One of the most essential aspects of ABA therapy is how it can be tailored to meet a child’s specific needs. The one-on-one attention and individualized plan your ABA specialist will provide your child is designed to help them reach their goals and learn new life skills. A significant part of differentiating ABA therapy is using forms of play that your child will find meaningful and respond to.
Processing an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis can be a big undertaking, and figuring out what’s best for your child in terms of therapy can feel daunting as well. With the help of your child’s ABA specialists, you’ll find the knowledge and tools necessary to support your child’s progress.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover:
- What is ABA Therapy?
- A Brief History: F. Skinner and Behavior
- What is Operant Conditioning?
- The Three Building Blocks of ABA Therapy
- The Role of Reinforcements in ABA Therapy
- ABA Therapy and Positive Reinforcement
- ABA Therapy and Changing Behavior
- What is Play Therapy?
- Benefits of Play Therapy
- Directive and Non-Directive Play Therapy
- 7 Types of Play
- Successful Play Models in ABA Therapy
- Floor Time in ABA Therapy
- Expressive Art in ABA
- Art Therapy and ABA Therapy
- Play Therapy at Home
- Recommended Toys for Child with Autism
What is ABA Therapy?
Though you may have done your research or met with an ABA specialist already, we thought we could start with a brief rundown of what ABA therapy entails.
ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis, is designed to take an in-depth look at how learning and behavior are connected and provide you a better understanding of how an environment can affect your child’s behavior. It examines:
- how each environment can affect behavior
- how behaviors work
- how learning takes place.
A Brief History: B. F. Skinner and Behavior
ABA therapy is designed based on behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, also referred to as Skinnerian conditioning. He believed it was more important to examine observable external forces driving human behavior rather than internal thoughts and motivators. While other behaviorists focused on classical conditioning, Skinner concentrated on how the consequences of someone’s actions would influence their behavior.
Skinner’s Two Types of Behavior
Skinner developed a distinction between two types of behaviors:
- Operant behaviors: those behaviors that are under the control of our conscious mind. Whether these behaviors occur spontaneously or purposely, it is ultimately the consequences of the actions that influence whether they are repeated in the future. Our actions on the environment and the consequences of that action make up an essential part of the learning process.
- Respondent behaviors: those behaviors that occur automatically and do not need to be learned. These behaviors occur involuntarily, such as a leg kick when your doctor taps your knee during a checkup.
Skinner accepted that classical conditioning could account for respondent behaviors but was less convinced it could account for most learning. This began his deeper dive into operant conditioning’s vital role in learning.
What is Operant Conditioning?
Operant conditioning is the idea that appropriate responses can be taught by controlling what consequences stem from your child’s specific actions. Operant conditioning utilizes a reward and punishment system in response to behaviors. Whether with an ABA specialist, parent, or educator, your child will begin to make associations between a specific behavior and a direct consequence, whether negative or positive. Operant conditioning, paired with ABA therapy, plays a critical role in learning, and it is imperative to be consistent across all your child’s environments.
Operant conditioning suggests that behaviors followed by reinforcement are more likely to be strengthened and occur again in the future. Conversely, a behavior that results in punishment or an undesirable consequence will be weakened and less likely to reoccur in the future.
The Three Building Blocks of ABA Therapy
There are three critical building blocks of ABA therapy. These components include:
Antecedent and Antecedent-Based Intervention
An antecedent transpires directly before a behavior. Then the behavior occurs, followed by the consequence immediately after. Antecedent-based interventions, or ABIs, involve these events or circumstances that happen immediately before a behavior. Antecedent-based interventions are designed around the concept that since our environment typically influences behaviors, we can modify them to eliminate undesirable behavior. The ABA specialists look for ways to change or modify these antecedents across all your child’s natural environments. Strategies your ABA specialist may implement include:
- Identifying items or activities that attract your child’s interest
- Implementing changes in your child’s schedule or routine
- Offering your child choices
- Modifying your child’s method of instruction
Behavior is the action taken as a result or in conjunction with the previous precursor. ABA specialists provide your child with alternative responses and reactions during ABA therapy when negative behaviors are displayed.
Consequences are the events that immediately follow the target behavior
and are contingent on your child’s behavior.
The Role of Reinforcements in ABA Therapy
ABA specialists facilitate desired behavior through positive reinforcement by using a system of rewards that are personally meaningful to your child. It works to change your child’s behavior for the long term. ABA therapy also involves generalization, the process of carrying positive responses into situations and environments outside of the ABA clinic with individuals other than your child’s ABA specialist.
ABA therapy is expansive, covering a wide variety of skills, including:
- Social skill building
- Self-care skills
- Behavior in the home environment
- Behavior in other social settings, such as the classroom
ABA Therapy and Positive Reinforcement
Both in and out of the ABA clinic, one of ABA therapy’s central tenets is the concept of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement works to encourage specific behavior in your child by presenting them with a reinforcing stimulus following their desired action. It is much more likely that your child will present the same positive behavior in the future when the incentive or reward is something meaningful to your child.
Much like ABA therapy in general, the rewards used as favorable reinforcement will look different for different children. Basic examples of rewards used for positive reinforcement include:
- Verbal praise for completing an essential, necessary task, like homework or picking up toys
- A small cash allowance for every passing grade received on a report card
- A favorite piece of candy for politely introducing oneself to a new acquaintance
ABA Therapy and Changing Behavior
By far, ABA therapy is one of the most popular interventions available to children and people with autism. As a parent of a child newly diagnosed, you may be concerned about how working with ABA specialists can help change or modify your child’s behavior for the better. It is ok to be skeptical!
The use of a reward system includes various items or privileges your child responds to well. By individualizing these rewards, your ABA specialist creates a behavior system based on the rewards that will eventually result in a new, positive outcome. However, if your child does not present the expected skill or behavior, inside or outside the ABA clinic, the reward is not given. Your ABA specialists will make adjustments to find the rewards that provide the most optimal results. Over time, your child will learn and adapt to the expected skills and behaviors.
Play Therapy in ABA
The benefits of play as an aspect of ABA therapy cannot be understated. Whether your child is at the clinic with their ABA specialist or with you and your family at home, introducing play into their sessions will positively affect their behavior.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is a therapeutic form of therapy used primarily with children. Play helps children learn to express themselves and articulate feelings through interactions and problem-solving. To the untrained eye, play therapy may look like regular playtime. In reality, it is an ideal time for ABA specialists to gain insight into a child’s struggles through observations. As children play, they may become less guarded and more open to sharing feelings. Without pressure, they are free to learn through exploration.
Play therapy offers children the ability to:
- explore emotions
- learn new coping mechanisms
- redirect inappropriate behaviors
- develop social skills
- enhance language skills
- strengthen fine and gross motor skills
Limitations of Play in Children with Autism
Children with autism are often met with difficulty and limitations during play. It’s common to observe children with ASD playing repetitively, limiting themselves to a few specific toys, or engaging in limited activities. These limitations can be attributed to a variety of factors, including:
- limited communication skills
- underdeveloped social skills
Benefits of Play Therapy
Just as ABA therapy varies per subject, play will look different for different children. Play therapy may seem like a simple exploration session for some children, allowing them to experiment and play alongside other children. For others, play therapy may be more structured and formal. No matter what it looks like for your child, play therapy offers a wide range of benefits.
Play helps your child develop and strengthen skills, including:
- interacting with others cooperatively and competitively
- communicating needs and wants
- interpreting the intentions of others
- taking turns
- develop bonds with caregivers
- practice self-advocacy
- mastering skills
- encouraging creativity
- develop respect and empathy for others
- alleviate anxiety
Where Does Play Therapy Take Place?
As the parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, you can feel confident in your ability to practice play therapy with your child. It does not need to take place solely in an ABA clinic. With the right coaching, knowledge, and resources from your child’s ABA specialists, you and other notable figures in your child’s life can play effectively with your child. Your ABA specialists will recommend participation across all their natural environments, including:
- relatives’ homes
Directive and Non-Directive Play Therapy
You can practice two very distinct types of play therapy at home, in the ABA clinic, or at school. They are:
- Directive play
- Non-directive play
1. Directive Play Therapy
Directive play therapy is a guided approach to play therapy. During directive play therapy, an ABA specialist or parent engages the child more often and directly throughout the play. The ABA specialist begins each session with specific goals and intervention strategies in mind. They might make suggestions to try to move the session along a particular path, ultimately leading to the lesson or discussion for the day’s session.
The ABA specialist will select specific toys and activities ahead of time. Throughout the play session, they will prompt or initiate situations to purposefully attempt to steer your child to the pre-planned lesson, discussing problems and solutions together.
2. Non-Directive Play Therapy
Non-directive play therapy is the polar opposite of directive play therapy. It involves a more unstructured type of play and encourages your child to lead. During non-directive play therapy, your child’s ABA specialist remains flexible, leaving your child to guide themself during playtime. You will notice the ABA specialist will maintain a hands-off approach with no pre-planned scenarios, activities, or interjections to facilitate the desired situation. There are very few boundaries during this type of play therapy, and your child will be allowed to work through problems and roadblocks on their own. This gives your ABA specialists an in-depth look at:
- how your child handles situations in a natural environment
- what challenges your child struggles with
- how your child works to solve challenges on their own
7 Types of Play
There are a variety of types of play used in conjunction with ABA therapy. Each type can be implemented during your child’s ABA therapy sessions, at home, or across a number of their natural environments. Here are six of the most commonly used types of play that are ideal for helping reach your child’s goals in various environments:
- cause and effect play
- functional play
- exploratory play
- constructive play
- physical play
- pretend play
- social play
Cause and Effect Play
This method of play involves toys or devices that require an action to produce results. Your child may need to press a colored button to activate music from a toy. Cause and effect play helps build your child’s sense of control as they understand their action produces the desired effect.
Functional or toy play teaches children how to play with a toy in the manner it was created for, including pushing a toy truck or rolling a ball. Children with autism may struggle with this concept. Through ABA therapy strategies, including modeling and rewards, you can help your child learn to adopt these skills.
Your ABA specialists may encourage your child to explore toys rather than play with them in their intended manner. As children explore toys and objects, they learn about the world around them. Sizes, textures, and shapes are part of the exploratory play and vital to learning during play and ABA therapy.
When children work towards building or creating with an end goal in mind, this is constructive play. They may build a house with blocks or finish a puzzle. Often, children with autism will excel at constructive play tasks.
Whether outdoors or inside, physical play supports your child’s gross motor skills and overall physical health. Through whole-body exercise, physical play lets your child explore, release energy, and interact with or near others.
Pretend or imaginary play is an essential component of play for children. Often a delayed development in children with autism, this type of play helps:
- expand their imagination
- increase creativity
- develop social skills
- improve verbal and non-verbal communication skills
Perhaps one of the most concentrated areas of play during ABA therapy is social play. Social play within typically developing children follows developmental stages and milestones. Children with ASD find social play more challenging and require more time and guidance to develop these skills. Your ABA specialists will guide them through the four stages of play, teaching you techniques you can implement at home.
The four stages of play include:
- solitary play: playing alone
- parallel play: playing alongside others
- associative play: learning to play with and share with others
- cooperative play: working with others in a helpful manner to achieve a goal, complete a task, or follow the rules of an activity
Successful Play Models in ABA Therapy
As you attend ABA therapy with your child, their ABA specialists will model and educate you on successful ways to incorporate play across various environments. Two incredibly beneficial and simple play methods to practice at home include floor play and art.
Floor Time in ABA Therapy
You may have come across the term “floor time” as you’ve researched play therapy and interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorder. This type of play therapy involves the child, parent, and ABA specialist all working and playing together. Since children have difficulty expressing themselves in an adult-focused world, floor time provides an opportunity for you to join the world on their level. Floortime consists of both directive and non-directive approaches, allowing your child to experience the perfect blend of independence and structure during the session.
Just as you will differentiate other aspects of your child’s ABA therapy, you and your child’s ABA specialist will come up with a plan to differentiate your child’s play therapy and floor time as well. The session may begin with little to no direction, which will allow your child to determine the initial play activity. As the session progresses, you or your child’s ABA specialist can prompt your child to choose a new toy to play with, communicate in some way, or take another action that will make the session feel a bit more directed.
Key Goals of Floor Time During Play Therapy
During floor time, your child’s ABA specialists will be on the lookout for them to fulfill six specific goals. These goals are:
- Your child demonstrates an understanding of the mechanics of the activity.
- Your child actively engages with the ABA specialist in the clinic or with you.
- Two-way communication between you and your child or your child and their ABA specialist is displayed.
- Your child becomes aware of their specific wants and needs within the activity.
- Your child makes a gesture to communicate these wants and needs during the activity.
- Your child can calm themself down should they become upset.
For each child, achieving these six goals will look very different, but your ABA specialist will likely structure the floor time session to maximize the likelihood that your child will reach these goals.
Your child’s ABA specialist will allow them to lead the session. When given autonomy, some children may choose to play with blocks while others may gravitate toward dolls or toy trucks. Your child may opt for a simple board game. The possibilities are endless, but the options for play will be toys or games that your child has expressed interest in playing with in the past.
As the session progresses, toys and activities to make floor time more complex and dynamic are introduced. For example, your child’s ABA specialist may add a dollhouse, where they may have only been playing with individual dolls before. The introduction of a new, related toy allows your child to display their understanding of how dolls and dollhouses are connected.
During floor time at their ABA therapy session, you and your child’s specialist should be on the lookout for their ability to show an understanding of how to play with the specific toys presented. They should later begin communicating with you about the activity and asking pertinent questions or solving problems.
Expressive Art in ABA
One of the most natural ways for any child to explore and express themselves is through art. Whether your child is drawing, painting, or dancing, art offers a therapeutic way to learn about their emotions, develop coping mechanisms, and engage in social interactions. For years, art has been regarded as a valid form of early childhood intervention for children with autism.
What is Art Therapy?
Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that utilizes the creative process to improve mental, physical, and emotional well-being. When paired with ABA therapy, art therapy helps children with autism develop and enhance skills, learn self-expression, experience multiple sensory stimuli, and develop bonds. They are free to create and explore in a safe, nurturing environment by using visual, social, and tactile opportunities.
Benefits of Art Therapy
Introducing art therapy offers a wide variety of possibilities for children with autism. Studies show that children with autism exhibit fewer behavioral issues after engaging in artistic activities, especially when using one-to-one art therapy sessions with their ABA specialists.
Art stimulates their mind to help them develop their imagination, express themselves, and encourage abstract thinking. It provides an opportunity for them to facilitate their cognitive development while strengthening their visual-spatial skills. Offering this form of play supports their creativity while helping them see and understand the world around them.
Incorporating expressive art offers an alternative way for them to work on ABA therapy goals, including:
- developing communication skills
- enhancing visual skills
- encourage social skills
- addressing behavioral issues through ABA therapy integration
- developing sensory integration
- reducing off-task behaviors
- increasing learning opportunities
- improving fine motor skills
Art Therapy and ABA Therapy
Art therapy offers an antecedent-based intervention for children with autism. Similar to ABA therapy practices, it utilizes positive reinforcements. This may be in the form of allowing your child to choose favorite art activities or make individual choices throughout the art session. Success may come from one-on-one sessions or group art therapy. Let’s take a look at what you can expect from both models:
Art intervention studies continue to show increases in children with autism’s attention span and overall ability to follow their ABA specialist’s instructions. With ongoing sessions, children have developed the ability to predict the sequence of events during their art sessions. Through close work with ABA specialists during these sessions, conversation skills show improvement, and art becomes more concrete.
Group sessions, consisting of two or more students, can help support social awareness. Adding a social component encourages interaction while boosting self-esteem. Various benefits of a group art setting include increases in:
- on-task behaviors
- eye contact
- communication skills
- social skills
Assessing Your Child Through Art
Art therapy offers your child’s ABA specialist optimal assessment opportunities. Art environments help reduce over-stimulation and distraction. While in a relaxing, engaging environment, your child is being observed across all development areas as they create.
Play Therapy at Home
As crucial as effective play therapy is at the clinic during your ABA therapy sessions, it is just as essential to practice play therapy and floor time at home. Carrying play therapy over from their ABA therapy to your home is a critical element in generalization, or your child’s ability to respond to stimuli and present the same positive behaviors across multiple environments.
So how best to enact a play therapy session at home? As we’ve mentioned, play therapy will look different for every child. As such, it is vital to recognize the type of play that your child responds to best. Ask yourself these helpful questions while taking note during ABA therapy and home activities:
- Does your child like arts and crafts?
- Does your child enjoy music and dancing?
- Do they enjoy board games more than other toys?
- Is building with blocks or Legos an interest?
Once you understand how best to play with your child, you can introduce play therapy in your home.
Think back on how you have seen your child’s ABA specialists carry out a play therapy session with your child in the clinic. Refer to strategies and resources they have provided you. These steps likely included:
- Starting with a non-directive approach, allowing your child to select the toy or game that you’ll use for the start of the session.
- Rewarding your child for accurately describing the rules of the game or appropriately using a toy.
- As the session progresses, introduce new, more complex toy and game options and gauge how your child responds.
Remember to take notes during the session to share with your child’s team of ABA specialists. The intel you provide the team will help your child’s ABA specialists continue to fine-tune their ABA therapy goals, strategies, and methods.
If you wonder if there are specific types of toys that you can purchase to aid in your child’s ABA therapy, wonder no more! There is a myriad of toys that you can use to support your child’s developing fine and gross motor skills, social skills, and communication skills. There are even toys designed to help your child better understand cause and effect.
When introducing play therapy and floor time into your child’s daily routine at home, consider adding in a toy that is specifically designed to work on one of the skills your team of ABA specialists is addressing. There are a couple of toys our highly qualified team recommends:
We recommend toys considered to be “fidget” sets. These toy sets include items that offer different textures and features for your child to explore and interact with. Fidget sets can consist of:
- stress balls
- koosh balls
- tangle toys
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can also benefit from playing with smart tablets explicitly designed for use in ABA therapy. There are various ABA-specific applications and games you can download for your child to use on the tablet. As your child uses the tablet, you’ll see an improvement in their behavior in no time. A tablet also functions as a reward during other points in your child’s therapy session.
Empowering Every Child
Play therapy is just one aspect of ABA therapy, but it is crucial to giving your child a sense of autonomy and the opportunities to learn and grow while having fun at the same time!
At Blossom Children’s Center, we believe that every child and family in the special needs community should feel empowered and supported on their learning and growing journey. Blossom’s team works collaboratively with every family to provide children with Autism Spectrum Disorder the highest quality ABA therapy possible.
Visit our services page for more details on the individualized sessions and intensive programs Blossom offers. You and your child are sure to find a supportive, collaborative environment at Blossom!