Does ABA therapy work for children with autism?

February 22, 2022

ABA therapy has been shown to be an effective form of treatment for children with autism. 

In 1987, Dr. Ivar Lovaas, a UCLA psychology professor and well-respected autism expert, demonstrated that early intervention and behavioral therapy enabled children with autism to attain success. His research concluded that 90 percent of children benefited significantly from ABA therapy and 47 percent of children demonstrated similar behaviors as their peers. 

ABA therapy, which stands for Applied Behavior Analysis, is a type of behavioral therapy that focuses on reinforcing and developing positive behaviors, such as social skills, communication skills, reading, and academic skills. ABA therapy for children with autism is an innovative approach that supports children to be more independent and happy adults.

What evidence demonstrates that ABA works?

The US Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association regard ABA as an evidence-based best practices therapy.

"Evidence-based" signifies that ABA has passed scientific assessments gauging its utility, efficacy, and quality. ABA’s diverse strategies focus on antecedents (what happens before an action occurs) and consequences (what happens after a behavior occurs). For example, suppose a parent attempts to perform a daily activity such as nap time and the child throws tantrums. In this case, strategies such as designing a schedule to show the child in advance that an activity will take place, rescheduling the nap during a period in which the child is normally calmer can help prevent the behavior. 

According to more than 20 studies, many children with autism benefit from rigorous and long-term therapy based on ABA principles. Furthermore, thousands of single case, group case, and consecutive controlled case research studies identify conclusive results in 85-95% of cases. Intensive and long-term therapy programs deliver 25 to 40 hours of therapy each week over multiple years to improve linguistic development, daily living skills, and social functioning. 

Effective ABA techniques

There are many effective ABA techniques. Here are some of the most common:

  • Discrete trial training

This process involves breaking down lessons into smaller and simpler tasks, and then rewarding the child with positive reinforcement for healthy behaviors. For example, a therapist may ask a child to make a frowny face and once the child complies, they receive a simple reward in the form of a sticker or similar prize. Another similar example is that a therapist may ask a question and expect an answer from the child. Once the child responds, a simple reward such as a bar of chocolate is given. This trial can be repeated at a different date to reinforce the learning. 

  • Early start denver model

This model is for kids ranging from ages 12 to 48 months and uses play and joint activities to help improve their language, cognitive, and social skills. For instance, when the child is playing with blocks, a therapist can work on individual or complex social behavior, such as proper eye contact, motor behavior, and expressive language. Floortime activity is a good example for this model that involves the child and the therapist or the parent sitting on the floor and having an one-on-one healthy interaction.

  • Pivotal Response Training

Pivotal Response Training focuses on social connectivity while encouraging children to initiate conversations with others, increase their motivation to learn, and monitor their own behavior. During these sessions, proper behavior is rewarded with good consequences. 

For example, if a child asks for an object or toy instead of trying to acquire it in an inappropriate way, the therapist will give them the desired item. This teaches the child that asking is a good behavior rather than taking. Another example is, if a child needs a break from the training session, he/she can verbally request a break and get rewarded for initiating interaction.

  • Early intensive behavioral intervention

This training is specifically for children younger than five years old and involves one-on-one sessions with a trained specialist.

Useful ABA therapy exercises to follow at home

One prominent feature of ABA therapy is that parents can easily carry out these techniques at home with simple activities. A few examples are:

  • Sit in the chair

This is an activity where you request that your child sit in a chair during a meal. Sit opposite your child, facing them, and encourage a fun conversation.

  • Look at me 

This exercise can encourage your child to make eye contact with you by using visual stimuli such as blowing bubbles from your mouth.

Benefits of ABA therapy

Here are a few benefits of ABA therapy:

  • Improvement of social skills

ABA helps teach children social skills. ABA allows children to truly enjoy their childhood by teaching them about appropriate eye contact, sharing, initiating conversations, and putting others first by waiting for their turn. For example, they can develop the ability to read and interpret facial expressions and vocal tone cues to respond appropriately during social situations as well as listening skills that can prevent them from interrupting another speaker. 

  • Promotion of better parenting

It is helpful for parents to understand their child’s traits and behaviors. ABA’s structured therapy plan provides goal awareness and information that a parent can use to understand their child’s specific needs and be involved in their child’s care journey. 

  • Enrichment of independent life skills

ABA can help children cultivate important developmental skills like self-care and self-grooming. Some examples include brushing teeth, using the restroom, getting dressed, sleeping through the night, and more. ABA therapists can provide guidance by collecting data, noting behavioral patterns, and designing specific interventions to encourage healthy behaviors. This boosts the child's ability to follow instructions and become more independent.

  • Innovative solutions for interaction

ABA can offer innovative, effective, and helpful solutions for parents to interact with their children and for children to respond in a more positively progressive way. It helps improve the child's ability to retain and generalize skills and apply them in real-life situations.

  • Enhanced life satisfaction

Well-designed ABA curricula can promote the child's future by setting the bar high, realizing their true potential, and preparing them for success in life. Therapists can bring out visible improvements in the child's abilities and behaviors, including achievements that were never believed possible before therapy. Moreover, these improvements can dispel low expectations of people around the child, including teachers and family members.

Process timeline of ABA therapy

ABA therapy begins with a formal diagnosis of ASD. Next, the therapist crafts a personalized plan for the child, including goals, objectives, and session length. Then, they proceed with an assessment to check past medical history and previous therapies. This involves interviewing family members to determine their states of mind and willingness to carry forward with sessions. Later on, success is regularly evaluated based on progression towards goals.

ABA therapy can be carried out in various settings, such as in-homes, schools, care centers, and other community places. These sessions can take 10-40 hours per week, based on the child's developmental needs.

ABA therapy sessions are an effective way to reinforce positive and healthy behaviors in children. These sessions are the gold standard for providing the most impactful therapy for children with autism. Choosing ABA therapy for your child can improve their quality of life and set them up for success. 

Although older children with ASD can benefit from ABA therapy, it is most effective if therapy begins when they are under the age of 5. ABA aids in the teaching of social, physical, and linguistic behaviors, as well as cognitive abilities. Skill instruction is based on observation and positive reinforcement. 

While ABA therapy can be a time-consuming process and requires expert guidance, it is an impactful form of autism care that can set children up for lifelong success. Fortunately, the therapists at Songbird can help change your life within weeks. 

Songbird therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

Get started with care from Songbird — covered by insurance