Autism is a developmental disability that is typically identified during the first three years of life. The result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, autism and its associated behaviors have been estimated to occur in as many as 1 in 88 individuals (source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and 1 in 54 boys. Individuals with characteristics of what is now called autism have been identified throughout the world in families of all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. However, the disorder was not formally recognized until the 1940’s, when Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger both independently coined the term autism.
Autism is one of five "autistic spectrum disorders" (ASD) described in the DSM-IV-TR under the heading of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). The other disorders on the spectrum include Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Rett’s Syndrome. All PDD’s overlap and portions of their clinical features are shared, however, they are distinct disorders and have specific diagnostic criteria.
Autism, the most commonly diagnosed PDD, interferes with the typical development of the brain in the areas that control all aspects of communication, social interaction, and sensory development. Individuals with autism may exhibit repetitive body movements such as hand flapping and rocking, show atypical responses to people and/or attachments to objects, exhibit difficulty with transitions and/or resistance to change. Autism is four times more common in males than females.
The symptoms and characteristics of autism may present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, ranging from mild to severe. Although autism is defined by the presence of a certain set of behaviors, individuals with autism may exhibit any combination of these behaviors, varying in degree of severity. Autism is known as a spectrum disorder. Therefore, two individuals with a diagnosis of autism may act very differently from one another.
While autism knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries, it does have some genetic component. Studies have shown that the prevalence of autism among siblings of individuals with autism is substantially higher than in the general population. Particularly in twin studies, if one identical twin has autism, it is likely that the other one will as well. Additionally, even when a history of autism is not found within a family, there may be a higher than expected prevalence of cognitive and social impairments within the family. These findings strengthen the hypothesis that some characteristics of autism may have a genetic basis.
As many as 1.77 million Americans today are believed to have some form of autism (source: ASA). Once thought to be a rare disorder, it is currently rated as the most common developmental disability-more common than Down’s Syndrome. Yet the majority of the public, including many professionals in the medical, educational, and vocational fields remain unaware of how autism affects individuals and how to implement the most effective interventions to assist these individuals in leading independent and productive lives.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the practical application and analysis of the theoretical and philosophical foundations of behaviorism. B.F. Skinner, the founding father of the science of behavior, was the first to develop the principles of ABA.
ABA began in the late 1940's and grew rapidly in the 1960's. Ivar Lovaas and others demonstrated that ABA is the most effective way to help individuals with autism learn new skills, refine previously learned skills, and enjoy more independent and productive lives.
ABA is defined as the science in which procedures derived from the principles of behavior are systematically applied to improve socially significant behavior to a meaningful degree and to demonstrate experimentally that the procedures employed were responsible for the improvement in behavior.
What separates ABA from other disciplines with similar intent is its focus, goals, and methodology. In ABA, the focus is on operationally defining target behaviors. The goals are to identify environmental conditions in which the behaviors are likely to occur. The methodology consists of description, quantification, and analysis of the intervention.
ABA looks at what Skinner defined as the three-term contingency: antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. Shaping or changing behavior requires shaping the environment. In order to do that we must look at what immediately precedes the behavior (antecedent) and what immediately follows the behavior (consequence).Therefore, in ABA we do not look to shape behaviors necessarily, we look to shape three term contingencies.
Antecedents are changed to either prevent a certain behavior from occurring or to encourage a certain behavior. You may also change behavior by altering the consequences. Consequences are also changed to prevent a particular behavior from occurring or to encourage a specific behavior. Simply stated, ABA is a way of analyzing, understanding, and modifying human behavior.
One of the key principles in ABA is that of reinforcement. Behavior analysts have used the principle of reinforcement to increase skills in all aspects of development, including communication and socialization. In teaching new skills, the behavior analyst ensures that reinforcement and shaping of the desired behavior occurs, that instruction is consistent across environments, and that there is generalization to novel settings.
Behavior analysts have also used the principle of reinforcement to reduce and eliminate maladaptive behaviors. When faced with a challenging behavior, one must:
The program is then systematically reviewed and revised as necessary. In doing a functional assessment, behavior analysts identify and evaluate the components of the three term contingency to foster behavior change.
The primary methods of instruction in ABA are discrete trial teaching and incidental/natural environment teaching. Discrete trial teaching is defined as a form of behavioral sequence used to maximize learning. Discrete trial instruction uses a structured learning environment to teach novel information that will be generalized across all environments.
Incidental teaching occurs in the natural environment, is initiated by the individual (the target behavior is chosen by the individual), and provides the individual with naturally occurring consequences of skills while promoting generalization of skills. QSAC is a community-based not-for-profit organization that utilizes the principles of applied behavior analysis to help improve the lives of individuals with autism and their families. All QSAC staff are trained in ABA and use these techniques in the center-based programs, in the home and in the community. QSAC staff always use positive reinforcement as the primary means of changing behavior. If you have any questions or for more information, please call us at (718) 7-AUTISM.
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