Choosing an ABA Provider, Pt. II

I already have a post with tips for evaluating the quality of your in-home ABA provider.

But what about those families who want clinic/center (these words are pretty interchangeable, so for this post I will just use "center-based ABA") based services? What questions should families ask during intake? What are some potential red flags? Should parents directly observe sessions or is that too distracting?

Keep reading, and hopefully I can help answer these types of questions.

As ABA therapy services continue to grow and expand (fueled largely by increased funding, which leads directly to increased providers/companies) center based treatment is becoming more prevalent.

When I was first certified as a BCBA, there were less than 5 center options in my local area. Today, I would estimate that number to be over 100. If you are reading this and you live in a fairly urban or metropolitan area, then you likely know of at least a handful of ABA centers in your area.

Parents contact me all the time with so many questions about center based treatment. When it comes to ABA therapy, the experience can be quite different from other therapies. 

Many families have experienced center based treatment via Speech Therapy, Physical Therapy, Counseling or other Mental Health services, or Occupational Therapy. But these are usually 30 to 50 minute appointments that occur once a week. ABA therapy is often highly intensive, and sessions can occur daily. There is also (usually) a focus on setting up a day that resembles a preschool experience, including large group instruction, recess, school readiness instruction, toilet training, lunch/meals eaten as a group, Art or Music, etc. It is a busy, very planned out, full day experience.

Centers differ as far as policy and procedure, so there will be variability from one company to the next regarding how parents are included in the intervention process. There will also be variability related to state laws, funder requirements, or if the center is part of a chain (usually owned by massive private equity firms) or a small center with an owner on-site. So just know that some of the suggestions below may be more or less applicable to your situation.

First, let's answer a few questions-

"Which is best, home or center based ABA?" - There is no concrete answer to this. It depends on your child, their needs, the priority of intervention, etc. Obviously, if peer/social interaction is a priority then center based services have the advantage of peers being on-site. However, many parents have concerns that their children will pick up new challenging or inappropriate behaviors if they spend their whole day with other disabled children. So as you can, there are pros and cons to center -based treatment, just like with home -based treatment.

"Why do we have to agree to block scheduling?" - A block schedule is when the center only offers a few options for scheduling. For example: 'Part time - 8am-12pm, Full time 8am-5pm'. This usually has to do with consistency in scheduling staff, and the major disruptions to other clients that can be caused by changing staff schedules. For the most part, centers do not have the same scheduling flexibility as in-home treatment. If your family needs a more flexible, adaptable schedule that can change from time to time, then you probably would not be a good fit for center based treatment.

"My spouse and I both work full-time and center based is easier because it has the same schedule as day care/preschool" - Yes, many parents prefer center based intervention due to the schedule (child is there all day). However, ABA is not respite. It is important to look beyond the ease of the schedule, and to determine if a center based setting is the best fit for your child and their needs. Also, 2 working parents can make parent involvement very difficult when it comes to center based intervention. Which brings me to the next commonly asked question........

"How does parent training/caregiver support happen at a center if both parents work full-time?" - This can be challenging. Usually, for center based intervention at least one parent will meet with the case BCBA on-site, each month, to go over client progress. If neither parent can do this on-site, this meeting could be held via Telehealth. If that still is not a feasible option, then it is likely center based intervention isn't a good fit. I would suggest home based services that occur in the evening hours or on the weekend, so parents can be actively involved with treatment. 

Now, let's talk about indicators of quality-

High-quality center based ABA providers will look like a high-quality home based provider for the most part. There should be credentialed individuals (e.g. RBT or BCaBA) working directly with your child and overseen by a BCBA, there should be an initial assessment conducted to create an individualized treatment plan, there should be ongoing monitoring of the intervention and data analysis, and there should be clear, transparent billing, supervision, and staff training policy and procedures. 

As a parent, you should know who is working with your child on a weekly basis (this may vary, due to staff vacation, illness, or changes, but you should know when it varies). You should know what goals are being targeted with your child, and how they are being taught (most parents never ask). You should know the Behavior Intervention Plan, or the strategies being used to reduce harmful or inappropriate behaviors. You have the right to watch/view these procedures and be trained on how to implement them at home. The center facility should be clean, appropriately staffed, have both passive and active play areas, have an appropriate person to bathroom ratio, doors and windows should be secured (monitored with alarms, locks, etc.) to keep clients safe, there should be ample toys and materials, etc. Not only should you be able to tour the center as a parent, but you should be able to see where your child receives 1:1 intervention and to examine the therapy space.

And of course, I cannot leave out potential red flags. Occurrence of any of the items below should raise your concerns, and lead to an action step (Speak with the facility Director or Manager, talk to your case BCBA, and if necessary, remove your child from the program)- 

  • The absence of any of the criteria described for a high-quality ABA center
  • Staff/Director or Manager are consistently angry, upset, or otherwise seem miserable. Do you want to work with people who are miserable every day? Then why would your child want to?
  • Poor communication/No communication, specifically when it comes to billing/invoices/charges, clinical supervision, conflict with the staff, or behavioral strategies used
  • Your child experiences significant regression after starting services at the center
  • Massively high staff turnover. I say "massively high" because ABA as a field is known for high staff turnover. But, if you have been at the center less than 30 days and can't keep track of who is on your child's team---> that is a problem.
  • Lack of outdoor space where clients can play and get fresh air (many centers today are located in business/office spaces that lack outdoor play areas)
  • Lack of toys, materials, or manipulatives for clients to play and explore
  • As a parent, you are pushed to sign on for an amount of treatment hours you are not comfortable with, and do not feel are necessary
  • As a parent, you are never allowed on-site. Yes, there is HIPAA, and client confidentiality, and all sorts of reasons why parents may not be able to just walk in any time, without exception. BUT, the center should have figured out a way to remediate this issue. For example, a discreet meeting area or conference room where BCBA or Director meetings occur, a waiting area where parents can request to meet with their child's RBT or team members, or discreet observation windows where parents can view their child during therapy unobtrusively
  • As a parent, you are pushed to terminate services with other providers to focus only on ABA. Or, you are pushed to terminate services with other providers and swap them out for services offered at the center
  • If you do not know what your child is working on (treatment goals), never received any data, reports, or graphs, or your child is working on things you specifically rejected or said you wanted removed from their treatment plan----> that is a big problem.

*Further Resources:


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