I Love ABA!

Welcome to my Blog!

This blog is about my experiences, thoughts, and opinions on ABA. My career as an ABA provider is definitely a passion and a joy, and I love what I do.

This is a personal blog: The views and opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of the people, institutions, or organizations that I may be affiliated with.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Spreading the Word!

Trainings are something I do regularly as part of my job as a BCBA…..for this month alone I have 3 on my calendar.
 Occasionally I’m given the awesome opportunity to do a training or presentation to a target audience of laypersons: people who know little to nothing about ABA or Autism. I love opportunities like this :-)  It’s exciting to speak to people who know NOTHING about ABA and to get to be the one to introduce them to it.  

I do think there is a distinct way to convey information to an audience of “ABA Geeks” vs. an audience of laypersons. Part of having a passion for this field includes spreading the word about what ABA can do to help people. ALL kinds of people. If I present ABA in a way that seems too intimidating, overly limited, mundane or boring, etc., then I’m doing a disservice to the field.
 It’s an interesting challenge to present a massive topic like ABA to a variety of audiences, in a way they can grasp. The ability to modify your own teaching/training style is highly valuable, and not everyone can do that.

I remember going to a local Autism conference several years ago, and attending a workshop on problem behaviors held by a very esteemed and experienced BCBA. The room was packed, and people were even standing in the door to attend the workshop. The BCBA took the first 40-45 minutes of a 60 minute presentation to provide a super detailed explanation of types of assessment conditions, experimental designs, topographies of problem behaviors, analyzing and displaying data….to a packed room of teachers and parents. There was no time for anyone to ask questions, and there was nothing concrete given to the audience that they could immediately begin implementing with their kids/students. I learned a lot from that experience.  Knowledge is great, but wisdom is the ability to filter knowledge appropriately depending on who you are speaking to.

So in order to help my fellow colleagues out there who may find yourself in the position of conducting a training or presenting a topic to non-ABA professionals, I hope these tips I have learned along the way are helpful to you. 

Or, to let Einstein say it better:

Training Tips:

  • Limit or just skip the jargon – That’s great that you can toss out ABA vocabulary like Establishing Effects, Functional Analysis, Stimulus Control, and Multielement Designs. However, if you communicate at a level that goes over the head of your audience that is very off-putting. A great ABA professional is bilingual: you know how to speak with your colleagues, and how to translate that speech for a general audience.
  • Visual cues aren’t just for our clients – Include lots of video clips, photos, and actual content (like a token board) in the training to help people grasp what you are describing. Many ABA strategies can seem so technical and clunky, but if you are able to show a video clip of the technique being successfully implemented that can help people get that Lightbulb Moment of understanding.
  • Get that “Buy In”- ABA at its core is just great parenting or great teaching. That’s what your layperson audience needs to hear. ABA is something most of my clients were doing in some capacity before I ever met them; they just didn’t know it. Most parents naturally prompt, reinforce, and use transition cues. I have had people attend my trainings with the expectation of learning some new, space age method to behavior management. Once I start talking, I often get reactions like “Oh, I already do that!”. Yes, I know! That’s the point: help your audience buy in to what you are saying by connecting it to what they are already doing right.
  • Stay open minded: Allow comments or questions – Did I say allow?? I really meant “demand”. I constantly check to see if the audience has questions during a training or presentation. If someone is looking at me quizzically, I may tell them to ask me the question that their face indicates they have! I get some of the most interesting and unique questions from laypersons, and it also widens my perspective about behavior, learning, and being a caregiver to special needs individuals. Don’t be afraid to open the floor for questions, critiques, or differing points of view. It will keep you from having a closed off mind. If you only ever talk to people who love ABA then how can you gain an understanding of why people hate ABA, and what made them come to that decision?
  • Talk about your successes AND your failures I share a lot of anecdotes or stories during my trainings (I’m big on giving examples) and while it’s helpful to tell the audience about the client who went from nonverbal to talking, or the 8 year old who was successfully toilet trained, what about that time you unintentionally reinforced tantrumming in a client? Or what about the time you showed up at the wrong school for an observation? Or that time your behavior plan completely failed?? People don’t just want to hear about how ABA always works. They also want to hear about what to do when your strategies are NOT working, when the problem behaviors are not decreasing, and when you have zero buy in from the client’s family. Don’t be afraid to discuss your failures or mistakes as a professional. It may help someone else avoid your pitfalls.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Teaching Coping Skills

 Recommended Reading: Emotional Intelligence

I covered this topic a little in my Top Ten post, but coping skills are often a skill deficit I see across many of my clients regardless of their age or cognitive ability. 

In the very young clients this may look like a screaming tantrum, and in the older clients it may look more like kicking holes in the walls of their home. The same issue is fueling both outbursts: challenges with Emotional Regulation.

I find that parents and teachers can often identify consequent strategies, or those techniques they should apply once the problem behavior is occurring. It’s identifying antecedent strategies, or ways to prevent the problem behavior that many people don’t think of, or don’t plan for. This is usually reflected in the kinds of questions I get asked, such as “What do we do when s/he does (behavior)” and not “What can we do to prevent (behavior) from happening?”

Coping skills teach the skills of self-management, labeling one’s own emotional state, controlling impulses, engaging in thoughtful behavior, and making good choices. 

Despite how it may appear, most of these kiddos don’t go from “0-60” in the blink of an eye. Emotions have been simmering inside and building, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, and what you or I may consider a harmless event can set the child off. So to anyone observing, it would seem like the behavior came out of nowhere. My verbal clients will often tell me about behavioral outbursts they had, and something that happened sometimes days before the outburst was a trigger. Maybe a kid at school called them a name, and they perseverated on that for days before exploding at home when they were told to turn off a video game. 

Kiddos who have difficulty regulating their emotional state are easily triggered. There are many, many things that cause them to become frustrated, angry, or upset, and sometimes these triggers change without warning. For example maybe Chris usually gets upset when babies cry on TV, and then one day at the mall a baby in a nearby stroller sets Chris off into a full meltdown.
 It isn’t unusual that triggers grow, or generalize, to the point where parents or teachers can spend the whole day putting out behavioral fires or desperately trying to eliminate stressors from the child’s environment (which in some settings, is nearly impossible to do). This can put an incredible amount of stress on the caregivers.

If this is something you are currently struggling with in your child or a student, let me suggest approaching this problem in a different way. What if you could teach the individual to identify when they have been triggered, to select an option to de-escalate, and to implement that choice? Well, you can  :-)

Most functioning adults have a variety of coping skills that are used every day, across a variety of situations. We all have things we do when we feel ourselves getting stressed at work or irritated with our spouse. Most of us don’t need someone to tell us to go “calm down”. This is because we have the ability to identify what triggers us and make a decision about how to handle it. Unfortunately individuals with Autism may not have this ability.

 I sometimes describe this to a family by saying that when their child gets upset, they open a cabinet of options in their mind filled with choices like “break something”, “hit my brother”, or “punch a wall”. So saying to that child that they need to “make better choices” when they are angry doesn’t mean anything, because they don’t KNOW any other choices to make. So my job is to fill up that mental cabinet with multiple appropriate choices for the child to choose from when they need to calm down.

Helping kiddos learn coping skills can’t just be about what to do when the problem behaviors occur. There has to be a focus on preventing the behaviors, and practicing the strategies both when the child is calm, and when they are escalated. Use prompting and reinforcement to teach the strategies to the child, and help them to understand that not being in control of their emotions has consequences (disciplinary action at school, losing privileges at home, being removed from a preferred Community location, etc.).

Here are some helpful strategies for teaching coping skills. This information may need to be modified depending on the age of the individual, and cognitive ability. 
Remember, practice is necessary! Use repetition & reinforcement (the two R’s!) to teach the skills:


  • Silent counting – Tell the individual to close their eyes and count to 10 or 15 in their head. This can provide the individual with needed time to quietly calm down, and can give them something to focus their thoughts on.
  • Teach hobbies – Teach the child leisure skills or hobbies that they can engage in when they begin to escalate and need to “take a break”. Examples include writing in a journal, doing a crossword puzzle, playing Solitaire, doing a puzzle, stringing beads, or folding clothes (this can be very calming for some kiddos and it is also a helpful life skill).
  • Meditative Deep Breathing – Have the individual breathe in deeply as he or she says “Calm in”, hold the breath for a moment, then release the breath slowly as he or she says “Anger out”. Repeat.
  • Close Eyes & Imagine- Close eyes and imagine a peaceful scene. The teacher or parent will narrate a peaceful scene (or remain quiet if the child prefers). For example, “We’re at the beach watching the waves go in and out…in and out…in and out. The sky is so blue, and the sun feels good on your face”.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Practice tightening and then relaxing various muscle groups from the toes all the way up to the head. Clench/tighten the muscle group tightly, hold for 3 seconds, and release. Repeat.
  • Slow Stretching – Stretch arms over head, to the side, and down to the floor for a count of 5 seconds. Repeat.
  • Exercise – Take a walk, do yoga movements, run on a treadmill, do 10 jumping jacks.
  • Distraction – Put the child on task, by having them complete a simple motor activity that does not require language (even a verbal child may be unable to communicate once they are escalated). Examples include: coloring, blowing bubbles, squeezing objects, sorting items, filling a container with blocks, etc.
  • Write down/Draw a picture of how you feel – Encourage him/her to write down words that describe how he or she feels, or to draw a picture.
  • Fast/Slow – Have Him/her complete simple motor actions very quickly, and then very slow. Examples include rubbing hands together, squeezing thighs with palm of hands, making and releasing fists, etc.
  • Whisper Only – Sit (or lay down) in a darkened area with him/her and speak only in whispers. It may be helpful to let the individual lay down on pillows or across a bean bag chair.
  • Rhythmic activities – Bouncing, rocking, jiggling, pacing, swinging (it is important not to inadvertently teach the child that engaging in problem behavior is how to request these activities).
  • Listen to Music with Headphones – Allow him/her to listen to calming music in a darkened room with headphones/earbuds on. It may be helpful to also allow the individual to wear a blindfold/eyemask.

 * Resources: