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Behavior Therapy as a Treatment for Autism


Updated June 17, 2014

What Exactly is Behavior Therapy?

Behavior analysis is a relatively new concept. It stems from the idea that behaviors, even when they are challenging or confusing, can be understood as a result of careful observation, record keeping, and analysis. Once behaviors are understood, they can be modified based on the needs and desires of the person whose behavior is at issue.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one way autism treatment has benefitted from the concept of behavior analysis. Behavior specialists, however, are not ABA practitioners. Their job is quite different: they are generally brought in as consultants to figure out why a person with autism is behaving in a particular way -- and to recommend interventions to change the undesirable behavior. In the past, interventions might have included negative consequences (punishment), but today, almost all specialists agree that punishment is not only morally wrong but also, for the most part, useless.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), an organization based in Florida, offers certifications in behavior analysis to individuals with bachelors and masters degrees. In addition, some universities offer degree concentration in behavior management. For the most part, however, behavior specialists are people from related fields -- education, psychology, social work, etc. -- who have taken courses and gathered experience in observing, analyzing and managing difficult behaviors.

Why Would a Person With Autism Need to See a Behavior Specialist?

Almost everyone on the autism spectrum has at least some challenging behaviors. These may range from the odd (spinning, flapping) to the self-injurious (head banging) to the truly dangerous (hitting, kicking, dashing into traffic). Autistic people may also find undesirable ways to avoid doing what they don't want to do: they may hum, slide under the table, or otherwise avoid non-preferred activities.

Often, parents and teachers are uncertain how to manage these behaviors. Unlike many people, they are not deliberately misbehaving -- nor are they seeking attention. For the average educator or caregiver, it's hard to know how to improve behaviors while also, for example, cooking dinner or teaching 20 other children.

What Does a Behavior Specialist Do for People with Autism?

The role of the behavior specialist is to walk into a setting, observe the environment, the activities, and the person in question; to gather data about what seems to set off or calm difficult behaviors; to suggest appropriate changes and/or interventions; and to troubleshoot until the interventions are successful. Interventions may range from behavior charts with stickers and motivational prizes to changes in an environment that is creating sensory overload or undue frustrations.

Ideally, by involving a behavior specialist, a parent or teacher can develop a postive set of tools to manage behaviors, improve outcomes, and generally make life easier for everyone. In the best of circumstances, it may be relatively simple to change a situation for the better. Changes in lighting, the addition of a visual schedule, extra warning time before transitions and similar small tweaks can vastly improve the lives of people on the autism spectrum.

How Can I Find a Qualified Behavior Specialist?

One option for finding credentialed individuals with training in behavior analysis is to go through the BACB registry, which allows the general public to search for registrants by location. Very often, if a challenging behavior occurs in a school setting, the school district will bring in a behavior specialist they feel is qualified. Parents can, of course, question the choice of specialist -- but unless there some obvious issue (the person has no experience with autistic children) it may be hard to make a change.

Similarly, state and local early intervention programs for children under the age of three may employ their own behavior specialists or behavior consultants. Parents may have the option of having that consultant come into the home to observe and help manage difficult behaviors related to family life.

Behavior management consultants may also be found through local hospitals, autism clinics or universities. Look for university graduate programs in areas like special education, social work, and related fields. It is, of course, critically important that the person you choose be knowledgeable about autism spectrum disorders. Again, since credentialing is tricky, the key to finding the "right" consultant is more of an art than a science.

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorders
  4. Autism Treatments
  5. Autism Specialists 101
  6. Behavior Therapy as a Treatment for Autism

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