Behavior modification therapy serves two important roles in autism treatment. Behavioral therapy can reduce the frequency and severity of unwanted behavior such as head-banging or self-stimulation. Behavior modification also helps children with autism develop essential social, communication, and self-care skills.
Like other forms of autism treatments, behavioral therapy is not a cure for autism, but rather a form of social training that makes it easier for autistic children to cope with the world around them.
Applied Behavioral Analysis
All behavior modification training programs are part of a larger field of therapy known as applied behavior analysis. Based on learning theories, applied behavior analysis seeks to improve social skills and minimize outbursts of unwanted behavior.
Applied behavior analysis concentrates on teaching autistic children academic skills, social skills, and “adaptive living” skills. Adaptive living skills are day-to-day skills such as personal hygiene, motor skills, eating, and cooking. Applied behavior analysis also teaches work skills, time, and money concepts.
Discrete Trial Training
Discrete trial training is a type of applied behavioral analysis. Children with autism are easily overwhelmed by stimulation or information. Discrete trial training accepts this, and breaks behavior modification training down into small, manageable, goals. Simple skills, such as saying “hello” when greeted, are taught first. Then, new skills are added to accomplish more complex goals (learning to say hello when greeted progresses into conversation skills, for instance).
Pivotal Response Training
Pivotal response training is similar to discrete trial training. Pivotal response therapy uses a play environment to teach skills such as turn-taking, communication, and language. This training is child-directed: the child makes choices that direct the therapy.
Pivotal response training advocates claim that most behavior hinges on two “pivotal” behavioral skills: motivation and the ability to respond to multiple signals, or cues. Developing these pivotal behaviors will result in a general improvement in other areas.
Pivotal response training’s effectiveness has yet to be proven conclusively. Applied behavior analysis research on pivotal response and its impact on autistic children is ongoing.
Educational Programs and TEACCH
Structured education is a vital part of autism behavioral therapy. The North Carolina-based TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication Handicapped Children) is a leader in structured education in autism.
TEACCH is not an applied behavioral analysis. Instead, TEACCH is an educational program that uses various behavioral modification tools. TEACCH creates unique behavior modification training programs based on the individual’s own skills and behavior.
TEACCH focuses on structured education and training tools because the response of autistic children to structure is often positive. The ultimate goal of TEACCH and other structured education programs is to develop skills and interests the child already possesses.
Association for Science in Autism Treatment.