A Brief History of ABA Therapy

​When seeking out the right care for your child with autism, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with information about the latest therapies or methods of support. At The Cardinal Center, we use Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the gold standard for autism. ABA therapy is an evidence-based approach supported by decades of research.

But, ABA initially revolved around the principle that if positive behavior is rewarded and negative behavior is reprimanded — something many people considered as “punishment” — bad behaviors will stop and positive behaviors will continue. This ultimately caused a rift in the way people (including many who had received ABA themselves) think about the therapy.

One group continued to believe in the results, while the other took a step back and asked: is ABA therapy harmful?

In this piece, we’ll address the history of ABA, discuss the source of the controversy, and talk about how we at Cardinal have taken a different approach to make ABA work for your family.

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The History of ABA Therapy

The origins of modern ABA are usually traced back to the year 1960, when two psychology researchers from the University of Indiana started studying the behavior of young people with autism.
Later, a group of researchers at the University of Washington began using behavior analysis to instruct developmentally-delayed children and to manage the behavior of children and teens in juvenile detention centers.
In 1968, this group of researchers including Donald Baer, Sidney W. Bijou, and Jay Birnbrauer joined the Department of Human Development and Family Life at the University of Kansas, where they founded the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) in 1968.
Past approaches to ABA were unbalanced and focused more on eliminating behaviors as opposed to building skills. Today, the effectiveness of ABA that made it the gold standard in therapy for autism is being refined and separated from the negative reputation that it had in the past. At Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis, we take a different approach to ABA that rewards positive changes and encourages successful long-term results.
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What is ABA Therapy?

The approach to ABA that we use at Cardinal focuses on building everyday skills as well as diminishing challenging behaviors, which are tracked to monitor progress and make necessary interventions. ABA is a flexible therapy that can be provided in different locations—school, home, or in the community—and is crafted to meet the needs of the individual by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who oversees and tracks progress. ABA also requires consistency and relies on parents and caregivers to stay involved.

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Positive Reinforcement

Our main strategy is positive reinforcement. The BCBA identifies a goal behavior, then each time the child performs the behavior or skill successfully, they get a reward. The reward is meaningful to the individual and can be anything, such as praise, a toy or book, or access to play equipment, etc. Over time, this encourages the child to continue using the skill.

Challenging Behaviors

Challenging Behaviors

To diminish challenging behaviors, another component used at Cardinal is understanding antecedents (what happens before a behavior) and consequences (what happens after). Looking at antecedents, the resulting behavior, and the consequences helps the BCBA understand why a behavior may occur and how different consequences could affect whether the behavior is likely to occur again.

For example, if a teacher asks a child to clean up toys at the end of the day (antecedent) and the child yells (resulting behavior), then the consequence of cleaning up toys early occurs. With ABA, if a teacher asks a child to clean up toys at the end of the day, the resulting behavior could be reminding the child to ask for five more minutes, which would then result in the teacher giving five more minutes of play—a reward rather than a consequence. This differs from the original concept of ABA in that no punishments are administered; only naturally-occurring consequences.

Benefits Of ABA Therapy

Benefits of ABA Therapy

​At its core, ABA targets your child’s motivation to do things, so one of the biggest benefits is that it teaches coping skills that could eliminate behavioral problems. ABA therapy also promotes independence and fosters functional skills such as communication, social, and life skills.

Because it is individualized and progress is monitored closely, therapy plans can be easily altered to suit needs and goals. ABA therapy can be used from childhood through adulthood, which prepares your child for real-world experiences and makes transitions into different periods of life easier.

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Group ABA Therapy

Group ABA therapy can be useful for children with mild to moderate skill deficits and minimal challenging behaviors. Each child has a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) accompanying them as they work on peer play, socialization, communication, functional academics, and other group activities. This can be a great step up from individual ABA therapy that continues the individualized approach in a “classroom setting” and can help your child make friends.

Challenging Behaviors

Challenging Behaviors

To diminish challenging behaviors, another component used at Cardinal is understanding antecedents (what happens before a behavior) and consequences (what happens after). Looking at antecedents, the resulting behavior, and the consequences helps the BCBA understand why a behavior may occur and how different consequences could affect whether the behavior is likely to occur again.

For example, if a teacher asks a child to clean up toys at the end of the day (antecedent) and the child yells (resulting behavior), then the consequence of cleaning up toys early occurs. With ABA, if a teacher asks a child to clean up toys at the end of the day, the resulting behavior could be reminding the child to ask for five more minutes, which would then result in the teacher giving five more minutes of play—a reward rather than a consequence. This differs from the original concept of ABA in that no punishments are administered; only naturally occurring consequences.

Benefits Of ABA Therapy

Benefits of ABA Therapy

At its core, ABA targets your child’s motivation to do things, so one of the biggest benefits is that it teaches coping skills that could eliminate behavioral problems. ABA therapy also promotes independence and fosters functional skills such as communication, social, and life skills.

Because it is individualized and progress is monitored closely, therapy plans can be easily altered to suit needs and goals. ABA therapy can be used from childhood through adulthood, which prepares your child for real-world experiences and makes transitions into different periods of life easier.

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Group ABA Therapy

Group ABA therapy can be useful for children with mild to moderate skill deficits and minimal challenging behaviors. Each child has a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) accompanying them as they work on peer play, socialization, communication, functional academics, and other group activities. This can be a great step up from individual ABA therapy that continues the individualized approach in a “classroom setting” and can help your child make friends.

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ABA Therapy at The Cardinal Center

So, is ABA therapy harmful? Not when it’s done with the right approach from a qualified team of professionals who care about your child and your family.

Both individual and group ABA therapy are offered at The Cardinal Center. After initial assessment, the BCBA will create a custom therapy plan tailored to your child’s needs and strengths, which will then be implemented by the BCBA and RBT to build skills and decrease challenging behaviors.

Every plan will look different, and at The Cardinal Center, we emphasize making these plans engaging and fun in a unique way that fits each child individually!

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