The History of ABA and Autism

ABA Autism History

What is ABA therapy?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a type of therapy used to help patients acquire new skills and behaviors. Also known as evidence-based intervention, ABA is used with patients of all ages, but is primarily used as a treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is both similar and distinct to other kinds of human service interventions, including occupational therapy, speech therapy, counseling, social work, and traditional education in school settings.

ABA is defined as the science by which strategies gleaned from the common principles of behavior are used to better socially significant experimentation and behavior as well as to identify the individual variables to be used to improve the target behavior. In laymen’s terms, ABA is the science of improving behavior, particularly social behavior, most often via positive reinforcement. More broadly, it is the systematic approach used to study behavior.

Something to note here is that the “socially significant behaviors” mentioned above don’t necessarily relate solely to social interaction in a community. Rather, they are skills and behaviors that matter to your child. Some nonverbal students are ultimately able to acquire some speech, for example, which improves their quality of life and allows them to better express their needs and wants. They might not ever work outside the home and be required to interact with others every day, but the ability to communicate on some level is important.

Similarly, “identifying variables” refers to the variables that affect an individual’s behavior. These are individual to each student. Experts must utilize therapies that allow them to determine what drives a certain behavior and how they can utilize that to get the desired results. It isn’t easy to change behavior, and care providers spend a lot of time tailoring programs to suit each of their students independently, even when they are working in groups.

History of ABA

History of ABA Therapy

Despite being one of the most used treatments for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, ABA therapy is a relatively new creation. It originated in the 1960s and was developed by O. Ivar Lovaas, but has its roots in psychology work far earlier. Ivan Pavlov’s infamous 1890s experiments conditioning animals to associate food with the sound of a bell was a direct inspiration for ABA, for example. B.F. Skinner continued this work earlier in the 20th century, but found controversy fairly quickly when he shifted his focus from animals to people. 

This field of study became known as behaviorism, but it was always considered an area of research with kids’ best interests in mind. In fact, before Lovaas entered the scene, it was widely considered a “soulless” practice designed to take away freedom rather than grant it. It was during this time of controversy in the mid-20th century (1940s) that ABA as we currently know it began to form. One of the earliest examples took place in Canada, when nurses working with adults living with schizophrenia and, sometimes, various disabilities were able to reduce severe behavior using behavioral principles. 

In the United States, the first experiments involving autistic children took place in Indiana by Marian K. DeMyer and Charles B. Ferster. Their goal was to show that systematic efforts could yield behavior change when utilizing a reward-based system. Their results showed that children with neurodiversity reacted to positive reinforcement and their behavior could therefore be successfully changed. This might sound a bit clinical, but these findings set the tone for modern autism treatment. 

Ivar Lovaas expanded upon the work from DeMyer and Ferster. Together with his staff, he designed intense interventions that spanned long stretches of time, sometimes multiple years. Improving language skills and social skills was his main focus, and one way he did this was by reducing “problem behaviors”. In one instance, he was able to dramatically reduce self-injury behavior in a nine-year-old girl named “Beth”. He was also able to teach Beth a number of new words.

Lovaas also worked with “Billy” and “Chuck”, nonverbal autistic boys with limited communication skills. After just 26 days consisting of seven hours of work, Lovaas and his team were able to teach them 30 new words. He was careful to note, however, that memorizing these words was not the same as understanding their meaning. To do that, a more rigorous assessment taking place over a longer period of time was necessary. Ultimately, Lovaas showed that treating autistic children could lead to good outcomes with enough teaching and individualized educational services. 

These approaches to learning form the backbone of today’s ABA therapy, which has become the gold standard of autism treatment. Modern behavior analysts and therapists took the ideas set forth by Lovaas and the others which came before him and evolved them into a set of techniques designed with autistic children in mind. 

Today's ABA therapy

As you have seen, the field of behavior analysis has evolved significantly over the past hundred years. That evolution continues, with modern ABA looking much different than the processes outlined above. 

One major difference between today’s ABA therapy and the behavior analysis described above is the importance placed on families. When Lovaas and other analysts at the time worked primarily with children who had been institutionalized due to their conditions, modern treatment focuses on a whole-family approach. Interactions between family members are just as important as interactions between learner and therapist. Children are no longer singled out from their loved ones due to their symptoms, in other words, but rather ideally live in environments where loved ones support their progress. 

The effectiveness of ABA therapy often relies on permanent changes taking place at home. Behavior analysts work closely with parents to develop at-home behavior plans. These include what behavior to expect, how to respond to it, and what the ideal outcome is. Practical application of the techniques taught in therapy is critical to success. 

How does an ABA therapy program work?

ABA Therapy Program

We’ve described the basics of ABA therapy above, but there are many additional steps to keep in mind. First, parents must find the best teachers for their children. These providers are familiar with eliciting target responses using rewards and can skillfully navigate difficult situations to help students thrive. 

Before you can get started with individual training, your child will need a.) a formal diagnosis, and b.) a thorough assessment. Data about their current skills, strengths, and struggles must be recorded so that realistic goals can be set as motivation for instructor, child, and family members alike. Once a report has been created, the development of an individualized care plan begins. Your behavior analyst will consider everything they have observed when building this plan, and they will also continue to refine their plan needs and opportunities for flexible instruction arise. 

Finally, the ABA therapy sessions begin. These might consist of group activities or take place on a one-by-one basis, or some combination of the two. The next step depends on the child in question. Some students might focus on making sounds, for example, while others might focus instead on more advanced self-care routines such as brushing their teeth daily. Regardless of their starting points, all students have objectives to meet and will receive regular evaluation over time. Any concerns will be shared with parents to get their thoughts on the matter. 

As your child’s performance increases and their command over the skill in question increases, the goal posts will be moved accordingly. The overall goal is to help students get as close to high-functioning as possible for an optimal quality of life. Critically, once a skill has been learned, it will remain an active part of the learner’s plan to ensure there is no “backsliding” in progress. 

ABA Benefits and Drawbacks

The conversation surrounding ABA therapy is vibrant and ever-changing. In addition to the variety of benefits, there are a few drawbacks and associated “controversies” tied to the method. 

First, let’s talk about the benefits ABA offers. The most obvious is the range of skills it can help build and problems it can help resolve. From problems in a traditional school setting to struggles in another social environment, ABA therapy can help children with autism improve their quality of life in many different areas. And while it works best with younger individuals, ABA therapy can help students of any age improve their skills. 

One of the few criticisms of ABA therapy is that sometimes, it focuses more on removing behavior than building skills. While it is true that some providers focus more on problem behaviors than important skills, there has been quite a bit of improvement in that area over the past few years. Additionally, advocates argue that qualified behavior analysts with a comprehensive education and degree are often more successful at building skills through play while also promoting behavioral change.

Is ABA therapy right for your learner?

If you are in search of effective ABA therapy for your child, there are resources available. We can help you find a provider with the experience and dedication to provide your child with a first-class experience. We are here to answer any questions you may have. 

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