As the parent or caregiver of a child with autism, you already have a lot on your plate. It can even be a relief to take your child in-clinic to therapies such as occupational therapy or speech therapy because it gives you a moment to breathe. Because these therapies aren’t always behavior-focused, oftentimes the therapist takes your child to the back, allowing you time to relax or even run errands.
However, applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is not the same and requires a different level of parent engagement in order to be as successful as possible. In fact, going beyond simple parent engagement during sessions, parent coaching (provided by your ABA care team) is also a terrific way to practice ABA techniques when your clinician isn’t present. Before you begin ABA therapy, it’s essential to realize that parental involvement is a critical aspect; you can even begin with a parent coaching / parent support group first to get familiar. It can even be useful to start parent training or coaching prior to your child beginning ABA treatment. Read on to learn more about ABA therapy and why parental involvement is crucial to your child’s success.
What Is ABA Therapy?
ABA is based on the science of behavior and learning. Using ABA therapy, professionals can gain a better understanding of how learning occurs, how the environment affects behavior, and how behavior “works” overall. It is an evidence-based practice that has been shown to be very effective in children with autism, as well as other developmental delays or disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and many others.
Because it has been thoroughly studied and tested, it is a successful treatment for many conditions, particularly for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)/autistic individuals. Because everyone with autism is different, ABA must be individualized for each person to help target problem areas and improve behavior and learning.
Before therapy can begin, the child’s current repertoire of behaviors will be assessed. This will include evaluating their current abilities, strengths, and any current barriers such as maladaptive behavior. Comprehensively, this can create a treatment plan to help your child thrive and reach their goals. The evaluation is typically delivered by a board-certified behavioral analyst (BCBA), who will be the core of your child’s ABA care team. A BCBA holds either a doctorate or a masters in behavior analysis or a related field, and they will provide you with an evaluation and a behavior treatment plan.
Working alongside the BCBA will be registered behavior technicians (RBTs). RBTs are trained in the field of behavioral analysis and certified by the BACB®. A behavior technician (BT) may also be part of your child’s care team.
ABA can be delivered in the home, in school, in a clinic setting, or out in the community. If your child does attend other therapies, such as OT or speech therapy, your RBT or BCBA may be able to sit in on sessions to further help with behavioral concerns and team collaboration.
There are many core elements of ABA therapy, and one of the necessities for success is that parents get involved with the therapy and maintain involvement.
Why Should Parents Be Engaged with ABA Therapy?
One of the main reasons parents should be engaged with ABA is to maintain consistency. For example, if your ABA clinician responds to a behavior with a certain technique that works, and parents are unaware of it, they may not know how to respond to their child’s problem behaviors during sticky situations. If a child receives inconsistent feedback with a behavior, then it’s difficult for positive reinforcement to work if a child is receiving mixed signals.
Studies show that parent involvement improves ABA outcomes considerably. One study showed that significant parental involvement at home combined with ABA therapy provided children with better cognitive and developmental skills across time.
Another reason parents should get involved is to manage behaviors in the home. A child may display a certain behavior at school or in an ABA clinic, but not display the behavior at home, or vice versa. Parents may struggle significantly if their child displays maladaptive behaviors at home, and may not know what to do. Studies have identified that stress is the biggest barrier to parental involvement and that parents can be too busy “just trying to get basic needs met.” Of course, children exhibiting problematic behaviors at home can add to the stress. Getting involved in your child’s ABA therapy can actually be a stress reliever.
Other barriers to parental involvement and causes of stress may include financial instability and lack of parent support. Very often, a parent can come home exhausted, with no mental or physical resources to work with their child. Cultural differences and language barriers can also affect the relationship between parent and clinician. It is important to remember that you and your ABA therapists are a team; interventions are meant to be adapted and individualized to meet the needs of you and your child. Through parent coaching, using ABA techniques with your child will feel like second nature and less like “work.”
Parent Involvement During ABA Sessions
There are ways to ensure that your child’s in-home ABA sessions run smoothly. Before therapy begins, make sure the area where your child is working is free from distractions. This is so your child can focus and concentrate on the clinician and the therapy itself. This should also be an area where there is not a lot of “family traffic”—other children arriving home from school, caregivers coming home from work, etc.
While there may be times when your child works solely with their clinician, it’s important to sit in on sessions, particularly when asked. While you should receive separate parent coaching sessions, you can learn valuable techniques during the session. It’s also essential to let your ABA clinician work—the process of applied behavior analysis can be difficult for a child, particularly at the beginning of treatment. There may be meltdowns and tough moments, but patience is a virtue during ABA. With repeated practice and positive reinforcement, sessions will run more smoothly and seamlessly.
You should also bring behaviors to your clinician’s attention and ask questions, often at the beginning or end of sessions. Because parents spend so much time with their children, they can record data, both at home and in the community.
For example, parents can track how often an unwanted behavior occurs and in what circumstances (see this blog post for added content on the ABCs of behavior). All of this information can be shared with the ABA clinician, and the information can be used to add to your child’s individualized treatment plan, ultimately affecting their long-term goals. Parents have the most intimate knowledge of their child’s behavior, and they can offer the most robust and comprehensive information.
ABA and Parent Training / Coaching
Parent coaching is an integral part of your child’s therapy, and it’s important you participate, even if your time is limited. A lot of parent coaching may involve observation while you sit in on your child’s sessions, but your BCBA should also have a separate session with you (and your spouse or another caregiver, if applicable). It’s vital that you be open to ABA therapies and techniques and have the willingness to implement them. By doing this, you’re helping your child’s growth and development as they learn in ABA by staying consistent with its implementation.
Applied behavior analysis techniques can also be useful as effective parenting strategies overall. This can help with social and communication skills and can help keep the family barometer less chaotic. While you may initially feel stress over learning ABA techniques and getting involved in parent coaching, the outcome will be much less stressful as your child’s behavior improves and they learn more autonomy.
If parents want to work independently on learning ABA, the ABA Centers of America recommends such books as, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a 13-Year-Old Boy with Autism, by Naoki Higashida, Uniquely Human (A Different Way of Seeing Autism), by Barry M. Prizant, Ph.D., Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, by Ellen Notbohm, and NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman.
Some ABA clinics may also offer more intensive training. For example, Acclaim Autism offers the official 40-hour training that RBTs take to parents and current clients.
You may want to begin with a Parent Training or Parent Support service prior to beginning ABA services.
What Does Parent Coaching Teach?
Just like your child’s individualized treatment plan, parent coaching will be individualized as well. Some of the things that parent coaching will teach include:
- Creating opportunities for your child to learn. For example, if one of your child’s difficulties is cleaning up when asked, their ABA clinician may address this using a step-by-step method. In the clinician’s absence, you can recreate this scenario and have your child clean up according to technique.
- Addressing scenario-specific problems. Once you’ve learned some ABA techniques, you can more effectively deal with problem situations that occur outside of sessions. For example, if your child has the beginnings of a meltdown in public but this is something you’ve worked on at home with your child’s clinician, you can use the same techniques to try to calm the situation. Additionally, you can bring certain scenarios to the attention of your clinician so they can provide you with unique solutions for the next time the behavior occurs.
- Familiarizing yourself with your child’s treatment plan. Knowing your child’s specific goals and how clinicians manage problem behaviors can be a significant help. What your child has at home is known as a behavior intervention plan (BIP), and they may also have a separate one at school. Knowing how to navigate the BIP can also help you effectively communicate with your child’s teachers and educators so everyone is on the same page.
- Having overall better outcomes. Parents are the core when it comes to their child’s support. The more deeply you’re involved with your child’s therapy, the more you can practice when your ABA care team is not present. Because parents are the most consistent part of a child’s life, knowing ABA techniques and strategies can help maintain behavior consistency across the board.
Parent coaching shouldn’t take an inordinate amount of time; it is more about implementing techniques consistently, so your child has a more effective and concise treatment program. Remember that behaviors occur all the time—not just in session.
What Are the Benefits of Parent Engagement in ABA Treatment?
Being heavily engaged in your child’s treatment supports their overall success. Studies show that there are better ABA treatment outcomes when parents are engaged. There are many clear benefits of parents being involved in their child’s ABA treatment, in addition to parent support.
Parent involvement supports:
- Treatment outcomes. With one-on-one parent coaching, parents can implement strategies out of session, which will further improve their child’s treatment goals.
- Communication and social skills. Knowing ABA techniques can help foster better communication and social skills, and you can create opportunities for your child to be engaged and social while you feel more confident as problem behavior decreases.
- School success. It’s important that everyone involved in your child’s ABA therapy be on the same page, including you as a parent, other family members at home, the ABA care team, and your child’s school. Being more involved can promote school success, and ABA is most effective when it is delivered consistently across the board.
- Generalization of new skills. Going through parent coaching can help you help your child generalize new skills. For example, as you work on a skill that your ABA clinician has instructed for your child, you can work on it in a number of different situations (e.g., at home, out in the community). Generalization of skills across different settings helps your child utilize the skill in a variety of different situations.
- Maintenance and prevention of regression. If there is a break in therapy before a goal is met, regression can occur. Parent coaching helps prevent this and maintains learned skills as ABA techniques are delivered consistently and out of session. For example, if a child is learning to tie their shoes in an ABA session, parents (and teachers) should continue to reinforce this emergent new skill. If the skill is only reinforced by the clinician, it will take much longer to learn and reach the desired goal.
- A better overall understanding of your child. Autism and learning about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be overwhelming. Add to this that every child on the spectrum is decidedly different, and you may find some of your child’s behavior confusing or upsetting. Parent engagement and thorough parent coaching help you understand your child better, understand some of the traits of autism, and help you implement strategies to sidestep problem behaviors.
ABA involvement and parent coaching also help to strengthen the parent-child relationship. Even though implementing techniques at the outset may be challenging, your child will meet goals and develop skills much faster. Additionally, some studies have shown that children with autism who have strong parental involvement are less likely to need medication. Instead of medication to minimize some of the traits of autism, your child instead learns autonomy, problem-solving, social and communicative skills, reinforcement, and other ABA techniques that can help lessen incidences of aggressive and hyperactive behavior. Through involvement in parent coaching, you become an integral part of your child’s success.
Get in touch to learn more about Acclaim Autism’s ABA therapy services or Parent Training / Parent Support.