If you are reading this article, chances are that someone you know and someone you love has been diagnosed with autism. You are probably researching the best forms for therapy for your loved one, maybe a child, and applied behavior analysis is something you might see quite a bit as an effective therapy for those diagnosed with autism.

Autism is a broad-spectrum term. There are many different types and severities of autism. According to the National Autism Association, autism is defined as, “a bio-neurological developmental disability that generally appears before the age of 3.” It impacts the normal development in the areas of the brain that control “social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function.” The National Autism Association goes on to explain that “individuals with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.

Austin is has a higher rate of diagnosis in boys than girls- in fact, according to the National Autism Association it is about 4 times higher in boys. It is not affected by race, region, or socio-economic status. The incidence rate has increased significantly in the past almost 50 years, mostly in part to better understanding of the autism spectrum and early diagnosis.

There is no cure for autism, but early intervention like applied behavioral analysis can greatly improve a child’s ability to function socially and verbally. In some cases, autism can be greatly or completely overcome with therapy.

Facts and Signs of Autism

Here are some facts about children and adults with autism according to the National Autism Association:

  • About 40% of children with autism do not speak. About 25%–30% of children with autism have some words at 12 to 18 months of age and then lose them. Others might speak, but not until later in childhood
  • Autism greatly varies from person to person (no two people with autism are alike)
  • The rate of autism has steadily grown over the last twenty years
  • Comorbid conditions often associated with autism include Fragile X, allergies, asthma, epilepsy, bowel disease, gastrointestinal/digestive disorders, persistent viral infections, PANDAS, feeding disorders, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, OCD, sensory integration dysfunction, sleeping disorders, immune disorders, autoimmune disorders, and neuroinflammation.
  • Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder, yet most underfunded
  • A 2008 Danish Study found that the mortality risk among those with autism was nearly twice that of the general population
  • Children with autism do progress – early intervention is key

Autism is not often something parents know their child has until they reach 2 to 3 years old. Oftentimes a child will be progressing normally in their development and then suddenly stop speaking, stop engaging with caregivers, and begin to show symptoms like sensitivity to light, sound, and other external factors.

Here are some other signs of autism according to the National Autism Association:

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects people in different ways at different levels of severity, there are no pinpointing signs of autism. There are only umbrella and common signs that together usually will lead to an autism diagnosis. In general, children and adults with autism often have:

  • social impairments
  • cognitive impairments
  • communication difficulties
  • repetitive behaviors

As mentioned above, autism can affect anyone- it does not discriminate against races, ethnic groups, or socioeconomic statuses. People of all ages can have autism. Males are more likely to have autism but females can be autistic as well.

Since early intervention is key to helping treat the signs of autism, there is a national push for awareness of the signs and symptoms before age three. The initiative is called SPOT ASD Before Three. With this initiative, researchers and therapists suggest parents watch for the following signs of early autism:

S. Social Differences
Avoiding eye contact; not showing interest in other children; unusual play patterns; no pretend play

P. Persistent Sensory Differences
Persistently getting upset over everyday sounds; over or underreacting to lights, smells, tastes, textures

O. Obsessive/Repetitive Behaviors
Flapping hands; rocking back & forth; having obsessive interests in a particular object or activity

T. Talking/Communication Delays
Little to no babbling by 12 months; not saying a single word by 16 months; may appear deaf; loss of previous verbal skills or language

Early signs of autism also include children who exhibit the following signs, according to the National Autism Association:

  • Not respond to their name (the child may appear deaf)
  • Not point at objects or things of interest, or demonstrate interest
  • Not play “pretend” games
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Want to be alone
  • Have difficulty understanding, or showing understanding, or other people’s feelings or their own
  • Have no speech or delayed speech
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
  • Have unusual reactions (over or under-sensitivity) to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
  • Have low to no social skills
  • Avoid or resist physical contact
  • Demonstrate little safety or danger awareness
  • Reverse pronouns (e.g., says “you” instead of “I”)

As those with autism get older, you might find that they:

  • Have unusual interests and behaviors
  • Have extreme anxiety and phobias, as well as unusual phobias
  • Line up toys or other objects
  • Play with toys the same way every time
  • Like parts of objects (e.g., wheels)
  • Become upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests

Other symptoms can include:

  • Hyperactivity (very active)
  • Impulsivity (acting without thinking)
  • Short attention span
  • Aggression
  • Causing self-injury
  • Meltdowns
  • Unusual eating and sleeping habits
  • Unusual mood or emotional reactions
  • Lack of fear or more fear than expected
  • Have unusual sleeping habits

After the autism diagnosis: what now?

It can be stressful to get the diagnosis of autism for you child, but for some parents, it can be a relief to finally have a label for what is going on with their child and a plan of attack on how to help their child. Mom of one, Jessica, states that her child’s autism diagnosis came as a complete shock but it was also something that helped to point them in the right direction.

“When the doctor came back with the autism diagnosis I was shocked. I cried, right then and there in the office. I cried every time I looked at my son for probably a week. I felt like his life was over, and I didn’t even know where to begin to help him. But once we got our bearings, we figured out that applied behavioral analysis was a viable option for him. We started therapy a little over 2 weeks after his diagnosis. It’s been 18 months now and the leaps and bounds he has made in his development are unbelievable.”

What is Applied Behavioral Analysis?

Applied behavioral analysis is a common therapy used for children with autism. It is often used in conjunction with other therapies like occupational, speech, and physical therapy.

According to Autism Speaks, a non-profit organization support research and development programs for children with autism, applied behavioral analysis, “applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.”

Applied behavioral analysis is conducted one-on-one with a highly trained professional therapist and the child. It is not a one-size-fits-all type therapy and it is tailored to the needs of the child and their behaviors.

Applied behavior analysis can:
  • Increase language and communication skills
  • Improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics
  • Decrease problem behaviors

One of the main points of ABA is understanding what happens before a behavior occurs and the consequences after the behavior. It is called the ABC’s - antecedent (before the behavior), behavior, and consequence (what happens as a result of the behavior).

There are several ways ABA can be applied, and each child is written a plan for treatment and goals. These treatment plans and goals are ever-changing and are constantly reevaluated based on a child’s progress and development. Goals often include things like:

  • Communication and language
  • Social skills
  • Self-care (such as showering and toileting)
  • Play and leisure
  • Motor skills
  • Learning and academic skills

Therapists will use a variety of techniques to encourage these skills, and even parents and caregivers can be trained to provide ABA therapy on their own to ensure that the treatment is on-going and not just when the therapist is with the child.

Does ABA therapy work?

There is significant evidence to show that ABA therapy is an effective treatment for autism, especially when it is used as early intervention therapy.

According to Autism Speaks, "More than 20 studies have established that intensive and long-term therapy using ABA principles improves outcomes for many but not all children with autism. “Intensive” and “long term” refer to programs that provide 25 to 40 hours a week of therapy for 1 to 3 years. These studies show gains in intellectual functioning, language development, daily living skills and social functioning. Studies with adults using ABA principles, though fewer in number, show similar benefits.”

Early intervention is key when it comes to autism. If you think your child may be struggling with autism, have them evaluated by a pediatrician or psychologist so that you can start the necessary therapy sooner rather than later.

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