Older Kids & ABA

Most of the individuals receiving intensive ABA treatment in the home, school, or clinic setting are young children between the ages of 2-8. This is the typical age range for an ABA client. Many individualized ABA treatment plans are focused on early intervention  or school readiness. 
It can be difficult to find an ABA provider who will work with adolescents. If you live in a rural area or small town, you may find that the local ABA companies only work with small children. Even in school systems that provide ABA, the ABA classrooms may be for younger children. So does all this mean that ABA is only for toddlers or school-aged children? Definitely not.

It’s important to understand that ABA is a broad science that can include a variety of methodologies, different teaching styles, or ways to manage behavior. Doing DTT with a small child to teach her to communicate is ABA. Implementing a visual schedule in my home to increase my time management is ABA. A mother using positive reinforcement to get her son to clean his room is ABA. ABA can be a strategy, a technique, or a curriculum. Once you understand what ABA really is, it’s easy to see how placing an age cutoff on ABA treatment is ridiculous. Particularly if the adolescent, teen, or adult has Autism, it’s amazing the progress that can be made regardless of the age.

Two big barriers to securing ABA treatment for an older child or adult include safety concerns and lack of funding. A 15 year old with Autism will likely have more serious and potentially dangerous problem behaviors than a small child with Autism. Not all ABA professionals are equipped or trained in handling aggressive behaviors, especially when the person aggressing is 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. A company might tell you they don’t serve older clients simply because the staff is unqualified to work with teens/adults. If the company can’t find staff for your child, then they won’t accept you as a client.
ABA funding varies from state to state, and funding will always affect what services are available. Some insurance companies have age cutoffs (e.g., up to age 9), or will only pay for ABA treatment before the child enters school.

In some states, teens or adults may qualify for ABA services with restrictions. Intensive, in- home treatment may not be covered but behavior reduction services may be available.  In other words the ABA professional can come in for a short time to extinguish a challenging problem behavior. Unfortunately funding sources often don’t understand that without a systematic plan to modify the environment and train caregivers, behavior plans can have temporary effects.

If you are the parent of an adolescent, teen, or adult with Autism, I encourage you to see what ABA services or professionals are available in your local area. ABA therapy doesn’t have to stop just because your child has entered middle or high school. If you are caring for an adult with Autism, you do not just have to accept severe, dangerous, problem behaviors. ABA has the potential to manage behaviors at any age, no matter how chronic the behavior is.

Here are some helpful tips to help you locate quality ABA treatment for an older child with Autism:

  • The company or the ABA professional should have direct experience working with older children or adults (however this may be difficult to find depending on where you live).
  • The staff who will be working directly with your child should have Physical Management Training. PMT includes specific training techniques that teach professionals what to do in the event that a client becomes physically aggressive or dangerous. If the staff are unsure what to do in a dangerous situation then they may unintentionally harm your child, or the staff could get injured.
  • The format of the ABA therapy sessions should be less structured and more naturalistic.
  • Program goals must be realistic and practical--think "What does this individual need to learn to function as independently as possible in society?
  •  Agencies that do serve older clientele often have wide ranging and comprehensive curriculum that can address academic, community instruction, social-emotional needs, and much more. I also strongly suggest more group based therapy (like a social group) than working 1:1 for older individuals.

** Resources about ABA & older individuals:





* Video Clip explaining why it can be difficult to locate ABA providers who work with teens/adults


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