Applied Behavior Analysis is a set of principles that form the basis for many behavioral treatments, which are widely uses in education, healthcare, business management, and other fields. It is based on theories of learning and behavior, and it establishes a general set of “laws” about how behavior works and how learning takes place. In ABA, the term "behavior" refers to all types of actions and skills, not just "misbehavior." In ABA therapy, the principles of learning and behavior are applied to help bring about changes in target areas, including increasing positive or desired behavior and decreasing behavior that interferes with learning or may be harmful.
ABA therapy includes many different techniques, all of which focus on "antecedents" (what happens before a behavior occurs) and on "consequences" (what happens after the behavior). One common technique is “positive reinforcement," which is based on the principle that when behavior is followed by something that is valued (a reward), that behavior is more likely to be repeated. For ABA therapy, positive reinforcement is used in a way that can be measured in order to help bring about meaningful behavior change.
ABA Therapy generally focuses on improving specific behaviors, such as social skills, communication, reading, and academics. It also focuses on adaptive learning skills, such as fine motor dexterity, hygiene and grooming, life skills, self care, and even job competence. ABA is considered an evidence-based “best” practice treatment by the US Surgeon General and by the American Psychological Association. “Evidence based” means that ABA has passed scientific tests of its usefulness, quality, and effectiveness. It is a widely recommended form of treatment for autism spectrum disorder. Many studies have demonstrated that comprehensive, individualized and intensive early intervention programs combining multiple ABA techniques can result in significant improvements in learning, reasoning, communication and adaptability in pre-school children with autism who participate in high-quality ABA programs. As with all treatment approaches, some children made greater improvements than others, and a small percentage of children showed relatively little improvement. It is unclear why some children benefit from ABA and others do not.
ABA Therapy will look different from one child to the next. It is not a "one size fits all" approach. A skilled therapist customizes the interventions to each child's skills, needs, interests, preferences, and family situation. Quality ABA therapy will involve the creation of a behavior plan, ongoing assessment and review of progress, the use of a variety of behavior analytic techniques, training for parents/family members, and an emphasis on positive social interactions and enjoyable learning.
To learn more about what to expect with ABA therapy, check out the following resources:
Pediatric physical therapy (PT) can help children with issues like poor balance, difficulty with functional movements, poor muscle tone, lack of coordination, and challenges moving through their environment successfully and safely. A child with autism might experience difficulties with any of these areas, but not every child with ASD needs physical therapy. If it is considered medically necessary, your child's doctor will recommend it alongside other therapies.
Pediatric physical therapists can address:
Within these broader categories, physical therapy can help a child acquire new motor skills, develop motor imitation skills (i.e. ability to mimic movements they see others performing), improve skills for reciprocal play (such as playing catch), improve coordination and stable posture, and improve participation in daily routines at school and at home.
Intensive therapeutic intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder typically incorporates multiple therapeutic approaches that focus on the key social, communication and behavioral issues the individual child is experiencing. Multiple forms of therapy can be used to create a treatment program that addresses both core symptoms and associated symptoms of ASD. Common therapies used to treat ASD include Behavioral Therapy (such as Applied Behavior Analysis and Health Behavior Intervention), Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Speech and Language Therapy, and Social Skills groups. On this page, you will find a brief overview of each of these types of therapy and how they are used to treat ASD.
Speech & Language Therapy
Applied Behavior Analysis
Autism can impact speech, language development, and social communication in a variety of ways. Speech and language therapy can address a wide range of communication difficulties for people with autism. In general, SLT is designed to coordinate the mechanics of speech with the meaning and social use of language, with the goal of helping an individual communicate in more useful and functional ways. Treatment approaches and goals are created based on an individual's verbal aptitudes and challenges. As a treatment for autism, goals for SLT may include improving aspects of spoken language, learning nonverbal communication skills such as signs or gestures, and/or introducing augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) tools.
When working with a child on the spectrum, a speech-language pathologist can help address goals such as: learning to articulate words clearly, improving verbal and nonverbal communication, comprehending verbal and nonverbal communication, understanding others' intentions, spontaneous communication (i.e. initiating communication without requiring prompting from others), understanding the appropriate time and place to communicate (example: when to say "good morning," adjusting voice volume appropriately, etc), developing conversational skills, learning to exchange ideas, learning self-regulation, and communicating in ways to develop relationships with others. Speech-language pathologist aim to help children with autism find enjoyment in communicating, playing, and interacting with their peers.
As with intensive behavioral therapies and occupational therapy, the earlier speech-language therapy is started, the better. Indeed, speech-language pathologist can often be a vital resource in early detection and referrals for comprehensive autism assessments. Early intervention with speech-language therapy can improve a child's ability to communicate and reduce the isolation that can come with autism. With early intervention, two out of three preschoolers with autism will improve communication skills and their grasp of spoken language. Young children that receive more speech therapy typically see greater improvements. Many intensive behavioral intervention programs also include speech-language therapy elements.
Occupational therapy (OT) addresses a combination of cognitive, physical and motor skills. OT focuses on helping an individual gain age-appropriate independence, enhancing quality of life, and improving participation in daily living, school, work, leisure, play, and social interactions. As a treatment for autism, occupational therapy often focuses on skills for appropriate play or leisure, learning, and self-care, as these are common areas where people with autism may struggle.
A certified occupational therapist can evaluate your child’s developmental level, as well as their learning styles, social abilities, and environmental needs. Goals for OT may include improving skills like independent dressing, feeding, grooming, use of the toilet, and improvements to social, fine motor and visual perceptual skills. Typically, occupational therapy involves 30- to 60-minute sessions, with frequency of sessions determined by the individual’s needs. As with other therapies, children with autism should practice their OT strategies and skills—with guidance—in a variety of settings, including home and school.
For children (and adults) with autism, occupational therapist can: