ABC’s of ABA

Do you know the ABCs of ABA?

The core principle of ABA is that an individual’s behavior is …

  • Lawful (Guided by principles)

  • Observable (We can see it)

  • Measurable (We can count it)


A is for Antecedent

The term “antecedent” refers to what came before the behavior in question. What was happening before your child started engaging in meltdown behaviors? Put on your detective hat and describe the prior scene as best you can
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Fragile Learner Model

A child can be considered fragile when there are certain events that are causing or contributing to that child feeling extraordinarily stressed, in turn leading to the child experiencing difficulty effectively managing his/her day (sometimes referred to as “Setting Events”; for the purpose of this model, these events will be labeled “Context Events”). Context Events can have happened further back in time but continue to affect the present and/or can be situations that children “bring with” them.

Positive Context Events can set the stage for success. Adverse Context Events can negatively affect a child’s ability to cope with educational programming, social relationships and behavioral management. Read more

How autism and sensory processing disorder are linked

“Do you think sensory issues are at the root of what makes autistic people different?”  

That’s the powerful question that Maia Szalavitz of TIME Magazine asked world-renowned professor, author, and self-advocate Temple Grandin in a 2013 interview.

Grandin’s reply? “I think the core criterion is the social awkwardness, but the sensory issues are a serious problem …. they make it impossible to operate in the environment where you’re supposed to be social.”

With that statement, Grandin linked sensory issues and socialization, and hinted at the relationship between sensory processing disorder (SPD) and autism as well.

SPD is a condition that affects the way that the brain communicates with the rest of the body. When the brain of an individual with SPD receives sensory information through the nervous system, it has trouble converting those signals into typical reactions.

As a result, the individual’s physical, emotional, and social responses appear unusual. Plus, SPD can manifest differently from one day to the next, further complicating the issue.

A Glimpse of Sensory Processing Disorder

What does this phenomenon look like in everyday life? Well, it may look very familiar to you as a parent. The symptoms of SPD overlap with stereotypically autistic behaviors.

Though SPD isn’t part of the formal diagnostic criteria for autism, sensory issues are prevalent among the ASD population.

Do you recognize your child in these descriptions?  

  • One morning, your son is comfortable with brushing his teeth. However, the next morning he protests that the toothpaste is “too spicy” or that the bristles are “too sharp”.
  • One afternoon, your daughter enjoys the sound of classical music playing on the car speakers at a preset volume. But the next day, she exclaims that the very same volume level is “too loud” and that it hurts her ears.

If these examples hit home, know that your child with autism isn’t trying to manipulate or gaslight you. Children with SPD really do experience sensory input differently from day to day. At times they struggle to process accustomed sights, sounds, tastes, scents, or touches.

As is the case with autism, SPD impacts every area of functioning. It affects everything from socialization to academics.

(Speaking of school, be sure to check out our blog post, A back-to-school checklist for kids with sensory processing disorder and receive your free downloadable checklist.)

SPD and ASD: Significant Overlap

But what’s the connection between SPD and ASDs? Are they one and the same?

As we wrote in our blog post, What we know about autism and sensory processing disorder,

“Think of the two conditions as circles in a Venn diagram; each circle is self-contained, but the overlap between them is significant.

Sensory processing disorder occurs much more frequently in children with autism than in the general population. According to this SPD Foundation website articleover 75% of children with autism also have symptoms of SPD …. However, the majority of individuals with SPD do not have autism.”

ASD and SPD are not the same, but the overlap between them is significant. Both are brain-based differences, neurological conditions that impact a child’s development.

ASD SPD Venn Diagram

Furthermore, SPD is similar to ASD in that it doesn’t indicate a low level of cognitive ability. It simply means that the brain is misinterpreting some sensory signals. Even individuals with high levels of functioning deal with sensory difficulties.

As Chantal Sicile-Kira wrote in her Psychology Today column, What is Sensory Processing Disorder and How Is It Related to Autism?,

“I have yet to meet a person on the autism spectrum who does not have a challenge in [sensory processing]. In interviewing adults and teenagers of different ability levels …. most of them stated sensory processing challenges as the number one difficulty for them, regardless of where they were on the spectrum.”

Helping a child with SPD

Children with autism and sensory processing disorder can grow and excel, and ABA therapy is an effective way to teach appropriate responses. That said, it’s also helpful to pursue occupational therapy for SPD specifically.

It’s also worth noting that, since SPD isn’t listed in the DSM-V, your best bet for getting related therapy covered by insurance could be seeking out autism-based service providers with a focus on sensory integration issues.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of SPD, know that a program of ABA therapy can support your child’s neurological development.

How ABA therapy can help prevent another meltdown

Meltdowns are hard on everyone: the child, the parent, and the bystanders. But what if consistent ABA reinforcement could help reduce their frequency and severity? In this post, we’ll share several key reasons why ABA therapy aids in averting meltdowns.

ABA promotes emotional regulation

Working with an ABA therapist can help your child build vital emotional self-management skills, which in turn, can help to minimize the chances of a meltdown. At the end of the day, these self-control skills are key to preventing meltdowns and promoting independence.

For instance, teaching your child how to appropriately communicate what he or she wants and does not want can lessen your child’s need to use meltdowns to get wants and needs met. Additionally, building functional communication skills and consistency in the application of behavioral strategies between you and your child are key when meltdown behavior occurs.

Yes, it’s true that as a parent you can plan ahead and help your child to avoid sensory overload and other “triggering” experiences. That said, you cannot anticipate every possible situation.

As we wrote in our post, What to do when your child has a meltdown in public:

“The truth is, meltdowns happen to even the best of kids with even the best of parents. So don’t beat yourself up or think that you’ve failed. Ultimately, you can’t control another person’s responses. However, you can prepare for the possibility of meltdowns and equip yourself to respond appropriately when they do happen.”

While ABA reinforcement can’t prevent every meltdown, it can teach your child successful self-governance–an invaluable, lifelong skill.

ABA empowers your child to learn social protocols step-by-step

Recall the discouragement and frustration that arise within you when you’re asked to do something new without adequate instruction or coaching. Then, multiply that feeling by a thousand.

As you know firsthand, your child moves through a world wherein others expect him/her to make sustained eye contact, carry on complex conversations, pay attention to both spoken and unspoken communications. This can be unnerving and difficult.

ABA empowers your child to learn social protocols step-by-stepMany children with autism have the potential to socialize successfully, but they
need step-by-step, measured instruction in order to do so. While they may not initially grasp social conventions intuitively, they can learn them with practice, and reduce the frustration often associated with meltdown behavior.

ABA reinforcement empowers your child to identify and communicate emotional states.

One of the fundamental tenets of ABA therapy is that all behavior is a form of communication. Every time your child bangs her head against a wall or throws herself on the ground, she’s trying to communicate something. Of course, you’d prefer that she express herself in a non-harmful way, and that’s where ABA comes in.

ABA clinicians help children with autism by teaching them to identify, label, and express various emotional states. (Check out our free Labeling and Identifying Emotions video lesson to see this process in action!)

The best ABA therapists provide children with opportunities to practice skills such as recognizing facial expressions, verbally naming emotions, and describing how others feel using context clues. These lessons offer a new vocabulary for expressing emotion, one that’s healthier and less dysfunctional than melting down.

ABA reinforcement provides immediate, consistent behavioral feedback

ABA reinforcement provides immediate, consistent behavioral feedback

If you’ve watched an ABA clinician work with your child, then you know that the therapist provides ongoing feedback in response to the child’s behaviors. For example, if your child flails in her seat, the clinician says, “Sit nice.” When your child looks away for an extended period, the therapist says, “Eyes on me.”

The result of these brief, consistent prompts is that the child learns what type of personal behavior is acceptable. This sense of structure and order is very grounding for children, as it enables them to understand the results of their choices. The child learns, “If I do A, then B happens. If I scream and tantrum, I don’t get what I want. But if I complete my lesson well, I always get my reward.”

Children are smart and efficient; once they understand what behaviors effectively get them what they want, they will choose those behaviors more often, and in doing so, develop a solid foundation of safe, responsible behavior.

Begin ABA therapy to prevent another meltdown

If your child is struggling with ongoing meltdowns, help is available. You can start a proven behavioral therapy program today and take the first step toward promoting healthy communication.

After all, while it’s important to know what to do when your child has a meltdown in public, it’s also essential to work on stopping meltdowns before they start. So don’t wait; sign up for your free trial of FirstPath today!

How to Interact with Someone Who Has Autism: Basic Dos & Don’ts

The Cheat Sheet You Wished Others Had

Oftentimes friends or extended family members feel unsure of how to interact and don’t want to do or say anything offensive by accident. In fact, plenty of people feel uncertain about the “right” way to be around someone with an intellectual or developmental disability. Autism prevalence has reached record highs – 1 in 45 children in America todayreceive a diagnosis – but autism awareness is a relatively new cultural phenomenon. That’s why we’ve put together this list of basic do’s and don’ts for interacting with individuals with autism.

Parents, consider this the cheat sheet you’ve always wished you had to share with the world.


Always show respect

First, speak to any person you meet – child or adult – with respect. Use common courtesy; never talk down to people or discuss them as though they’re not present when they are right there.

It’s easy to make incorrect assumptions about an individual’s mental capacity, so let your default setting be one of positive regard. Always assume that the other person can understand everything that you’re saying, and speak accordingly.

After all, just because a person’s mannerisms are different than yours doesn’t meant that they have limited cognitive or relational ability. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have unique sets of strengths and weaknesses, just like the rest of us.

Use person-first language

Person-first language means that you refer to the individual first, and the condition last. So instead of saying, “My autistic friend”, you’d say, “My friend who has autism” or, “My friend with autism.” Of course, it goes without saying that you should avoid outdated and offensive terms such as “retarded”.

Recognize the common characteristics of autism

If you don’t know much about autism, it’s understandable that you might feel uncertain when interacting with people on the spectrum. As such, it’s helpful to learn the basics about autism’s diagnostic criteria.

As Autism Speaks’ What Is Autism page notes, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in:

  • Social-interaction difficulties
  • Communication challenges
  • A tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors

That said, there’s a tremendous degree of diversity within the autism community. Individuals with Aspergers Syndrome have milder challenges in these three core areas and thus typically have a higher level of independence, while individuals with more severe autism need additional supports.

Individuals with autism often find it difficult to make eye contact, communicate emotions, and interact socially. However, with guidance they can learn these skills and step into their social potential.

Learn about behaviors and don’t take them personally

It’s normal to feel confused or taken aback by unusual behaviors such as intermittent eye contact or hand-flapping. But familiarizing yourself with behavioral characteristics of autism will help you to take these actions in stride.

As blogger and avid autism awareness advocate Caroline McGraw wrote in her A Wish Come Clear blog post, It’s Taboo, So Let’s Talk About It: Interacting with People with Special Needs:

 “If someone doesn’t seem to understand you when you speak, don’t take it personally or feel like you’ve failed; the fact that you’re trying to communicate respectfully speaks volumes. Ideally, engage with the person along with someone who knows them well; having a ‘translator’ for another person’s words and actions can be invaluable.

Be humble, open, and receptive

There’s a saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This means that there is no one so-called “typical” person with autism; instead, there’s a great diversity of ability, temperament, and character.

For example, while you may have a niece on the spectrum, spending time with her may not prepare you to befriend your co-worker with Aspergers. Approach your interactions from a place of humility. Be willing to learn about each individual person: what they like and dislike, what helps and hurts them, what they need to function best.

Don’t forget about parents of children with autism

One of the best gifts that you can give the parents of a child with autism is to be kind to their child. That said, parents need your care and compassion as well. Go the extra mile to reach out to them. Be a good friend: Invite them to go places, listen well, and include them in your community.

As Alexis Villaries notes in her Parent Herald article, 7 Things Parents With An Autistic Child Wish You Knew:

“Parents … need love and acceptance just like their kids … They have worked so hard to fit in the typical world and including them [in] your plans will make them feel accepted.”

Refrain from giving advice on autism

Unless you’re a trained professional or you’ve specifically been asked for your input, resist the temptation to give advice on autism. Sure, you can share helpful resources with your friends and family, but use restraint and good judgment. (No one wants to be inundated by email forwards every day, however well intentioned they may be.)

Plus, many autism parents are already avid researchers themselves–love drives them to learn about the latest scientific developments, treatments, and protocols.

If you’re not sure what constitutes a trustworthy source or reputable research, The Association for Science in Autism Treatment is a good place to start.

If you’re looking for a research-proven, evidence-based treatment for autism, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy is in a class by itself. It is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Surgeon General, and most major psychological and psychiatric associations as well.

Looking for an additional, hands-on resource that can help you, your child, and your community become better educated about children with autism? Discover the importance of ABA Therapy, and gain access to a full video library of professional ABA therapy, by simply signing up for a free trial of FirstPath Autism today.

3 Common Misconceptions About Autism

As an autism parent, do you cringe when you hear sweeping, inaccurate statements such as, “Oh, all kids with autism want to be alone all of the time,” “Don’t worry, she’ll grow out of this autism phase and be totally normal,” or, “You can’t expect your son to ever want to have friends” … ?

If so, we understand. Despite the dramatic increase in autism diagnoses within the last decade, there’s still a great deal of misinformation out there. Some myths are more damaging than others, but all autism myths contribute to feelings of isolation, frustration, and misunderstanding.

In this post, we’ll clear up several common misconceptions about autism spectrum disorders and give you a place to refer friends and family when they have questions.

Misconception #1: Autism is a new condition that didn’t exist prior to this century.

Reality: As the PBS article Autism Myths and Misconceptions notes, “Autism was first described by scientist Dr. Leo Kranner in 1943, but the earliest description of a child now known to have had autism was written in 1799.”

It’s true that from a clinical standpoint, the first formal psychiatric diagnosis of autism happened when Dr. Kanner diagnosed Donald Triplett of Mississippi in 1943. However, it’s also true that autism existed long before that. There’s considerable evidence to suggest that famous figures such as Einstein, Tesla, and Mozart were on the spectrum.

So while Donald Triplett was the first to be diagnosed, there were other children in other families who exhibited similar behaviors. Triplett is famous for being the first individual to receive an autism diagnosis, but he certainly wasn’t the only individual Kanner studied.

In their article Autism’s First Child, John Donvan and Caren Zucker write that Kanner arrived at the diagnosis of autism by “… Pulling together the distinctive symptoms exhibited by Donald and the eight other children—their lack of interest in people, their fascination with objects, their need for sameness, their keenness to be left alone … ”

On one hand, the first group of individuals diagnosed with autism had several key traits in common. Yet on the other hand, the behaviors of a single individual did form the foundation for the diagnostic criteria still in use today.

As Donvan and Zucker note, “It is not too much to say that the agreed-upon diagnosis of autism—the one being applied today to define an epidemic—was modeled, at least in part, on Donald’s symptoms as described by his father.”

In short, there has always been a tension between individual uniqueness and collective commonalities within the history of autism. Which brings us to our next popular misconception …

Misconception #2: Everyone with autism behaves in the same way as {Insert Famous Example Here: Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man, Temple Grandin, Max Braverman from the TV show Parenthood, etc.}.

Reality: While it’s true that individuals with autism do share common diagnostic traits, these traits express themselves differently from person to person.

Generally speaking, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in:

  • Social-interaction difficulties
  • Communication challenges
  • A tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors

However, since autism is a spectrum disorder, how these traits manifest varies widely between people. Social-interaction and communication challenges come in many shapes and sizes. For example, an individual can have tremendous linguistic ability and still have difficulty labeling and identifying emotions.

Likewise, repetitive behaviors can look very different from one person to the next. One individual may flap his hands repeatedly, while another may want to line up her favorite textbooks again and again.

As the saying goes, “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” In other words, when you meet one person with autism, you haven’t met them all, not by a long shot.

It’s also worth noting that savant syndrome (as popularized by Rain Man) is not the same as autism, though there is overlap between the two diagnoses. Savant syndrome is a much rarer condition in which individuals with some form of mental disability have certain areas of exceptional talent.

Misconception #3: Individuals with autism lack empathy.

Reality: Individuals with autism have as much or more empathetic ability as the next person. However, people with autism sometimes struggle to understand the emotional dynamics of common situations.

For example, they may see someone getting angry and start to laugh. The laughter may arise because they’re nervous, they don’t understand what’s happening, and the contorted expression on the other person’s face seems funny.

Often a seemingly inappropriate response indicates a lack of understanding rather than a lack of empathy. Once an individual with autism understands another person’s emotional reality, they will often respond in a kind, compassionate manner.

As we wrote in our post Autism Resource: What Is Theory of Mind?:

“One common misconception often associated with people with autism is that if they struggle with mind blindness, they also lack empathy. However, dealing with Theory of Mind issues [the ability to recognize and understand the thoughts and feelings of others] does not mean that an individual lacks empathy. In fact, just the opposite is true. 

Theory of Mind (ToM) deficits help explain why people with autism sometimes find it difficult to respond appropriately in social situations. What appears as uncaring behavior at first glance may be a simple lack of understanding.”

Help raise awareness by sharing the realities of autism

As we near the end of Autism Awareness Month, continue to engage and help promote inclusion and acceptance within the broader community.

FirstPath Autism Launching Now!

FirstPath Autism Launching Now, Delivers “Lifeline” to Parents/Professionals with Affordable Access to Proven Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)-Based Treatments

Online access to an extensive video lesson library. Live, unlimited phone support from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) professionals.

FirstPath Autism’s self-guided videos include progressive, comprehensive training lessons that are accessible anywhere – from home, school or the office via desktop or laptop, tablet or mobile devices. The ABA-based training helps improve functional communication, self-help, social and pre-academic skills, and much more. The video lessons teach therapy strategies and techniques that can be implemented alongside professional treatment, or as stand-alone options if it is the only resource available to parents and care providers. FirstPath Autism’s video lessons also serve as an ideal training model for anyone who works with a child with autism.

FirstPath Autism video lessons include:
Behavior management

  •     Tantrums/Meltdowns
  •     Self-stimulatory behavior
  •      Self-injurious
  •      Non-compliance
  •      Bolting
  •      Aggression

Learning skills

  •     Learning readiness
  •     Imitation skills
  •     Labeling skills
  •     Advanced labeling skills
  •     Visual performance skills
  •     Reading skills
  •     Pre-math skills

Social skills

  •     Conversation training
  •     Advanced conversation training
  •     Theory of mind

Life skills

  •     Self-help skills
  •     Community safety

Play skills

FirstPath Autism Phone Support Service:
The FirstPath Autism support service, can be thought of as an “Autism-lifeline,” providing a broad range of help from ABA professionals which includes live, unlimited phone support (9am – 5pm PST) for individualized solutions and problem solving. FirstPath Autism brings vital and easily accessible help to parents immediately following an autism diagnosis, when navigating treatment options can be daunting and confusing. The phone support can be a backbone for parents as questions arise throughout the treatment process, or when families, teachers or therapists are challenged with highly stressful social behaviors.

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