the behavior goes up. If it’s not reinforced, the behavior will go down. ABA is also a treatment package. When people say ABA therapy is not working or they used to do ABA and it wasn’t good, they are talking about a treatment package, not the science. Science is never wrong.

Once I heard a really renowned board-certified behavior analyst, Dr. Dave Palmer, speak at an ABA conference. He stated that if you dropped a feather, it would drop to the ground. But if you had a feather in a closed room with fans going to try to keep the feather in the air, it would appear to go against the law of gravity because the feather wouldn’t fall. However, the external variables caused the feather to stay in the air. Gravity is still working even though the feather doesn’t fall.

Understanding External Circumstances

When people say ABA therapy doesn’t work, it’s probably because of external variables. If you reinforce a desired 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, people, how much stuff is in the room, and what people are saying and doing in the presence of problem behavior, can complicate things and make it seem like ABA therapy is not working.

It’s similar to a weight loss program. Losing weight means counting calories, exercise, tracking hormone levels, and recording your weight. You can try different packages and weight loss programs like Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers. But if you try Weight Watchers and you don’t follow it completely (you go to parties and make exceptions to some of the rules) you may not lose weight. That doesn’t mean the program has failed. There are other variables at play. 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 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.” You would try another program.

When is ABA Therapy Not Working?

If you are trying an ABA therapy session and the child is not making progress – if they are still throwing tantrums or running out of the building – you have every right to question the program or treatment package. 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 language, self-care, imitation, and vocational skills, as well as looking to decrease problem behaviors so that each child can reach their fullest potential.

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Assessing Whether ABA Therapy is Working

If you don’t think ABA therapy 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 the functions of behavior and ABA principles such as reinforcement, discrete trial training, 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.

Parent and Caregiver ABA Training

ABA therapy programs take time to work. Insurance coverage for an ABA therapist in many areas within the United States is improving, so many more children are receiving a good amount of ABA therapy per week, even with the deductibles and waiting lists. However, in many parts of the US and most of the rest of the world, getting 20-40 hours per week of ABA therapy is just not possible.

In my opinion, the best thing you can do with a few hours a week of ABA therapy is to train parents during those hours. The worst thing you could do is to do the ABA therapy while the parent or caregiver is out of the room.  The end result is that they have no idea what you’re doing and can’t implement therapy on their own. The fewer the hours a child receives, the more critical parent and caregiver training is. Bring in whoever is going to be with the child more than that those few hours per week.

Join the ABA Therapy 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. They’re collaborating with each other to make sure that they can apply all of these procedures and make them work well for their children or clients. We will always have confounding variables and we just need to get to the bottom of it.

It’s going to be slightly different for each child. People usually feel stressed when they think ABA therapy isn’t working. 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 BCBA 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.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?
SIGN-UP FOR DR. MARY BARBERA’S FREE TRAINING!