Applied Behavior Analysis FAQ

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As Education Lawyers, we are often asked questions about the sometimes controversial subject of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

ABA is an applied science and it is concerned with the evidence-based use of the scientific principles of learning and behaviour change. ABA-based interventions are often used in the management of Autism.  Here are some of the most frequently asked questions we hear:

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By those who have experience of and support ABA, it is believed to be values-driven, child-centered, developmentally-informed, evidence-based, effective use of principles of learning to help people - usually children - with autism achieve their full potential.

The core values and commitments of ABA in the field of autism are reported to be: 

      • ambition for the child, and optimism about what is possible for them;
      • an assumption of every child’s ability to learn (not disability);
      • empowering the child by establishing skills and supporting management of their own behaviour;
      • collaborative working with other professionals, family members and carers to best support the child.[1]

Comprehensive ABA-based interventions commonly share the following characteristics:

      • teach multiple skill areas
      • break down complex skills into small teachable steps
      • teach over long periods of time (years rather than weeks)
      • Can be used for all ages of children and adolescents
      • Contain structured and “natural" learning opportunities across the week
      • Involve a team of people (often including parents)
      • Can take place at home, school or other setting

An intervention programme can be developed that takes into account what outcomes are important to the children themselves and their families, an understanding of typical development, the requirements of statutory educational curricula, and a focus on pivotal behaviours that would facilitate further development, such as teaching communication, social skills, daily living or academic skills that can support independence and choice-making.

Programme staff should be able to analyse the reasons for certain behaviour and the consequences of that behaviour. This can then used to develop unique and individualised interventions to help teach the child.

Positive reinforcement and rewards are used to encourage pivotal behaviours.

When used as an early intervention model, comprehensive ABA-based programmes are often known as Early Intensive Behaviour Intervention (EIBI). There is some evidence which suggests that the earlier the better in terms of intervention  of this kind.[2]

EIBI programmes tended to be provided intensively for around 30 – 40 hours per week if resources allow, although there are many programmes that are successfully delivered with fewer hours.

Comprehensive ABA-based education is also relevant for older children and adolescents, with skills being taught that are appropriate to the child's stage of life and preparation for leaving school. These programmes would look different to EIBI programmes.

This depends on the behaviour being addressed.  Often this can be in a one-to-one setting where the client is receiving direct support for a particular need.  At other times it can be in a group therapy setting – especially when dealing with things like social skills.

Generally, programmes involve:

      • assessing current skills and difficulties;
      • setting goals and objectives;
      • designing and implementing a plan that teaches a target skill;
      • measuring a target skill to see whether a plan is working.

Each ABA programme is unique to the needs of each child or young person, and can be implemented at home, school and out in the community. ABA-based programmes are data driven.

Depending on funding, a team of therapists can work with the child to provide a comprehensive programme of intervention. This can take place across various settings, including school and home. This can be delivered (and funded) via an Education Health and Care Plan. Programmes are supervised by a senior therapist and as part of this supervision, care giver training can take place, without the child present, though it can sometimes be helpful for the child to be present for at least part of the discussion.

In these sessions with a trained professional, advice can be given on how to implement strategies and procedures at home. They are also used to discuss progress and any concerns.

There are several schools across the country that utilise ABA-based programmes with their students.  Many NHS Trusts and Local Authorities also employ professionals in this field, though these tend to work with autistic adults. Sometimes help can be funded from public money but sometimes you may have to fund the support privately. There are also several charities offering ABA grants or bursaries. ABA-based programmes are often delivered by private organisations.

Often children receiving ABA-based education do so through "Education Otherwise than at School” being specified in their EHCPs. This is because some children accessing ABA will be doing so because traditional schools and ways of teaching have not worked and it has been determined (either by the LA or by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal) that the child’s needs cannot be met in school.

If such provision is specified in an EHCP then it should be funded by Local Authorities, but often families have to appeal to the SEND Tribunal to achieve adequate sufficient specification to warrant adequate funding. ABA programmes can be integrated into school teaching.

Our team of Education Lawyers have been instructed in many cases where Applied Behavior Analysis has been a success.  We have helped many families get the care that they need for their children.  Here is just one example 

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