Today’s guest post in honour of World Autism Day (April 2nd) is from Autism Expert, Seneca College Professor & Behavioural Science Program Coordinator and Founder of SmartSteps Laura Cavanagh who shares her expert insight on Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).
Estimates indicate that 1 out of every 68 individuals has a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is one of most common developmental disabilities affecting Canadians of all ages. Without a known cause or cure the treatment of choice, supported by research-based evidence, is behavioural intervention based on the science of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). But what exactly is ABA?
ABA has become a buzzword since ABA, ABA-therapy, ABA-based interventions, and other ABA-based services were designated as the preferred treatment —thanks to a mountain of evidence-based research—for children with autism. In parts of Canada it is deemed a medically-necessary intervention for children with autism—the holy grail of designations rarely doled out to non-pharmacological, psychotherapeutic-type interventions.
In spite of this, misconceptions about what ABA is (and what it isn’t) abound. The biggest one, I think, is that ABA is something that happens when your child is seated at a table with a trained behaviour specialist, but not something that’s happening at other times—at the grocery store, at the park, at the coffee shop, on the playground.
Here’s the definition my students get in ABA 101: ABA is the science that seeks to understand, analyze, and modify human behaviour.
Alright, so you’re not running data analysis on your barista’s behaviour. But how about the “modifying” part? Is your behaviour modifying others? And vice-versa?
Say you snap at your barista as they text on their phone ignoring you or say they mess up your coffee because you publicly berated them. Either way both you and your barista have modified each other’s behaviour.
BOOM: You’re a behaviour interventionist.
Because we don’t live in a vacuum, our behaviour affects others, and vice-versa. It’s true in the coffee shop, in the classroom, and in virtually every interaction you have with your child. The key is that ABA gives us a methodology for being mindful and systematic in our approach and in our impact.
Dr. Ivar Lovaas of UCLA first applied the techniques of ABA in 1987 with startling results. His initial data indicated almost half of his treatment group were admitted into mainstream classrooms and described as being indistinguishable from their peers. Although few investigators have been able to replicate Lovaas’ success rate, studies show that children with autism benefit greatly from intensive treatment based on the principles of ABA. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that the benefits have been well-documented in research literature, and that “children who receive early intensive behavioural treatment have been shown to make substantial, sustained gains in IQ, language, academic performance, and adaptive behaviour as well as some measures of social behaviour”.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Child and Youth Services endorsed intensive ABA-based therapy as the treatment of choice for individuals with autism with the implementation of its Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI). In 2000, the first children in Ontario began to receive treatment through the government’s fully-funded IBI program. By 2006 alone, government funding to the program was set at over $78 million. In 2007, the government expanded the scope of the IBI initiative to manage wait lists and meet increasing demand for service. The Ministry of Education then built upon this mandate with the introduction of Policy/Program Memorandum 140 (PPM-140), entitled Incorporating Methods of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) into Programs for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). PPM-140 ensured that individuals on the autism spectrum continued to receive government-funded ABA-based supports, now through the school system.
The government of Ontario has continued to expand upon and prioritize the provision of ABA-based intervention in the form of IBI and other ABA-based supports.
The high prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders in our province is recognized as a serious social and public health issue that needs immediate action. The demand for qualified professionals to fill the roles of service providers has been an issue with the government’s initiatives since their inception. A workforce of highly-trained and skilled professionals who can implement the services and supports needed to meet the needs of individuals with autism and their families is required. Enter Seneca College’s Behavioural Sciences diploma program. This program is specifically designed to fill the requirement for trained Autism ABA specialists.
The beauty of ABA is it’s not just a therapy, but a way to measure the impact of our behaviour on others. This is true whether we’re trying to impact someone’s behaviour by teaching them a new skill, by encouraging them to communicate, or by helping them to stop biting the kids in their class. And it’s also true that all of our behaviours—whether it’s a carefully planned instructional period, an impromptu lesson borne upon a spontaneous teachable moment, or an insult hurled in a moment of anger—have an effect on others.
Interested in ABA? Good, you’re already wielding it’s incredible power, now harness it.
 Myers, S. M. & Johnson, C.P. (2007). Management of children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics120 (5): 1162–82.
Perry A. (2002). Intensive early intervention program for children with autism: Background and design of the Ontario Preschool Autism Initiative. Journal on Developmental Disabilities, 9 (2): 121-129.