My Journey with ABA

Autism mom journey with applied behavior analysis

Kelsey is a single mom living in British Columbia, Canada with two young boys. Her oldest is 3 years old and was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder just after his second birthday; her youngest is 16 months. When not researching and implementing ABA at home, Kelsey and her boys love to spend time outside exploring, learning and finding new adventures together. You can find her @littleadventurefamily

ABA, Applied Behavior Analysis, is the science of improving socially significant behavior. When you receive an autism diagnosis, the professionals typically recommend 30-40 hours of intensive ABA therapy. Unfortunately, many families still face barriers when accessing ABA therapy, including inadequate funding, lack of service providers (especially for those in rural areas), and the dreaded long wait-lists in some metropolitan areas.

This gap in services affects a number of families, including my own, and can be incredibly frustrating. How is it that something like ABA, which has been proven effective, is so hard to access? It feels incredibly unfair that some areas recognize this need and pay for up to 40 hours, while other areas provide the bare minimum. The limited amount of ABA also likely means slower progress, giving professionals less time to focus on parent training. While I believe it’s important to advocate for these services, the simple fact is that our kids don’t have time to waste, and we often can’t wait for services to come to us.

I recognized early on that ABA was one of the few heavily researched, effective, evidence-based approaches, and I knew I needed to figure out how to deliver effective ABA to my child. I didn’t want to waste time on methods that might work because I knew that every day mattered.

I am a scientific journal junkie. As a stay at home mom, I found I often got bored in spite of the mountains of work to do around the house. Since I always loved acquiring new knowledge, I started reading more and more journals. There are so many miracle cures marketed to autism parents, but I loved the clear data provided by research, allowing you to see how effective specific approaches are.

ABA doesn’t get much funding in Canada, and when it became apparent that we would not get the funding needed to implement a full intensive program, I turned to these articles to get ideas about how to teach my son and how to implement specific techniques. I absorbed everything I could find on ABA, including articles/books by Mary Barbera, Greg Hanley and Robert Schramm, and did what I could to implement them. For example, Schramm’s “7 steps to earning instructional control with your child” specifically changed how I organized my house. It also helped me understand how I could get my son to want to play and learn with me by making myself the reinforcer.

I also found that using ABA to understand why my child was having problem behavior helped both my mental health and my relationship with my son. It helped me learn that his behavior has a function and that he wasn’t just being “bad.” I was able to track what happened before a behavior and after, which allowed me to analyze what caused the problem behavior and how I was possibly maintaining it.

ABA relies heavily on data so that you can easily make decisions about what is working and what isn’t. Taking simple data, like the ABC data I just mentioned, helped me step back and make smarter decisions when it came to both parenting and programming. It was so easy to see and understand why he did what he did, which then allowed me to be much more patient.

When I first started taking data. I often made the mistake of trying new things for a day or two before giving up. I routinely bounced from one thing to the next, not allowing my son the chance to learn. My best friend, who is also a BCBA, helped by calming me down and reminding me that change and learning don’t happen overnight. In order to see results, I needed to stay consistent and take data.

Because ABA targets all areas of development rather than just developing specific skills, it is the most effective and direct way to address behavioral issues. Because of the lack of funding in Canada, I consult with a BCBA and run his programs with therapists, as well as implement my own programs, in order to ensure that he still gets an intensive program. Luckily, I’ve had some basic ABA training and had a foundation for ABA.

When ABA is difficult to access, there are a ton of resources to guide you through things you can do at home to teach and manage behaviors. For example, Mary Barbera taught me how you can use things around your house like a shoebox, flash cards, or a Mr. Potato Head to work on language and learning skills. She taught me so much about problem behavior, like how we need to spend 95% of our time preventing it, but also basic strategies on how we can react appropriately.

She also changed my views on table teaching, which I previously thought was not appropriate for young toddlers. By working at the table, my son has learned more appropriate play skills and basic listening skills. Most importantly, she taught me how to organize and set up a complete ABA/VB program, which has been invaluable.

Through Mary’s program I learned that language can be broken down even further than just expressive and receptive language. These are called the verbal operants (mands, tacts, intraverbals, listener responding, etc.). While I spend an hour or two at the table programming with my son to teach him all the different components of language, it is also important to practice these skills using real toys.

I found Paradigm Behavior through the Facebook group, ABA Skill Share, and found a section on how you can use toys around your house to target a variety of language and play skills. Luckily, almost every toy can be expanded to target all the different areas of language. I printed the templates from Paradigm Behavior and wrote out how each toy in my home could be used to develop these skills. You can place the cards with the toy to remind yourself of different ways to play.

For example, let’s take a simple farm inset puzzle. Instead of just using a puzzle to name animals and match them to the right place, you could hide the pieces around your house and work on using receptive skills (one-two step directions) to find the pieces and put them in. You could also work on animal noises, or try saying the wrong animal noise (e.g. moo moo for a duck) and see if your child can correct you. Chunky inset puzzle pieces are great additions to any pretend play scenario. As most of you know, children with autism can be very rigid, so introducing many ways to play with a toy is very important.

Like I said before, a big mistake I made when starting was trying to work on everything at once. When your child is delayed, it is really easy to find areas to work on, but when you try too many new techniques, it is hard to determine what is working and what isn’t. It can also be very overwhelming for you and your child. I would recommend picking three things that impact your family’s day and working on those first. For example, my son used to scream a lot because he couldn’t tell us what he wanted or needed. This was a huge problem. To start working on this, when it was time to eat, I would just give him small bites of his favorite food (berries) while saying “berries.” Eventually, I started holding the food until he said or signed "berries," then gave it to him immediately. He quickly learned that saying the word got him things, whereas with screaming, I still didn’t know what he wanted. Food is a great reinforcer, and this is just one simple technique you can use at mealtimes.

All in all, the best part about ABA is that it can be done in any setting and can be used to learn almost anything, including hand washing, walking with mom at the grocery store, communication, play skills... the list goes on. While it’s best to consult with a BCBA if you are seeing a lot of dangerous problem behaviors, for simpler problem behaviors, ABA techniques can be implemented by dedicated parents like you and me.