"Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly"

If there's 1 thing I could say to all my clients and it would fit and be applicable across the board, it would be: Forget "normal".

Chasing "normal" will cause you to lose sleep at night, will destroy your marriage, will drive a wedge between your relationships with family members, and will cause you to resent and eventually grow distant from your friends who are NOT living with Autism.
See, normal isn't real

Normal is what most people say they desire but almost no one can say they possess.

ABA or whatever path/treatment/therapy you select for your child with Autism is not about "normal". Its about helping your child be successful and thrive and overcome obstacles.

There are other parents out there who have it WAY worse than you, and there are other parents out there who have it way better than you. That will always be the case. The sooner you can let go of your own idealized version of normal, the easier the journey gets.

I have a niece with special needs and physical handicaps, and as an ABA professional I could choose to look at her as a series of deficits and strengths, or skill sets to improve upon, but I just see her as my lovebug. Thats it. There's things she can do, and things she cant do, just like everyone else. Guess what? None of us can do every single thing we desire to do. 

A shift in your perspective is the key to escaping the "normal" trap.

How FUN are your ABA sessions with your clients?

Do you make your clients smile or laugh? Are they excited or happy when you arrive at their house? Do they start excitedly talking to you or pulling your arm to come play with them as soon as you walk in?
Do you find yourself getting bored in your ABA sessions? Here’s a secret: If you are bored, your client was bored about 30 minutes ago.

It’s time to inject some FUN into therapy!

ABA therapists often have lots of precise and technical knowledge about behavior, learning, motivation, and systems of reinforcement. We can manage program binders, train parents and teachers, and collect and analyze data. The problem is, sometimes in this field people focus so much on running protocols that they forget that learning should be enjoyable. Particularly if you have a large caseload and spend your days driving from client to client, it can become monotonous and mundane.

You and your client both should enjoy working together. Neither of you should regularly feel bored or frustrated, if that’s happening then something needs to change. Think about it like this: if you had an ABA Therapist who came to see you regularly, what type of person would you want to show up? How would you want them to talk to you? What reinforcers would you want them to use?
Compare what you would want from a therapist with the type of therapist you are. Do you stack up? Would YOU want to be your client??

Consider this an invitation to start having more fun in your therapy sessions. It makes the clients happy, it makes the parents happy, it makes the siblings jealous, and it prevents workplace burnout. I have fun with my clients…maybe not every day, but I enjoy going to see my kiddos.

If you have realized by now that your ABA sessions are about as exciting as completing trigonometry problems then here are some tips to being the FUN ABA therapist who has happy children trailing behind him/her like the Pied Piper.

Establish rapport-Pairing-  Understand what it is, and that it never really ends. Does your arrival signify fun things or the end of fun things? Do you walk in and say “Let’s get to work” or “Hey Danny! I’m so happy to see you today”? Your presence should be so tied to reinforcement and good things that you become a reinforcer to the client.
Schedule sessions during optimal learning times – For the itty bitty ones, this may mean you don’t do a session right before their nap time. For the school age kids, this means they don’t get off the bus, and BAM, there you are with a clipboard. It’s important to know your client, and know when they are in that optimal learning zone and schedule sessions with that in mind.
Tailor teaching strategies and modify materials based on the learner – I have one client who loves dinosaurs, so he has a dinosaur token board. I have another client who hates to read so we do his Sight Words program using magazines. I have a super girly client who loves My Little Pony so all her social stories are about ponies. Do your session materials and the strategies you use take into consideration your clients personality, interests, likes, and strengths?
Don’t fight against M.O., work with it – If your clients Dad just got home from work and your client keeps running out of the room to go see him, how about if Dad joins the session? Or if the client keeps staring out the window, how about if we work outside today? Why fight against your client’s motivation when that just makes your job harder?
Vary and rotate reinforcers often – Would you want to work for the same thing everyday? Does that sound fun to you? I see it all the time: the therapists have a Reinforcer Box with the same 4-5 toys and stuffed animals in it and it never changes. It’s no surprise when the client would rather engage in problem behaviors than sit and work. Mix it up! You should regularly surprise your client with new reinforcer choices  (like watching a cool video).
Embed client choice in sessions – How much choice does your client have in the session? For my clients who understand choice making we give them TONS of choice: Where should we sit--Should Mom come in the room-- Which program are we doing first--Which reinforcer do you want to work for--Should we take a break now or wait 10 minutes--Should we play Monopoly or Guess Who, etc.  Clients who are constantly making choices feel in control of the session and invested in the session, which is exactly how you want them to feel.

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.

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