How should you begin your search for finding effective treatments for your child with autism? Google “autism treatments” and pick the first option that pops up on the page, right? Goodness, no! First, you should understand what evidence-based interventions are, and how to find them. You can do that by checking out my related post here. Next, you’re ready to dive into learning about the many evidence-based interventions available for ASD.
Decades of research beginning in the 1960’s have repeatedly demonstrated that interventions based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, are effective for individuals with autism. It is important for caregivers to recognize that “ABA” is not a comprehensive treatment package in and of itself. Instead, ABA-approaches are treatments that are rooted in a three-step process that underlies all behavior: the antecedent, or what happens before a behavior, the behavior itself, and the consequences, or what happens after a behavior. ABA approaches to autism treatment are founded on the principle that behavior change can be accomplished by changing the environment before and/or after the behavior.
Treatments and therapies for autism that utilize ABA principles come in many shapes and sizes and go by many names; however, they all share these core behavioral principles that are proven to help individuals with ASD. Further, it’s also important for caregivers to know that ABA treatments have continued to evolve and improve since the 1960’s when they were first popularized by Ivar Lovaas. Lovaas’ initial style that popularized ABA treatment approaches for autism used repetitive, adult-led, discrete-trial teaching (DTT). This style typically involved an adult teacher breaking up skills into smaller parts (i.e., discrete trials) and teaching the skill many times outside its natural context (e.g., at a teaching table). As such, Lovaas’ DTT style of teaching sometimes results in an unpleasant teaching environment for the child and may lead to difficulties generalizing the skills learned. Today, many modern ABA treatment approaches still integrate some DTT teaching, but also integrate child-led, developmental, and relational aspects to treatment, especially for young children (e.g., Early Start Denver Model, Pivotal Response Treatment, Verbal Behavior).
Treatments and therapies based on ABA are currently the gold-standard treatment for autism. While this does not mean that behavioral therapies are the only therapies that can be effective in treating autism, it does mean that our current available evidence supports trying behavioral interventions first. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recently recommended that families with ASD obtain “evidence-based and structured educational and behavioral interventions.” These authors also further highlighted the efficacy of ABA techniques for the improvement of academic, adaptive, communication, and social skills in individuals with ASD.
Many modern ABA programs have integrated a developmental, child-focused intervention style that highlights a child’s specific developmental level, preferences, and needs. Using a developmental approach to teaching children with ASD is critically important, as years of developmental research has provided important insights into how children learn language and social skills. For example, developmental researchers have shown that the early social skills of joint attention, gestures, and shared emotional experience affects a child’s later learning of language. This means that it is critical when teaching a child with ASD who cannot speak to not only focus on the development of speech, but on these early social skills that typically come before the development of speech.
Of critical importance in any ABA-based intervention program for children with autism is caregiver involvement. Behavioral interventions provide lasting change for individuals with ASD when environmental changes are consistently applied across a child’s everyday contexts (i.e., home, school, community). Because of this, researchers recommend that parent education start as early as possible in the context of a comprehensive intervention, so that parents can help their children use learned skills in different environments. Some behavioral interventions for individuals with ASD concentrate primarily on educating and training caregivers on how to interact with their children, teach them new skills, and manage and/or reduce problem behaviors. These parent training or parent coaching interventions are often time-limited, less intensive, and more cost effective and have been shown to produce favorable outcomes in children with ASD.
You can learn more about some popular, comprehensive, ABA intervention programs by following these links: