Tags: Special Needs
This fall 10-year-old Thomas Aaron read his first three-letter words.
"I videoed it and cheered and then left the room and balled my eyes out," recalled his mom Suzanne Aaron of Indianapolis.
Thomas, who has autism and severe receptive and expressive language disorder, learned to read at the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism (BACA) where he receives full-time Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.
Thomas started ABA in the fall of 2006 when he was 5. He did ABA three hours a week at first. His parents saw such tremendous results that they upped it to about 10 hours a week while he was still in preschool.
"Up until we started ABA with him he didn't know how to imitate. How do toddlers and babies learn? They watch and they imitate. If you have a kid that doesn't imitate, how do you teach them anything if they don't know to watch and do what you are doing? So ABA taught him how to imitate and therefore gave him the tools to learn," Aaron said.
Though many therapies exist for treatment of autism, with more popping up all the time, ABA is the only evidence-based practice for kids with autism and is endorsed by the Surgeon General.
"ABA really focuses on socially relevant and important skills in people's lives. It's a scientific approach to analyzing problem behavior and teaching different skills," explained Tim Courtney, research and training director for Little Star Center and a board certified behavior analyst. He said in ABA therapists can leverage their vast knowledge of human behavior and apply it in a way that's important for kids and families.
Ashley Geighes, a board certified behavior analyst and clinical director of the Applied Behavior Center for Autism, said ABA can reduce problematic behavior and teach replacement behaviors parents want the child to use.
"If a kid is hitting or scratching for attention, we may teach them to say 'hey' or tap you on the shoulder," Geighes explained.
The approach works by positively reinforcing desired behaviors. If the child enjoys bubbles for instance, the therapist will use bubbles to help teach a certain behavior. Kids are motivated to learn because they are rewarded in ways that are enjoyable and meaningful to them.
Aaron describes her son's center as having happy energy. "Everything that is good is reinforced. Their challenging behaviors are being redirected and they are taught to do something else. At BACA, and I'm sure other centers, these people love our kids. They love them and that is a huge change for us too. In so many situations our kids are considered a burden," she said.
A snapshot of a center-based ABA session may be of a kid working for a few minutes, then bouncing on a therapy ball, then working again, then playing a video game while interacting with a therapist, then interacting with a peer.
"I love going there. It's addictive going there. I won't say there are never meltdowns. Of course there are. These kids have autism," she said.
When asked how her family's life has changed since she began ABA, Aaron laughed. "How has it not changed? It's hard to imagine what life would be like without it. First we do not live in fear of his behaviors anymore," she said.
Geighes has seen ABA help change families' lives for the better too. She noted ABA is no cure for autism, but believes it can improve quality of life immensely. She has seen children go from having several tantrums a day to communicating what they want and having structured routines like at bath and bedtime.
Can ABA work for all kids with autism? Aaron said each family needs to judge for themselves. "Go to one of these centers and see what's possible," she advised.