All parents want to help their children succeed. But parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may face special challenges. What's the best way to help? What steps are harmful?
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is one of the best ways to help your child. This therapy has been shown to improve the skills of autistic children and to decrease problematic behaviors, setting them up for success in life.
Parents play an important role in ABA therapy. In fact, when your therapist heads home for the day, you might continue the lessons and work with your child.
You'll get training before you get started, so don't worry. But you can learn some critical do’s and don’ts before the work begins, so you’ll know how to help without causing harm.
What’s Your Role?
ABA therapy isn't a set-it-and-forget-it approach to ASD care. You can't pass your child to a registered behavior technician (RBT), walk out of the room, and hope for the best. As a parent, you are involved in how therapy progresses and how well it works.
Autism Speaks explains that parents are part of an ABA caregiving team. You work with therapists and doctors to:
- Assess your child. You help to identify troublesome behaviors. You provide background on behavior.
- Develop a plan. You explain how your child prefers to learn. You help set goals for treatment, and you explain what interventions might improve your family's quality of life.
- Collect information. You keep tabs on your child's progress, and you talk with the team in meetings to share that data.
There are many steps here, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Remember that your work is critical, and you’ll have guidance throughout the entire process.
Researchers say that when parents get involved, kids learn faster. They generalize lessons from one environment to another. And parents extend the amount of learning time a child has access to.
All of these points matter. With parental help, kids benefit more.
Home Practice Sessions
Your child is always learning and always growing. Take advantage of that fact and apply ABA lessons at home, even when your RBT isn't there.
Experts say parents can be the best teachers, especially if kids need to pick up ABA concepts. But parents often need to learn too. Watch your child's sessions with the treatment team and consider:
- Your skills. What is the team doing with your child that you want to improve in yourself? For example, an RBT may be quite comfortable repeating a lesson 10 to 15 times, but you don't consider yourself patient. How could you build that skill?
- Your style. What techniques are they using that you haven't considered before? For example, are they using smiles as reinforcers rather than food?
- Your life. We all have difficult moments throughout the day. When would you struggle to apply these concepts? If you know you're not at your best late at night, for example, maybe you should skip bedtime lessons.
Your child's RBT will train you on ABA concepts. You'll know what behavior is the target of therapy, and you'll have a step-by-step plan you can follow to reinforce that behavior. To an outsider, your work can look like a game or a simple conversation.
For example, you might reinforce ABA concepts through:
- Conversation. At mealtimes, give your child a bowl but not a spoon. Prompt your child to ask for the spoon before you give it to them.
- Cognition. Ask your child to name their shirt color before they put it on. Ask them to tell you the name of your cats before they help feed them.
- Modeling. If you've asked your child to do something but the prompt seems unclear, use your hands to tell the story. Grasp your child’s palms in yours and place them on the plate to lift it into the cupboard, for example.
- Rewards. You give your child a prompt, and it's followed immediately. A smile, snack, or hug is in order. The more frequently your child experiences an action and a reward in quick succession, the better.
- Chaining. Some complex tasks are hard for kids to understand. Link them together, experts recommend, with a visual aid like a chart or a map. Explain how one step leads to the next step using more than words.
Sprinkle the work throughout the day, and keep track of your child's responses. You may find that it's easy to finish a task at home, but the child may struggle elsewhere. Feedback like this is critical for the team as you plot next steps.
If things don't go as planned, talk it over with your team. You're all learning and growing together, and roadblocks are expected. You can find solutions together.
ABA Therapy Do’s and Don’ts for Parents
ABA therapy is built on the concept of rewards. Good decisions lead to positive reinforcements. No punishments are required.
Parents can sometimes make poor choices during therapy that can make learning hard. Everyone makes some mistakes, but the more you know about bad choices, the less often you'll make them.
Poor ABA choices parents can make include:
- Skipping appointments. ABA is an intensive form of therapy. Autism Speaks says kids sometimes spend 25 to 40 hours in therapy per week, for one to three years. You have other tasks to complete and other places to go, but skipping an appointment means depriving a child of a learning opportunity.
Your child may lose the progress they’ve made if too many appointments are missed. For the most effective results, don’t skip appointments.
- Using punishment. Frustrated parents can use hard words or even physical acts when their children don't do as they are told during therapy. This type of response is not helpful, and it can seriously damage your child. If you feel irritated or angry during a session, take a break and start again later.
- Imposing personal views. ABA therapists and technicians are skilled professionals with years of training. They know how to apply the therapy via best practices. Parents may find some of these steps unconventional, and they may intervene to stop sessions.
For example, a child learning a challenging lesson may be unable to speak up, and the child might cry. A technician can use that cue to pivot and change the approach. If a parent stops the session as soon as the first tear appears, the lesson won’t have a chance to take hold.
There are plenty of good choices you can make as you participate in ABA therapy. You can support your child by:
- Attending training. Parent training teaches you the practical strategies you can apply when you see problematic behaviors, experts say. The more you use those tools, the better you will both understand and communicate with your child. You'll feel more confident too.
- Learning through watching. Sit in on ABA therapy sessions, and watch the professional closely. You may pick up a tip or two you can put to use in your home that you just never thought of before.
- Practicing everywhere. Is your child happy and engaged at home, but overwhelmed in public? You can't fix this issue overnight, but you could help your child to practice in tiny steps. Practice ABA skills in your yard, for example. Or hold a conversation with your child in the car while you sit in the driveway. Look for ways to apply the techniques you're learning in as many settings as possible.
- Finding balance. As you dig deep into ABA, your opinions about your child may shift. Look for ways to celebrate the uniqueness and individuality of your child while remaining focused on helping that child succeed in the world outside your front door.
- Staying engaged over the long term. ABA therapy is intense, but it's not quick. You may see small changes in your child, and that's worth celebrating. But don't get discouraged if you don't see the major shifts you hoped for. Keep working and growing, and your child will do the same.
This list of do’s and don’ts isn't exhaustive. Your child's treatment team may have specific feedback on your choices and your options. But this list can get you started on the ways you can be the most helpful member of your child's team that you can possibly be.
- Applied Behavior Analysis: A Parent's Guide. (August 2018). Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.
- Parents' Involvement in ASD Treatment: What Is Their Role? (August 2012). Cognitive and Behavioral Practice.
- Tips for Behavioral Parent Training. Regis College.
- Shaping, Chaining, & Task Analysis With an Example from Everyday Life. (February 2020). PsychCentral.
- Applied Behavior Analysis. Autism Speaks.
- Helping Parents Understand Applied Behavior Analysis: Creating a Parent Guide in 10 Steps. (December 2018). Association for Behavior Analysts International.