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What Happens In An ABA Therapy Session?

June 10, 2019
By: Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA
ABA Therapy Session

Many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have heard of applied behavior analysis, also known as ABA. Maybe your child has just been diagnosed with autism and you were told that your child qualifies for ABA. Maybe you are exploring interventions that could help your child with important life skills like potty training or reducing challenging behaviors and you happened to come across an article online about ABA. Or maybe you know someone else who has a child with autism and their child receives ABA services. 

If you aren’t familiar with ABA or want to know more about what ABA is really like, especially what an ABA session for your child would look like, keep reading. We’ll be sharing information about what happens in an ABA session for children who have autism.

ABA is Effective

Before we discuss what happens in a typical ABA session, let’s understand why ABA therapy is important. ABA, or applied behavior analysis, is the leading evidence-based therapy for autism spectrum disorder. It is known as the best practice treatment for autism as recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychiatric Association. ABA is considered an evidence-based therapy and a best practice for children with autism because the intervention has been studied through extensive and credible scientific research. This research has led to the finding that ABA is effective at helping children with autism in a variety of ways from reducing challenging behaviors, improving self-care and life skills, and supporting the child’s social and communication skills to help them improve their overall quality of life.

ABA Sessions Are Individualized for Your Child

ABA is an effective intervention for children with autism, but what does it look like? What will your child be doing in an ABA session?

ABA is Customized to Your Child

There really isn’t one answer to this question. Every child has their own strengths, needs, preferences and thus their treatment plan. ABA sessions will be individualized to their unique traits. No two children will have the exact same ABA session. 

ABA Can Change from Session to Session

A child could also have different types of ABA sessions from one session to the next. For instance, one day a child might work mostly in a one-on-one setting and then another day he or she might have a social skills group that he attends as part of his ABA session. Another ABA session might involve working on communication skills, or behavior.

Additionally, as your child learns new skills and challenging behaviors become less frequent, your child’s ABA sessions might change again. For instance, a child who does not have an effective way of communicating might receive intensive training on developing functional communication skills and then once the child has a good foundation of communication skills, the ABA session might become more flexible and might include more natural experiences and less intensive training, using less discrete trial training. ABA sessions include a variety of activities and approaches to learning to best meet your child’s treatment needs. 

Duration of an ABA Therapy Session May Vary

An ABA session varies in length from one child to another. Some children might have an ABA session for one hour while another child might have an ABA session that lasts four hours. Despite the length of the ABA session, children in ABA are provided with a variety of activities to help them learn new things and to help them generalize their skills and behaviors in new ways which helps them to maintain their progress. 

ABA sessions are designed carefully and compassionately so that your child’s time is used in an appropriate and effective manner and in a way that respects both their time and their well-being.

Types of Trainings Used in a Typical ABA Session

There are a variety of approaches to providing ABA intervention. Two of the most common approaches to providing ABA therapy include the use of discrete trial training (or DTT) and natural environment training (or NET). DTT and NET will be used in different ways and in different amounts for your child, depending on your child’s needs.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

DTT is often provided at a desk or table. It’s a more formal interaction, where each opportunity to teach the skill has a discrete beginning and end. The therapist will work one-on-one with your child in an intensive manner to help your child get access to a high number of learning opportunities on very specific learning goals. The use of positive reinforcement is a big part of DTT.

Natural Environment Training (NET)

NET is an approach that often uses situations that your child would experience in their everyday life to help them learn new things. For example, the use of NET in your child’s ABA session might look like your child is just playing with toys or that they are eating lunch but, in fact, your ABA therapist has a strategic plan for why these activities are part of your child’s treatment. Specific goals are being worked on within these activities. 

DTT helps your child master skills more quickly and efficiently because the child receives reinforcement after every trial. Then, NET helps your child more easily generalize the skills so he or she can use them outside of therapy. Both types of training are important. We refer to them as the “dream team” because they help your child more quickly master skills and apply them in real-life situations.

Common Examples of ABA Session Activities

An ABA session might include any of the following activities:

Desk learning time : This is sometimes referred to as discrete trial training or DTT.

  • Play time : This can be one example of using natural environment training (NET).
  • Snack time : Snack time can help your child develop skills related to eating as well as skills related to having a meal with others (if other children are involved in your child’s ABA experience).
  • Activities of daily living : This may include opportunities to learn how to brush one’s teeth, how to wash one’s hands, how to tie shoes, learning about following routines, etc.
  • Potty training : A typical ABA session can include potty training for children who need to work on this.
  • Group time : Depending on the age and needs of your child, this might be like a preschool circle time, or it may be more of an informal setting where older, high functioning children do activities together.
  • Social skills time : This might be differentiated from group time in that social skills are more specifically targeted in this activity.
  • Gross motor activities : Depending on your child’s needs, clinical recommendations, and the company your child receives services from, gross motor activities may or may not be included. Some of the benefits of gross motor activities include improving your child’s physical motor skills as well as the benefits he receives from participating in exercise or movement activities.

Key Components of ABA Sessions

ABA is a scientific field which offers services to people to help them achieve meaningful goals and make positive changes in their lives. There are some things that are often found within each ABA session that you should be familiar with. These include:

  • Session Preparation
    • Your child’s behavior therapist will prepare for every session by intentionally selecting materials (toys, life skills items, etc.) that will be used during the session. Of course, some other items might be offered to your child throughout session that weren’t planned ahead of time, but generally speaking the behavior therapist attempts to have everything ready so your child can work on their treatment goals.
    • This also includes having data collection materials ready which is an essential component of ABA. ABA therapists collect data on how your child is doing so they can be sure to monitor progress and make changes when needed.
  • Pairing activities (sometimes referred to as rapport building)
    • This involves the behavior therapist and your child playing together or doing something together that your child enjoys. Among other benefits, this helps your child make positive associations with their therapist and helps motivate your child to want to participate in sessions.
  • Preference assessments
    • The behavior therapist will try to determine what item or activity will motivate your child to want to participate in tasks that are helpful for their treatment goals. These preferences may be used as reinforcement for appropriate behaviors and engagement in learning activities.
  • “Running programs”
    • The term programs typically refers to the specific methods for working on treatment goals. Your child’s therapist will run (or work on) programs with your child to help them learn new skills.

Example of an ABA Session Schedule

This is an example of an ABA session for a child with limited verbal language skills and difficulty with social interactions. Assuming he attends a four-hour ABA session five days per week and his sessions are from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Please note that this is only an example. Actual session will vary depending on several factors.

  • 1:00-1:15: Pairing (Free play), Preference assessment
  • 1:15-1:45: DTT (desk time with breaks)
  • 1:45-2:15: Snack time, Clean Up, Pairing (Free time)
  • 2:15-2:30: Brushing teeth
  • 2:30-3:00: Functional communication training (FCT)
  • 3:00-3:30: Social skills group
  • 3:30-4:00: Gross motor activities
  • 4:00-4:15: Life skills
  • 4:15-4:45: NET (activities change based on day and child preference)
  • 4:45-5:00: Clean up, Pairing (free play)

How Can Behavioral Innovations Help?

The professional BCBA’s and therapists at Behavioral Innovations will work with you and your child to design the best ABA sessions for your child. We will base our plans and recommendations on your child’s unique needs, their strengths, and their personality and preferences as well as what is known to be effective and supportive of quality ABA services while always keeping in mind what is in the best interest of your child’s quality of life. 

Behavioral Innovations therapy sessions can help your child learn new skills and manage challenging behaviors in a way that helps improve their functioning now while also building a foundation that will support your child’s future well-being. To find out more, contact us at 855.782.7822 or fill out a short form and our team will contact you shortly.

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