There are three components that all have to work together: people, programming, and practice. And they have to work together for quite a while – at least two years, usually longer.
The people are a behavior analyst (ABA consultant), ‘therapists’ or ABA tutors, you and other significant family members, and usually (although perhaps not at first) your school staff.
The behavior analyst (usually just called the ‘ABA consultant’) is responsible for the other components, programming and practice. He will help train the therapists and you in the practice of ABA, and give you (your team) the curriculum (‘programming’) that tells you exactly what and how to teach. He will also periodically evaluate results and adjust the program as your child learns.
The therapist or tutor (Behaviour Technician), provide the actual instruction (usually one-on-one, but not always). Why the quotes above? The term therapist has a medical or professional implication: it implies training and certification in a specialty. Training and good practice are important in an ABA program, too, but there is no specific degree, coursework, or internship required. In theory, anyone can learn to become an effective ABA instructor–college students, retired persons, freelance musicians, even exceptional high school students. A degree or specialized education may be helpful, but what counts most are reliability, enthusiasm, creativity, ability to follow directions, and just plain “being good with kids.”
Although in the UK from this year 2014, the tutors can become Register Behaviour Technicians after attending a 40 hours training course. This will give them the training they need to become more effective in an ABA program.
Parents can be therapists, too, if they have the time and the inclination, but this is very much a personal decision. It can be a way to save money, keep the hours up, and it certainly gives you better knowledge of your child’s program and progress.
School staff do not provide one-on-one service (except for specialists, who may or may not be working with the ABA program), but they are still very important–they are part of the environment in which your child will either learn or fail. This is a complex topic, but it’s certainly true that cooperation is critical; if they “don’t believe” in what you’re doing, or think they’re doing something better (but the evidence shows otherwise), then your child may not benefit from that environment.
The programming is, in my mind at least, the most distinguishing feature of an ABA program. Bits and pieces of the practice show up in other “methods” or therapeutic approaches, but to my knowledge there is no other program which puts so much care and thought into planning exactly what your child should be learning, how the material is paced, how it is reviewed, and how it is practiced across multiple settings. It is this tremendous discipline and attention to detail that makes it possible for some children to become truly indistinguishable from their peers in ‘just’ a few years.
Programming centers on discrete trial drills, the exercises that your child does one-on-one with a therapist to learn language, play, and social skills. These drills are completely individualized to your child; while there is a substantial core curriculum that all children must complete, which programs are introduced when, and what items are used for teaching, are carefully tailored to your child’s abilities and interests.
The pace of the drills is important too. It is quite possible to go too quickly, leading to superficial progress but not a solid, useful repertoire of skills. A good consultant will plan how often new items are acquired (taught), how often know (mastered) items are reviewed (maintained), and when it might be time even to hold off on new items and just spend a couple of weeks practicing mastered items.
Skills must be mastered across multiple settings (home, school) and with multiple people (therapists, parents, peers). This ‘generalization’ is done systematically with the goal of giving your child skills that he can use independently in any setting.
Finally, it is practice, how skills are taught, that at first seems the most unusual feature of ABA. This is because the discrete trial format looks so very different from ‘natural’ teaching methods. But DT teaching is really only one result of applying ABA–the functional analysis of behavior–to the problem of helping your learning disabled child to progress to his maximum potential. A lot happens in those one-on-one sessions, but there are things that you and others can do at other times and in other settings to help your child learn. Again, a consultant will help you learn how to reinforce appropriate behaviors, to help your child, as he learns new skills, to discriminate desirable behaviors from undesirable “autistic” traits. In simpler terms, this is called “catch ’em being good.”
ABA practice applies equally well to the school environment, even though your child will not be doing “drills” there in the strict DT sense. This is where a trained aide, who is part of the home program, is an essential part of the program. This is also the part that often confuses parents and distresses schools–unfortunate, because if done right, the benefits to all are tremendous (a good aide makes the teacher’s job much easier). One of the most common mistakes parents and schools make is to place a child in school without coordinated support from an ABA trained aide, on the theory that “he needs to be around kids to learn social skills.” Again, if your child could learn like that he wouldn’t have autism.
Can I teach my child myself?
For better and worse we are all one of our children’s most important teachers (perhaps “guidance counselor” is a better term). The question here really is “What role can I play in a challenging and technical special education program for a developmentally disabled child?” Notice a child, not your child. Ask yourself first: as a busy parent whose first responsibility is protecting and advocating for my disabled child, do I also have the time and energy to become trained in a new field and commit to being an effective teacher? If you can picture yourself doing that for someone else’s child, then there’s a good chance you could do it for your own. You may turn out to be an outstanding teacher! (In fact that’s how some parents have started new careers – some I know have even founded new schools.)
If on the other hand you already have your hands full, your time or patience is stretched thin, it may be better to rely on outside staff to do the teaching. You may still want to attend the training sessions and have some supervised practice so you can better assess how well other people are teaching – maybe do some yourself as time permits – but chances are both you and your child will be more successful if you don’t overextend yourself.
I hear from a number of parents, including many in developing or underdeveloped countries, who have no consultants or teaching staff – all they have is their child and some Web sites or books that seems to hold the promise of a better future. There is no school, no government assistance, no “free appropriate” education for their child. Those messages are tough to answer. I can’t tell anyone not to try teaching, and I can’t tell anyone they are guaranteed to do more good than harm in the long run. This is a very technical field. While the basic principles are amazingly simple, putting them into practice effectively and adapting to the very specific needs of an individual child is a complex and demanding job – not an obvious “do it yourself”.
More details: http://rsaffran.tripod.com/faq.html