As parents, you have expectations of improving your children’s behavior. Behavior analysts, on the other hand, need to make sure improvements in behavior occur within the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) guidelines.
When a child with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism demonstrates challenging behaviors, we tend to blame the child’s autism. However, these challenging behaviors are not a byproduct of autism, rather learned due to ineffective means to get needs met—especially when there are barriers to communication.
Bottom line: if an individual does not have a way to communicate appropriately, he or she will find a way to communicate in another way (e.g. screaming or hitting).
Keeping in mind the ABCs of behavior from our previous post, let’s discuss the key to changing behavior.
While the word “punish” often conjures up bad thoughts for parents and professionals, punishment and reinforcement are key when looking at behavior change through ABA. Punishment in ABA decreases the chances that a particular behavior will occur again, as opposed to reinforcement which increases the likelihood of behavior.
Let’s look at the behavior analytic definitions of punishment specifically:
- Positive punishers may occur naturally in one’s environment. A child pets a strange dog and gets bit on the finger causing pain. After this occurs, the child does not pet strange dogs. That is considered a positive punisher because the bite/pain (presented stimulus) decreased petting strange dogs (outcome).
- A parent can use positive punishment as well: siblings are fighting; mom yells “stop it right now!” and the kid’s reaction is to end the fighting. Mom provides the stimulus of yelling, which decreases future occurrence of fighting.
- A negative punisher would be when the removal of a toy ends the fighting between two children. This removal decreases chance of it happening in future.
- “Time out” is also considered a negative punishment. When used correctly, it removes all reinforcement from the immediate environment resulting in a decrease in future occurrence of the punished behavior.
Autism is described as occurring on a spectrum because the symptoms can vary from a complete lack of communication with others to difficulty understanding others’ feelings. This range of symptoms is why the diagnostic term is referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Aspergers Syndrome, sometimes also called High-Functioning Autism, falls under the category of Autism Spectrum Disorder. (And yes, this remains the case, no matter what you may have heard about the newly-published DSM-V. But, the DSM-V is the subject of another blog). Aspergers Syndrome is viewed as being on the “mild” end of the spectrum because its symptoms differ in degree and severity from other forms of autism.
Although our emphasis is often focused on early intervention, it is important to consider various types of interventions that can grow with the child with Aspergers or HFA as they grow into adolescence, another area of huge potential growth. One approach that has demonstrated clinical impact is DIR/Floortime. This method is a relationship-based, developmental framework that is geared toward supporting foundational social-emotional capacities.
The DIR Model, or Floortime, aims to support higher level thinking abilities of multicausal and reflective thinking by building foundational stability in self-regulation and co-regulation with another. DIR/Floortime incorporates techniques and strategies geared toward promotion of more stable and more flexible emotional regulation in the child or adolescent.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, there are thousands of published research studies to support the effectiveness of ABA in treating autism and Aspergers. Specifically, ABA seeks to decrease challenging behaviors and increase appropriate skills that are seen in many individuals with autism or Aspergers.
To help understand what your ABA therapist seeks to accomplish, let’s cover what these terms mean:
Our bodies take in information from the world around us through our sensory systems. As this information comes in, our brain filters and processes it for use. This process, called “sensory processing”, all happens automatically and simultaneously without us realizing that it.When all of these systems work correctly, we are able to perform our daily activities smoothly and without a problem. When these systems don’t work as well as they should a person may be disorganized, clumsy, have attention difficulties, and become over responsive or under responsive. Individuals with this issue might just have trouble functioning day to day as well as they should. This is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
We are all vulnerable to black and white thinking during times of emotional distress: “He NEVER appreciates the sacrifices I make!” or “She ALWAYS chooses work over time with me!”
Children and young adults with Aspergers are no different—except they may be more vulnerable to polarized thinking. These emotional regulation difficulties stem from differences deep within their brains, along with other extraordinary gifts such as strong attention skills or heightened visual and auditory detail.
Your child may not know how to use language appropriately in social situations. This undeveloped social skill can cause your child to unintentionally say harmful or rude comments to others. Even when able to say words clearly in complex sentences with correct grammar, a child still may have a communication problem – if he or she has not mastered the rules for social language known as pragmatics.
Pragmatics includes three major communication skills:
So, what exactly is ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis?
ABA is an intervention therapy that specifically addresses behavior. ABA is one of the proven best practice therapies for children on the autism spectrum, including Aspergers. Thousands of research articles have documented the effectiveness of ABA in individuals with autism across behaviors, settings, and specialists. The behaviors that ABA seeks to address could relate to academics, communication, challenging behaviors, and other daily living skills.