On to our next question! True or False: ABA is enjoyable & fun for learners.
Before I give you the answer to this question, I figured I would give you a list of some things that I have done during ABA therapy sessions:
- Made slime
- Bought candy at Target
- Went to a birthday party
- Played a board game
- Gone out for a nice lunch
- Attended a gymnastics class
- Went to the park
So, if you haven’t yet figured it out, it is TRUE that ABA is enjoyable and fun for learners (or CAN be, if done correctly). I think most importantly, even though all of these things sound like fun, the most enjoyable and fun part of ABA is improving people’s lives and teaching them to be the best they can be. This is exciting for everyone involved!
Why is this a misconception of ABA? I think when most people hear ABA, they think of things like: Discrete Trial Training (DTT), sitting at a table, flashcards, repetition, 30-40 hours/week, etc. That does sound boring, right!? This is the vision of ABA that often comes from listening to others, reading online articles, and taking basic classes. Although all of these pieces may be involved in ABA therapy at times, this is an incredibly simplistic and unrepresentative description of ABA done well. So let’s look at how ABA, at its core, is set up to be enjoyable and fun…
ABA is all about catching or creating motivation as a way to increase appropriate behaviors and decrease inappropriate behaviors. More formally, when we make a behavior more likely to happen in the future by providing something motivating afterwards, we refer to this as using reinforcement. This concept, finding and using things that are highly motivating to a child as a way of teaching them, is one of the most foundational concepts in our field. What are some reinforcers for me? Spending time with friends, eating chocolate, and going to the beach. We all have different reinforcers and they are always changing. I might usually work hard for chocolate, but it isn’t going to be so motivating once I’ve had a few (or maybe just once my stomach is upset with me). We are constantly trying to find highly motivating items, activities, people, places, etc. to use in our therapy sessions! And if this isn’t happening, it probably isn’t fun (nor is it very good ABA).
Relatedly, one of the most often taught ABA strategies is catching kids being GOOD. So think about it…how much more fun would work be if someone’s entire job was to walk around and tell you about all of the great things you are doing? Might be a little uncomfortable for some of us, but it sure would be nice for those things to be acknowledged by others. When remembered (because all of us are human), this core technique often makes ABA sessions super enjoyable!
Next, research shows that ABA therapy is more successful if therapists spend the first part of each session “pairing,” or building rapport, with the learner. This process involves providing the learner with fun stuff (i.e., reinforcers) for FREE! Remember, reinforcers are different for everyone so this should look very different across learners. By using this important strategy, the therapist establishes themselves as a reinforcer (i.e., motivating person) for the learner. As a result, they will enjoy us being with them and will have more fun while we are there! If pairing isn’t happening, we may not receive a very warm welcome, and this isn’t good ABA practice.
Finally, good ABA therapy always involves more and more time away from a table/therapy space and definitely goes beyond flashcards or specific materials. Why? Because good ABA prioritizes the generalization of learned skills across new circumstances. Furthermore, it is always guided by individualized goals that focus on intentionally generalizing skills to the people, places, and situations that would maximize each learner’s quality of life! We should be planning therapy goals around answers to questions such as: “What makes this person the happiest?” “Where do they love to go?” and “Who do they love to be around?” If we aren’t asking these guiding questions, our sessions won’t be near as fun as they could be and our therapy won’t be near as impactful as it should be.
As you can see, ABA therapy CAN and SHOULD be enjoyable and fun! As with any other profession, those that aren’t doing therapy the right way can always add fuel to these types of misconceptions. Here is a summary of our simple tips for how to do it the RIGHT way:
- Constantly check motivation. Keep in mind that reinforcers change often and can sometimes be overused such that they are no longer motivating at all.
- CATCH THEM BEING GOOD! Not just when they do something really great, but also when they do things that are generally expected. None of us do this enough!
- Pair, pair, pair! Make yourself a reinforcer so that they are generally more motivated by you and your time together.
- Make teaching fun by considering not only their interests, but also by using new materials, places, activities, etc. when working on a skill.
Berg, W. K., et al. (2000), The effects of presession exposure to attention on the results of assessments of attention as a reinforcer. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33, 463-477.
Kelly, A. N., et al. (2015), Effect of presession pairing on the challenging behavior and academic responding of children with autism. Behavioural Interventions, 30(2), 135-156.
Lugo, A. M., et al. (2017), Developing procedures to improve therapist–child rapport in early intervention. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 10(4), 395–401.
Stokes, T. F., & Baer, D. M. (1977), An implicit technology of generalization. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10(2), 349–367.
Taylor, B. A., & Fisher, J. (2010), Three important things to consider when starting intervention for a child diagnosed with autism. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 3(2), 52–53.