Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is more common than most people realize, affecting approximately 1 in 54 children throughout the United States. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), places that number even higher, estimating a figure closer to 1 in 40, or “about 1.5 million U.S. children.” And, while boys are over four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed, “ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With so many children and families affected, finding effective ASD treatments is a priority for healthcare providers. One of the most common methods of treatment is known as applied behavioral analysis (ABA): a system of behavioral therapy in which positive behaviors are reinforced through rewards, while negative behaviors are discouraged by the withholding of rewards. There are also several subcategories of ABA therapy, including Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and Pivotal Response Training (PRT).
While not without its share of controversy and debate, ABA has also been shown to be effective for many children, with the CDC noting, “ABA has become widely accepted among healthcare professionals and [is] used in many schools and treatment clinics.” Though not appropriate in every situation, ABA may help certain children with ASD to reduce or eliminate self-destructive behaviors, while simultaneously learning to interact more successfully with the world around them. Continue reading to learn more about how ABA works, what researchers say, and how therapists become certified to provide ABA services to clients with autism. We’ll also provide a list of helpful resources for families, and explore a few differences in treating adults versus children using applied behavior analysis techniques.
What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?
ABA is a type of therapy that is focused on helping the patient to modify their behaviors. When successful, ABA can help the patient establish or improve a wide range of critical skills, including social skills, employment-related skills, communication skills, academic skills, and hygiene-related or self-care skills. By helping a person achieve greater mastery of vital life skills, ABA therapy may also make it easier for the patient to remain independent, limiting their need for professional care.
Like other forms of therapy, ABA can be beneficial in treating or alleviating a wide range of conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, ABA is arguably best known for its applications in treating autism spectrum disorder, with optimal results typically achieved with at least 25 to 40 hours of therapy per week.
What is ABA Therapy for Autism?
While some forms of therapy aim to help the patient manage their emotions, ABA focuses predominantly on the modification of behavior. Depending on the situation, this might involve eliminating a harmful set of behaviors and/or cultivating a beneficial set of behaviors. These behaviors vary widely and can range from the simple to the complex, such as brushing one’s teeth, learning to share with other children, or gaining better control over temper tantrums and emotional outbursts.
ABA therapy is implemented differently depending on factors like the patient’s age and development, and what type of ABA is being used — for instance, DTT versus Verbal Behavior Therapy (VBT). Continue reading for a brief overview of some common ABA techniques for ASD by age group.
Applied Behavior Analysis for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Applied behavior analysis techniques for autism in children are focused on reinforcing desired behaviors with rewards and incentives, such as praise, high-fives, healthy treats, or other perks that the child would consider meaningful and desirable. This can take the form of DTT, which “uses a series of trials to teach each step of a desired behavior or response”; Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI), which is used for children aged 5 or younger; or other types of ABA therapy.
ABA Treatment for Autism in Adults
Though more commonly utilized with children, ABA may also show therapeutic promise for adults diagnosed with ASD. It is vital for providers to modify their techniques (such as story-telling) to be age-appropriate, which also involves asking the patient which skills or areas he or she prefers to focus on.
ABA Resources for Families of Children with Autism
With so many resources available to the families of children with ASD, it can be difficult to choose a starting point. Here are a few suggestions to consider, including several autism treatment resources for military families:
- The Autism Speaks comprehensive resource guide
- CDC data on accessing services for ASD, including early intervention services (for children aged 0 to 3 years old) and special education services (for children and adults ranged 3 to 23 years old)
- CDC links to autism resources, including Operation Autism for military families
- The Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), whose website provides a detailed list of ABA services for ASD, including autism treatment services for military families (under your TRICARE benefits)
- The National Autism Center’s resource hub for families
Who Can Provide ABA Services for Autism?
Whether you’re a parent seeking ASD treatment and intervention services for your child, or a student exploring a career in ABA therapy, it’s important to know who can provide ABA services for patients with autism. Examples include board-certified behavior analysts, who may operate private practices or work for larger institutions (such as K-12 schools), and registered behavior technicians (RBTs), who assist ABA providers. Read on to learn how ABA providers become certified in California and what criteria they must meet.
How Do You Get an Applied Behavior Analysis Autism Certification?
While specific regulations vary from state to state, employers such as school districts and medical clinics will generally require a practitioner to:
- Demonstrate basic skills by passing the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) examination and obtaining Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certification
- Earn their master’s or doctorate degree through a relevant and accredited program, such as the Master of Science in Applied Behavioral Analysis offered through a program accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), such as the Sanford College of Education at National University
- Gain supervised professional experience by completing BCBA fieldwork requirements
- Meet all necessary state licensing requirements, which vary by location. For example, there are two levels of state certification in California, each with their own criteria for applicants:
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) certification, which requires 135 hours of relevant coursework, a bachelor’s degree, and a passing score on the Assistant Behavior Analyst Certification Examination
- BCBA certification, a more advanced level of certification which requires 225 hours of relevant coursework (or its equivalent), a master’s degree, and a passing score on the Behavior Analyst Certification Examination
It’s also important to keep in mind that earning your degree, or passing your exam, isn’t the end of your academic journey. As the California Association for Behavior Analysis (CalABA) points out, “Both BCBAs and BCaBAs must complete continuing education units (CEUs)…to maintain their certification by staying informed of recent developments in behavioral research and practice.” As a BCBA or BCaBA, you may also be supervising an RBT, making leadership and communication skills essential.
Become an ABA Therapist with a Psychology Degree from National University
If you’re interested in providing therapy or counseling services to children and teens with autism, including online counseling services, consider exploring a career as a certified BCBA. Take the first step by applying to National University. With its dynamic 10-course sequence, our aggressively-paced behavioral therapy program is designed to prepare you not only for the BCBA examination, but the full spectrum of real-world professional challenges, setting the stage for a rewarding and exciting career.