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5 Common Myths and Misconceptions About ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) Therapy

February 7, 2020
By: BI Staff
Reviewed by : Molly Adams, PhD, BCBA, LBA

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a science-backed discipline, repeatedly proven to positively impact children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). However, practitioners are aware of some of the myths around ABA that might prevent parents from seeking help for their child. These misconceptions can be detrimental to a child’s development and we hope to dispel some of the more common myths around ABA therapy below.

Myth 1: ABA uses food and toys as bribes to manipulate the behavior of children.

Fact: ABA uses positive reinforcement to reinforce children for the behavior we want to see again.

As an example, let us look at a child with mild to moderate autism. The child is screaming, and the teacher interprets this as manipulation as the boy does not want to finish his puzzle. In reality, the boy has a major stomachache and is screaming due to his pain. The teacher ignores the student, again, thinking it is manipulation. The key to the behavior is what the teacher must learn and understand.

Understanding this situation is key for the ABA therapist. If the ABA therapist had been shadowing the student, s/he would have handled the situation much differently and quickly brought the situation under control. Instead of scolding the child, s/he might have taken her/him to the nurse or to the bathroom. After the situation was under control, the therapist would have returned with the child and resumed the lesson. The child would know s/he would receive a reinforcer once the lesson was completed. However, the reinforcer would be due to successfully completing the task

Myth 2: Some people believe a child will improve with two or three hours of ABA therapy each week to achieve results.

Fact: Each child is evaluated, and a custom plan built to address specific concerns.

The number of hours a child receives ABA is not one-size-fits-all. Many professionals, including The LOVAAS Institute, typically recommend 40 hours of therapy per week, although the factors of the child's age, current skill levels, and interest should be considered. Many people get three hours per week. Four to six hours of therapy per week is considered by some people as a lot. The LOVAAS Institute says the number of hours can be lessened for children with fewer challenges. They also suggest the number of hours per week should be less over time as the child gains skills. Forty hours of therapy is to provide the child with structured intervention throughout the day. So, the statement that three or four hours of therapy per week is sufficient when the individual needs 40 hours per week to receive the full benefits of ABA therapy is unfounded.

Myth 3: ABA is not a scientifically proven form of therapy.

Fact: ABA is an evidence-based discipline, developed through years of research.

ABA is often described as the "gold standard" for the treatment of autism. It has also become synonymous with autism treatment. The truth is that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of ABA. The U.S. Surgeon General endorses ABA. It is also endorsed by The National Standards Project and The National Professional Development Center on Autism and Spectrum Disorders. Insurance companies see ABA as the most established autism program available, and the discipline is also affirmed by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

Myth 4: ABA therapy is a new treatment for autism.

Fact: ABA therapy is a time-tested treatment that has been around for about 50 years.

Some people believe ABA is such a new therapy that it has not been tested for success. They wonder, like other "new" programs, if it can be valuable for their child, or if another program might be better. ABA has been proven through its nearly 50 years and grounded in it’s core teaching - when good behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. Due to its success, the program has expanded to other areas, including Pivotal Response Training (PRT), Functional analysis, Sensory Strategies, and Advanced Play Skills as examples. It was first realized in 1987, by Psychologist Ivar Lovaas, that ABA demonstrated increased improvement in children's IQ scores and increased functional learning. These results were achieved by children receiving 40 hours of ABA therapy each week. Today ABA has undergone continued research and has evolved into the standard of care for children with cognitive and developmental disabilities.

Myth 5: Anyone can operate an ABA program.

Fact: Analysts need to be professionally certified by an independent board prior to providing treatment.

The suggestion that any person walking off the street can provide a successful ABA Therapy session is purely false. BCBA’s® (Board-Certified Behavior Analysts) at Behavioral Innovations go through stringent screening and training and are certified by Behavior Analyst Certification Board, Inc.® (BACB®). Along with the certification, they must also earn a master's degree or Ph.D. in psychology or behavior analysis and seek a state license to practice (in many states). The other positions associated with ABA therapy include therapists or Registered Behavior Technicians® (RBT's). Each of these therapists is trained and supervised by the BCBA®. Their work is directly involved with children and adults with autism. Their aim is to practice skills and work toward the individual goals determined and written by the BCBA®. The myth is that anyone can be an ABA therapist. The truth is that each person working in an ABA program must undergo rigorous education and training.

ABA is a proven, successful program that offers significant results. While the treatment may not be suitable for everyone, children that receive ABA therapy have proven to be more focused during school classes, show more interest in people around them, and reduce or end self-harming behaviors. They also demonstrate fewer tantrums or other outbursts, understand how to ask for something they want, communicate with others more effectively, and improve in other areas in which the therapist works. Instead of believing the myths, parents should speak with a subject matter expert and evaluate the discipline based on the needs of their children. If you’d like to receive more information about ABA therapy at Behavioral Innovations, visit our Autism 101 or Parent Resources page, or call 855-782-7822.

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