As the autism awareness movement has evolved to champion autism acceptance and neurodiversity, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy has also embraced neurodiversity. Today an increasing number of ABA therapists are offering therapy that blends best practices from developmental and behavioral intervention frameworks. This modern approach draws on the effectiveness of previous therapy techniques and adapts those tools to better serve our current generation of children and families.
The Evolution of ABA Therapy
In the 1960s, Dr. O. Ivaar Lovaas pioneered ABA for children with autism by using behavioral principles to teach them new skills. Lovaas used Discrete Trial Training (DTT)—high levels of repetition, prompting, modeling, and reinforcement—to achieve results. However, Lovaas’ methods used not only reinforcement but also punishment, which proved counterproductive for children whose lives the therapy was meant to improve. Over time, ABA has shifted away from DTT to play-based, naturalistic therapy.
ABA therapists now rely on reinforcement-based procedures and the field has moved away from exclusively adult-directed tasks to therapy sessions that involve a more natural back-and-forth between the therapist and the child. Therapists and children share control over the direction of activities, and clinicians design treatment based on the natural course of skills progression that occurs in child development. These more “developmental” models of therapy teach children to say “big truck,” or “red truck,” before “I want truck please.” This is in keeping with how children naturally learn to communicate – they learn to speak in two word phrases that have a noun and modifier, before they learn to speak in sentences.
The field of ABA has also grown to recognize and accept behaviors that were previously targeted for “extinction,” including “stimming” (stimulating behaviors like hand-flapping, bouncing, and rocking). When these behaviors do not interfere with a child’s daily life, they are no longer considered to be “maladaptive” and thus, a focus is not put on reducing their frequency. A child who enjoys fiddling with straws is permitted to engage in the stimming behavior when it’s not impeding with social interactions and learning.
Child-Centered ABA Therapy
At Kyo we believe that the right approach for our field is to take a naturalistic and child-centered approach to therapy. To us, autism acceptance means understanding each individual for the gifts that they bring to the world and using their personal interests to guide each therapy session. Each person with ASD has a unique set of motivations, wishes, fears, and triggers. We learn as much as we can about each client and family, in order to design engaging activities that help children make meaningful, measurable steps toward independence.
In a traditional DTT approach to therapy, a child might be taught to identify colors by touching flashcards placed in front of them on a table. In Kyo’s child-centered therapy model, a kid who loves balloons might be presented with different colored balloons to identify by color, with the therapist blowing up the balloon or letting it zip around the room, upon the child responding correctly. Another child, who is fascinated by vehicles might be taught to identify colors by the therapist presenting different colored matchbox cars.
Naturalistic, child-centered ABA therapy is one of the most effective ways to teach children with autism. We meet families where they are, to teach children in ways that feel comfortable for them and motivate them to develop new skills. Celebrating neurodiversity means incorporating a child’s unique personality into the therapy plan to deliver effective, purposeful treatment. The result is more meaningful moments for children and their families.