Behavior is the most basic form of communication.

Babies cry to express need for caregiver attention. As we get older, we learn to communicate with speech and language. However, children with autism and other conditions require a much more intensive process to master appropriate communication and behaviors.

FOCUS is preparing to offer pediatric behavior therapy in Fort Myers. Behavior therapy, also known as Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, uses reinforcement strategies to help children develop, improve or eliminate certain behaviors.

Results aren’t immediate, but the ultimate goal of behavior therapy is to:

  • Reduce problematic or undesirable behaviors that can impede everyday function;
  • Generalize learned behaviors;
  • Improve socially-significant behaviors and communication skills.

Socially-significant behaviors are those that allow us to participate in academics, social interactions and adaptive living skills (i.e., eating and preparing food, dressing, toileting, domestic skills, etc.).

A child’s autism diagnosis can be difficult at first. The good news is a wealth of research shows promising results when we combine behavior therapy as part of a comprehensive, individualized and intensive early intervention program.

That “comprehensive” aspect is a huge part of what FOCUS is all about – incorporating therapy services that address the full range of a child’s needs, including speech, occupational, physical and behavioral challenges.

Children with autism who receive behavior therapy have shown significant improvement not just in communication, but in reasoning, learning and adaptability in everyday life.

What is Behavior Therapy/ ABA?

Behavior Analysis is the scientific, evidence-based study of human behavior. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) involves consistently applying behavior analysis principles of learning and motivation to help children develop and improve those “socially significant behaviors” to a meaningful degree.

To understand how behavior therapy works, we underscore again that behavior is communication. So we first ask, “What is the child communicating with this behavior?”

Challenging behaviors almost always serve a purpose. These generally include:

  • Fulfillment of a sensory need;
  • Escape of a demand or undesired situation;
  • Effort to get attention;
  • Obtaining an object/ desired tangible.

When we understand the underlying motivation for the child’s behavior, we avoid reinforcing problem behaviors or failing to reinforce desired behaviors. That’s why the first step of a behavior therapist is to conduct a thorough evaluation before developing an individualized ABA plan.

Early Intervention

Numerous studies have shown that consistent ABA techniques incorporated as part of a comprehensive early intervention plan can yield great improvements in:

  • Communication;
  • Social Relationships;
  • Play;
  • Self care;
  • School success.

At FOCUS, we support the Verbal Behavior Approach. Here, positive reinforcement drives language learning by connecting words with the purpose of that word. Put in the simplest terms: Children are motivated to use language to get things they want.

However, it’s not bribery (a common misconception about behavior therapy). Rather, the approach involves moving away from simple labels (chair, dog, ball, etc.), and instead showing children how language can be used to make requests and share ideas. The goal is to help them recognize why words are useful so they are motivated to use them.

The verbal behavior approach begins by breaking down communication into its simplest form and function. Those are:

  • Mand. A request. An example is the word “ball” used to ask for access to a ball.
  • Tact. A comment used to draw attention to something or share an experience. An example would be a child saying, “car” to show you a passing vehicle.
  • Intraverbal. A word given in response to a question. An example would be the word, “Cat” when shown a picture of a feline and asked, “What is it?”
  • Echoic. Words repeated in an echo. An example would be an adult asks, “Candy?” and the child responds, “Candy,” without necessarily knowing the meaning.

The verbal behavior therapy approach starts with mands, prompting the child to use the word for a desired object. When the child complies, the therapist immediately grants access to the object.

In the beginning, a child might just signal the request or point at the object, instead of using an actual word. But that’s Ok at first – it teaches the child that communication in general produces positive results.

Eventually and with consistency, the child will start to sign or say the actual word. We then build on that to help the child develop more complex language skills.

Does My Child Need Behavior Therapy?

Behavior therapy/ ABA is often recommended for children diagnosed with autism and other conditions that result in delayed or disordered language. It can also in some cases help children who use sign language, visual supports or other forms of assisted communication.

While it has been proven effective for children with autism, ABA therapy can also be beneficial in helping to treat children with:

  • Down Syndrome
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • General Development Delay

ABA techniques can be used as a means to help with basic skills – looking, listening, imitating. However, these methods can also be helpful with more complex tasks, like having a conversation, reading and understanding the perspective of another person.

Some indicators your child may need ABA therapy services:

  • Your child has been diagnosed with autism;
  • Your child has difficulty with communication and social interaction;
  • Your child has trouble with specific self-care tasks, such as getting dressed, teeth-brushing or toileting;
  • Your child has a difficult time with transitions/ deviations from usual routines;
  • Your child has sensory issues/ has been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder;
  • Your child is unable to identify or communicate basic emotional states (mad, sad, glad, scared);
  • Your child exhibits challenging behaviors (self-injury or aggression).

Free screenings for ABA therapy will be conducted in our FOCUS clinic once the program is launched.