Applied behavior analysis for individuals with autism spectrum disorder is most known for being used for the younger child such as from the ages of two to six or seven years old. However, increasingly, older children and adolescents are also receiving applied behavior analysis services.

Following you will find some research-based information for providing applied behavior analysis services to older children and adolescents.

  • The rapport with the behavior technician is very important to create behavior change.
    • We know rapport is important for younger children, as well. However, it is very important to see how the relationship between the adolescent and the technician can be a factor in the client acquiring new skills or changing his or her behavior.
    • The adolescent not only has more physical control over his body and his environment (making it more difficult for a behavior technician to “force” them to do things compared to getting a three year old to do things like move from one room to the next or get into a car to leave home.
    • Additionally, the adolescent has a longer history that has influence the development of his current behaviors; therefore, rapport with a behavior technician will be very important to help change these long-held behaviors.
    • In summary, the behavior technician needs to become a conditioned reinforcer.
  • One of, if not, the primary goal of ABA with adolescents should be to teach adaptive skills.
    • Adaptive Behavior is defined as those skills or abilities that enable the individual to meet standards of personal independence and that would be expected of his or her age and social group. Adaptive behavior also refers to the typical performance of individuals without disabilities in meeting environmental expectations. Adaptive behavior changes according to a persons age, cultural expectations, and environmental demands. (Heward, 2005).
    • Review the outcome of one study cited by Gerhardt:
      • In a group of 20 adolescents with Asperger syndrome, Green, et. al. (2000) found that
        despite a mean IQ of 92 only half were independent in most basic self care skills
        including brushing teeth, showering, etc. None were considered by their parents as capable of
        engaging in leisure activities outside of the home, traveling independently, or making
        competent decisions about self care.
    • It is also important to consider the individuals future probability of employment since, sadly, the statistics show a low rate of employment for adults with autism. (Reference: Howlin, et. al, 2014, in Gerhardt).
  • Remember the 7 dimensions of ABA: Generalization, Effective, Technological, Applied, Conceptually Systematic, Analytic, Behavioral. See this article in our blog for more information on these dimensions of ABA.
  • Remember to use positive reinforcement to increase socially significant behaviors.
  • Be sure to individualize ABA to the person you are working with (while remaining consistent with the ethics and guidelines of the approach).
  • Understand that some techniques that work with some younger learners may not be as appropriate, as ethical, or as effective for older learners. For instance, certain prompting strategies (such as physical prompts) and discrete trial teaching may not be appropriate for many adolescent learners. Consider other strategies as suggested by Gerhardt such as:
    • Fluency/Rate-base instruction
    • Shaping
    • Chaining
    • Incidental strategies/NET (Natural Environment Training)
    • Environmental/curricular modifications
  • Even though working with adolescents and older children (especially higher functioning youth) may be less structured as working with a younger child using DTT, it is important to still ensure that the individual receive multiple learning opportunities to learn the new skill. This is part of ABA and part of learning new behaviors and skills.
  • Work on reducing dependence and increasing independence with various skills.
  • Look at longer-term goals and evaluate what the learner needs to learn in order to achieve those goals.

I hope these tips help you in your ABA work with older children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder.

Reference: Gerhardt, P.F. ABA and Older Learners with Autism: Applications to Promote Competence and Quality of Life. Organization for Autism Research.

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