One of my main priorities in my career is to help educators and caregivers learn how to design meaningful ABA interventions that can be implemented within everyday home, school, and community routines. More and more special schools (segregated settings) for children with ASD are opening up across the country to provide 1:1 ABA instruction. The problem I have with this is that these children are missing out on thousands of learning opportunities that occur in inclusive classrooms and inclusive schools.
The reason why these schools keep popping up is that there is strong research support for ABA interventions for kids with ASD, and the truth of the matter is public schools typically do not provide intensive ABA interventions for kids with ASD within the context of general education classrooms (or even special education classrooms). So, private or publicly funded schools are setting up camp to deliver 1:1 ABA interventions. Here's one very important word of caution, though: While there is research support for the use of ABA interventions with kids with ASD, there is also research that documents that many kids do not maintain and generalize skills being learned when they are taught outside of the environments in which they will use them. Children may not maintain or generalize skills taught in isolation because the contexts in the natural environment are so significantly different from the therapeutic setting. They also may not maintain or generalize skills taught in isolation if the skills being learned are not meaningful and useful across contexts.
All ABA intervention program goals should be able to answer the "So what?" question: If the child masters the goal, so what? How will it positively impact the child's life and/or the lives of those the child interacts with? If this question cannot be answered, the goal should not be included in the child's program.
Now that I shared my thoughts on segregated schools and 1:1 ABA therapy in isolation, I would like to share an alternative approach to providing ABA interventions for children with ASD. Early intervention professionals are familiar with Activity Based Interventions or Activity Based Instruction (ABI) and Routines-Based Intervention (RBI) (see the work of Diane Bricker and Robin McWilliam for more info). These approaches provide a framework for embedding individualized interventions for young children with disabilities within the context of everyday routines and activities in the home, school, and community. We should use frameworks such as these to embed ABA interventions within natural contexts for young children with ASD and school-age children as well.
We know that children learn best when they are actively engaged in everyday routines and activities. However, it may be difficult to engage children with ASD in everyday routines across home, school, and community contexts without the use of ABA interventions and other active engagement strategies. Merging ABA interventions with ABI and RBI is a wonderful way to provide intensive ABA interventions within the natural environment. This allows children to learn within everyday contexts without having to be segregated from their typically developing peers and removed from classrooms that provide rich learning opportunities. Below, I summarized the steps discussed in detail in my book (Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom) that a BCBA or other professional with expertise in ABA and special education can follow for designing ABA interventions for implementation in the natural environment:
Step 1: Conduct assessments (strengths/interests; present levels of performance for all domains that will be addressed in the ABA intervention program; parent and teacher priorities; list of everyday classroom, home, and/or community routines).
Step 2: Set ABA intervention goals that are meaningful, observable, measurable, positively stated, developmentally appropriate, and have a criteria for mastery.
Step 3: Design ABA interventions that can be implemented across a variety of home, school, and/or community contexts and align data collection procedures. Consider the strengths and interests of the student when designing interventions.
Step 4: Create a matrix that lists the ABA goals horizontally and the everyday routines vertically and put x's in the boxes to indicate which goals will be implemented during which routines. For example, during small group reading the teacher may be able to address communication goals, social goals, behavioral goals, and/or academic goals.
Step 5: Provide training, modeling, and coaching to the primary interventionist (teacher or caregiver) to assist with implementing the ABA interventions within the context of everyday routines and provide support with data collection procedures.
Step 6: Monitor the student's progress at least bi-weekly to make instructional decisions.
Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA