This blog post will discuss challenging behaviours: why language matters when describing behaviour, behaviour as communication, functions of behaviour, replacements and safety when addressing behaviours.
Challenging… problem… interfering… There are many words that describe behaviours. However, how you label a behaviour speaks to how you feel about it. Calling a behaviour a ‘problem’ gives blame to the learner. Naming a behaviour as challenging can lead to the question “Who is this behaviour challenging?”. Labeling a behaviour as interfering might lead people to ask “interfering with what?”
Like most topics in the autism and ABA world, there is controversy around this. At Side by Side Therapy, I use challenging or interfering to describe these behaviours. I feel that it helps to focus our efforts on the behaviours that aren’t helpful to the learner.
Challenging Behaviours are Communication
If we take the view that all behaviour is communication, the learner isn’t to blame for their behaviour. They’re simply communicating a need in the most effective way they have. This attitude also leads us to look for alternative ways to communicate this need. It focuses us on helping the learner as opposed to stopping the behaviour.
4 Functions of Behaviour and Replacement Behaviours
When we’re targeting interfering or challenging behaviours we must identify their function. Some behaviours serve more than one function. We can ask: What does doing this behaviour give the learner? Does it let them off the hook for something undesirable or difficult? Having this information will help us find a replacement behaviour that meets the same need but is better for the learner. Better, in this case, means: easier, safer, more efficient and more effective. It can also be more socially acceptable.
More often than not, when we’re addressing challenging behaviours, one of the first things we teach is functional communication. This can be any form of communication (spoken words, signs, picture exchange, gesture etc). What’s important is that the learner is able to use the communication independently and that it is effective in meeting their need.
Safety First with Challenging Behaviours
Unfortunately, some behaviours are just dangerous. It is critical to keep safety at the forefront of any behaviour reduction plan. The learner’s safety, as well as the other people in their environment (family, peers, staff). Sometimes (often!) the plan needs to be revised and changed. Some behaviours are merely bothersome to the people around the learner. These behaviours do not always need to be targeted for reduction.
Every day we hear fake news. Sometimes it’s hard to tell fake news from real news. When you’re choosing a therapy to help your child having real news is vital. Here are the top 5 myths about ABA briefly explained.
Top 5 Myths about ABA Explained:
Myth 1: ABA is only for autism.
While ABA is most well known for it’s use with autistic children there are many other applications. ABA can be used to address a wide variety of conditions: ADHD, substance abuse, anxiety and anger, traumatic brain injury are only a few. There is also a lot of really neat use of ABA in business and sports. The Florida Institute of Technology has a certificate program in Organizational Behavior Management (OBM). OBM addresses performance management, safety systems and behavioural systems analysis.
ABA is in classrooms around the world every day. But it’s not called ABA… it’s just called teaching!
Myth 2: ABA is all about drills at the table
Old-school ABA was drills at the table. However lots of research in education shows that young children learn best through play. As the decades pass and research continues, new naturalistic interventions are becoming common, like the Early Start Denver Model and Pivotal Response Treatment. Generalization is also becoming an integral part of all good ABA programs. The child needs to show the skills across settings, people and materials in order for it to be useful. Generalization doesn’t happen exclusively at the table.
Myth 3: ABA is only effective when it’s more than 40 hours per week.
This is one of the most widespread myths about ABA. Early research showed that ‘intensive’ programs of 40+ hours each week were the most effective. However a recent study showed that there was no difference in outcomes between 15 and 25 hours/week of therapy. It is very common to see children in 6-15 hours of therapy each week with great results. Comprehensive ABA is 20+ hours of therapy per week. It’s comprehensive because it delivers a full curriculum. 5-19 hours of therapy per week is called Focused ABA because it focuses on specific skills and teaches those to mastery.
Myth 4: ABA uses food as a bribe.
A big part of ABA is using positive reinforcement. We want to encourage the behaviours we want to see again. A surefire way to do this is by using positive reinforcement. By adding desirable things to the environment after a behaviour occurs you make it more likely that the behaviour will happen again. Anything can act as a reinforcer, as long as it makes a behaviour more likely to happen again. Sometimes that’s food, but more often it’s toys, praise and privileges. The ABA team should always be developing new reinforcers to keep the person motivated.
Myth 5: ABA will fix the autistic child.
ABA teaches skills and reduces challenging behaviour. This leads to improved quality of life. Autism is a neurological disorder. It has no cure. However, there is still plenty to be hopeful about. All children have the potential to learn and grow. It’s not about reaching a specific milestone, but rather about becoming the best that they can be.
Finding the right therapy for your autistic child is vital to improving their (and your) quality of life. Don’t be led astray by the fake news. ABA is one of the most studied and effective treatments for your child.
This post will describe the elements you need to consider when you choose an ABA provider for your child.
As soon as you get an Autism diagnosis the first place you turn is likely Google. When you’re reading you find again and again that Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is the most recommended therapy. If you live in a bigger city, you’ve got many options to choose from – but how do you choose an ABA provider?
Here are 5 things to consider when you choose an ABA provider:
Home or centre based?
There are many benefits to both home and centre based programs. What you need to decide is: which will benefit your child and be most manageable in your life?
In home based programs, the clinicians come to your house for each therapy appointment. Generally, a responsible adult has to be home with the child and clinician during sessions. You can see what the clinician is doing and how they’re teaching your child. You can participate in therapy sessions. Depending on the age and goals of the child, the clinicians might need a desk or table that’s free from distractions. Home based programs typically focus on using the toys and materials you have in your home to do the programming. This is a great strategy because it will allow you to continue the interventions when the therapist leaves.
Clinic based programs allow you to drop your child off and get things done while they’re in therapy. Your child will have access to a lot of novel toys and games. There will likely be peers around for social skills programming and they will hopefully learn to be a bit independent as they’re away from you and the ‘safety’ of home. Clinic based therapy sessions can often mimic school more closely than home based sessions can.
Credentials and Supervision
In Ontario, behaviour analysis is not a regulated profession. The title ‘Behaviour Analyst’ is not protected like psychologist or social worker. Anyone can say they’re a behaviour analyst. That’s a terrifying thought.
There is a certification board that credentials Behaviour Analysts. It’s called the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. To become a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) the candidate must have completed an approved graduate degree, completed 2000 hours of supervised work and passed a board exam. To utilize provincial funding for evidence based behavioural services (aka: ABA!) the program must be overseen by a BCBA.
It is vital when you choose an ABA provider that there is a BCBA on the team who will ACTUALLY SPEND TIME WITH YOUR CHILD. It is not enough to have a BCBA who simply signs off on the reports. They should spend a minimum of 2 hours each month supervising and monitoring your child’s progress. The BCBA also trains the front line staff on the interventions.
Some agencies employ Senior Therapists to take over some of the supervision of the BCBA. Often, senior therapists are in training to become BCBAs. This is totally okay, as long as the BCBA remains involved. At Side by Side Therapy, we do 10% supervision (for every 10 hours of ABA a client has they will have 1 hour of supervision). That’s a reasonable standard to look for when you choose an ABA provider.
Reviews and Recommendations
Rely on word of mouth. Other families have walked your path and can often be reliable sources of information when you choose an ABA provider. Most businesses have Google reviews that you can read. Also, there are many support groups on Facebook or other social media platforms that can provide recommendations for ABA providers in your area. You can also ask for references when you’ve narrowed down your search to a few providers.
Parent or caregiver involvement
Instructing parents not to participate in therapy is a huge red flag. There is no reason that you should not be in the room or able to watch what’s happening (whether in a home or centre based program).
Parent training is vital to a child’s success. You must learn the strategies and techniques that will be most effective for your child. One of the best ways to learn is called Behavioural Skills Training (BST). There are 4 steps in BST: instruction, modelling, rehearsal and feedback. You need to practice the skills with the clinician there to provide feedback in order to learn them.
You should also have an equal voice in the direction of the programming and how the programs are chosen. Each ABA program is ABA is individualized to each client so it is important that your family’s goals and values are taken into account when creating the programming. The goal development should be guided by two things: the curriculum assessment and your input.
While ABA is the most evidence based intervention for Autism, there is definitely an important role for the other disciplines to play in your child’s autism therapy. Speech-Language Pathology, Occupational Therapy, Recreation Therapy and respite all bring valuable insights and skills to the team.
Bringing an excellent team together with clinicians from multiple agencies is possible, but it is WAY easier to have everything under one roof. Choosing an ABA provider that is open to collaboration with other disciplines is super important.
Questions to ask when choosing an ABA provider
What does a typical session look like?
How do you measure success?
How frequently are revisions made to the programming?
Who does parent training? How often is it done?
What is your philosophy on punishment?
What training do the instructor therapists have?
How many years have you been a BCBA?
Call or email Side by Side Therapy today to schedule a no charge/no obligation consultation to learn about our ABA program or for advice on how to choose an ABA provider.
The subject of language is such an important factor in shaping the way we look at and interact with society. The connotations and assumptions that have been learned with language have moulded (intentionally or unintentionally) our perspectives and outlook.
These learned assumptions play a large part in influencing our way of understanding and looking at things and sadly, at times, one’s outlook can be detrimental to others. Stereotypes and labels, unfortunately, are often a misrepresentation of what some believe to be the truth and regrettably place barriers before those they view as ‘different’ or as ‘other’. We view difference as being bad. However, what does different mean and who decided this?
Autistic community targeted as different
When speaking on difference, the autistic community has struggled with being labelled and stereotyped as ‘different’. You can read about autism spectrum disorder here. If we, as a society, could change our perspectives and look at autistic people not as ‘different’ or as an ‘other’, but instead see that in a lot of cases, the difference simply lies in their approach to how they cope in and interact with society. This shift in thinking could truly offer this community the respect and acceptance they deserve.
To that note, there has been much debate and controversy surrounding the appropriate choice of language used when identifying or communicating with an autistic person. This debate is focused on identity-first language (“autistic person”) versus person-first language (“person with autism”). Now, you may look at the above two forms of language and think these nuisances are based on semantics, however, if you look to understand and break it down the difference is not only important but rather quite clear.
The concepts are:
Identity-first language which is the preferential choice of language for those within the autistic community. It is their preference for the use of words such as “Autistic” or “Autistic person” when being addressed, spoken or identified with. Since we know that autism is an inherent part of a person’s identity, it is believed that identity should be recognized first. The person cannot break away from autism. Therefore, from this perspective, identity-first language is a choice for empowerment, shared community beliefs, culture and identity. It speaks to the fact that being autistic is nothing to be ashamed of and differences are to be respected and celebrated not criticized.
Person-first language has been adopted by parents, caretakers and professionals of autistic people and they use terminology such as “person with autism”. This viewpoint explains in essence, that person-first language puts the person before the disability or the condition and focuses on the merits and worth of the individual by accepting them as a person instead of a condition. This outlook taken on by caretakers, family members and professionals are based on the idea that they do not consider autism to be part of the child’s identity and therefore don’t want them to be labelled as such.
The controversy, therefore, surrounding the use of person-first language as recognized by many within the autistic community, is that it suggests that a person can be separated from autism. Autism is a neurological, developmental condition that’s considered a disorder with disabling effects. It is lifelong and does not on its own cause harm or death such as another disease might (such as measles… but don’t get my started on vaccine safety).
Diseases, unlike autism, are often labelled through the use of “with”, such as, “person with cancer”. Autism, on the other hand, is part of a person’s individuality and make-up which shapes a person’s way of understanding the world and interacting in it. In labelling autistic people in the same way you would someone with a disease puts autism as inherently bad just like a disease, which clearly could not be further from the truth.
Consequently, this is why those within the autistic community are fighting to change this use of language to a more identity focused instead of disability focused point of view. Is it too far-fetched for us to respect the wishes of those to whom we are referring and who can, in fact, speak on real-life experience and their identity?
By understanding the differences and connotations associated with language and its use, alongside, respecting the wishes of those that identify as autistic is crucial. When in doubt of which language should be used while engaging with the community it is best to check amongst the group and its members. If you are still unclear, then I recommend you reach out and ask.
In my writing, I will use identity- first language, unless I am asked to do otherwise by my collaborators or the person I am writing about. This goes against my training and habits, but I want to honour the voices and opinions of the autistics who have shared their wishes with us.
Remember, language is important and impactful in so many ways and can, unfortunately, have harmful consequences if used inappropriately. For this reason, we need to recognize the way in which we choose to use language and continue to be cognizant of its outcome, always.
“I just turned away for a second, he was right here!”, have said many parents in a panic when noticing their child was not in eyesight. This panic luckily is often only momentary, as the child usually reappears quickly. However, wandering by children, especially for children with autism spectrum disorder, can be frequent and for the parent/caretaker this can be frightening.
Wandering is one of the top safety concerns facing a child with autism spectrum disorder, however, it is not the only concern to keep in mind and prepare for. Creating a plan can be overwhelming and finding a starting point may be difficult. In hopes of helping, I have provided some useful ways to assist in your planning to keep your child safe, especially within your home.
Safety within the Home for Children with Autism
The home can become a dangerous place for children, especially those with autism, who face greater challenges around safety, awareness of surroundings and impulsivity. Parents put security and precautionary measures in place when all children are young but it is necessary to maintain these measures longer when their child has autism. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are creating your safety plan.
Household Toxins – Cleaning products and related hazardous materials must be locked away in a secure place. As children are very crafty and persistent, it may be useful to lock the unsafe items in the garage, basement or any other area outside of the main living areas.
Furniture – Top-heavy furniture and large electronics should be secured to the wall with brackets and straps. Toppling furniture from climbing children is extremely dangerous and can easily occur if these heavy items have not been secured properly.
Drowning – If you or a neighbour has a swimming pool, it is necessary to ensure that drowning prevention measures have been put into place. As mentioned, with wandering being such a high concern, if a neighbour has a pool within close proximity to your home, you must communicate your concerns to your neighbours regarding the safety of your child and ask that the safety measures are put in place at their home.
Some safety measures include:
Fences with self-closing latches
Keeping interesting toys/items out of eyesight to not draw the child’s attention to the dangerous area.
Enrolling your child in swimming and water safety lessons (if possible).
All municipalities have bylaws with regards to swimming pools in people’s backyards. Research what the laws are where you live to ensure that your pool (or your neighbour’s pool) is following the law.
Fire – Fire safety is of the utmost importance and needs to be practiced with the whole family. As this training includes your child with autism, you may need to modify and tweak your plan to work with any additional needs and sensory issues that your child may have. There are a few extra things that a parent can implement to help the process.
For instance, if your child becomes upset by loud noises, you can purchase fire detectors that you can record your voice giving directions to leave the house, removing the loud noise trigger and providing familiarity through your voice.
Additionally, since children with autism are more comfortable with routine and familiar places, it may be beneficial to take your child during a calm period to a local fire station so they may become familiar with the uniforms and equipment. The hope is that these measures will prepare and help your child better manage a real-life situation.
Practicing fire drills at home in the same way they do at school will also be helpful for your child to become more comfortable if ever there was a real emergency.
Hot Water – As many children with autism also have sensory issues, some children cannot perceive hot or cold temperatures and this can lead to accidental burns. This can pose a safety concern especially if they are using the faucet independently. Some ways to teach your child the difference between the taps both in the sink and in the shower/bath is through practicing turning them on and off. As well, another tool you can use is a sticker to symbolize the dangerous tap or area of the tap. You can also control the temperature of the water on your hot water tank.
Doors – With wandering being a high concern, the use of locks may be advantageous however they may not be full-proof. Keys may be well hidden but there is still the chance that they may be found, therefore, an additional safeguard through the use of an alarm system may be beneficial. If your child does find a way to leave unsupervised, you need to be vigilant in ensuring that they are always wearing some form of identification that contains their contact and any other pertinent information.
Wandering in Autism
As wandering is one of the main safety concerns facing many parents of children with autism, it is necessary to take steps to reduce or eliminate this risk.
Here are some ways to help keep your child safe from wandering:
Understanding your child’s wandering triggers – Some children with ASD may wonder out of curiosity such as distractions from the park, train tracks, the beach – while other children wander to get out of a certain environment, such as ones that may be stressful, loud, bright, chaotic, etc. It’s important to know which type of wanderer your child may be to better understand how to avoid the behaviour.
Keep your home secure – As mentioned previously, the security of your home is of the utmost importance in helping to eliminate wandering. Locking doors, hiding keys and setting up an alarm system are tools that can be used to help in securing your home.
Keep practicing and modifying communication and behaviour strategies – Teaching your child to request to go somewhere can be a very functional replacement behaviour for wandering. Helping your child learn self-calming strategies to use when they find themselves in stressful, boring or frustrating situations will help in them self-regulate and can potentially avoid wandering. Through trial and error, you will be able to find what works best for your child in these particular situations.
Setting expectations are important – All parents know how difficult it can be preparing and accomplishing an outing, it can be even more difficult for a parent of an autistic child. It is therefore imperative to outline and set your expectations with your child. You will need to communicate the plan, which can include approximate timelines and rules to be followed with your child and any other accompanying family members/caretakers. If everyone is on the same page and understands the expectations, the outing will likely be a more positive experience.
Identification and monitoring technology are essential tools – Since many children with autism are unable to easily communicate, these identification and monitoring tools are extremely helpful in tracking a wandering child. Having your child wear a form of identification (such as a bracelet/necklace, GPS, marked information on clothing, medical alert tags) will ensure that should your child get lost and be unable to communicate, all their relevant information (name, address, phone number, medical needs, etc.) is available to get them help.
The first step to help ease the worry around safety and a child with autism is having an emergency safety plan in place. Evaluating and determining what your family needs to be safe and protected at home, school and the community will provide a helpful guide to protect your family for the dangers that exist. An example of an emergency safety plan can be found at family wandering emergency plan.
The checklist below will provide you with a practical starting point.
Safety Plan Checklist:
You need to determine if your child wanders, runs away or gets lost in a crowd?
You will need to evaluate areas such as home, school or community activities for safety concerns?
Once areas of safety concerns have been reviewed, you will need to ensure that preventative measures have been put in place in each of those areas.
You could purchase wearable identification containing important contact and medical information that will always be worn by your child.
You should communicate with your neighbours and community that your child has autism and may have special needs to be aware of (i.e. wandering).
You should communicate with your child’s school to create a plan which ensures that safety skills are included in their Individual Education Program (IEP).
You should communicate with the local emergency service providers and let them know that your child may be at risk at given times.
Remember, if your child should wander:
Search nearby water first
Implement your emergency safety plan
If you would like help establishing your safety plan, please contact us.
Receiving a diagnosis that your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not only scary but overwhelming too. There are so many questions and while there is a vast amount of research to turn to these answers often only result in further questions and possibly further confusion.
It is important to rely on your treatment team including a Board-Certified Behaviour Analyst in Toronto (BCBA) for support and guidance as they understand just how exhausting and challenging such a diagnosis can be. Working together will help with your child and family’s success both at home and at school.
Here are some helpful tips to try when your child gets an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis:
1. Become an Expert in your Child’s Needs, Likes and Dislikes
Each child with autism spectrum disorder is different and we need to embrace, understand and support their differences. This can be achieved through research and asking questions about autism spectrum disorder and more specifically your child’s individual needs. As each child is unique, you must remain open minded about their experience of having autism. Once you gain some knowledge you will then be able to ask insightful questions to help build the best treatment plan for your child.
The best place to start is with your child’s family physician, they will be able to refer you to an autism consultant who can work with you to develop a team. Your physician should also be able to provide you with useful resources such as finding the best Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapist or group including Board Certified Behaviour Analysts (BCBA) for your child. Remember finding the right therapist may take time and patience. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” in a treatment plan.
2. Find Help through Technology
As technology has become an integral resource within our society, it has become a very useful tool for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. Firstly, a vast array of knowledge and research regarding your child’s diagnosis and treatment can be gained through the internet. Secondly, technology is also used as a resource for community building through social media including parenting groups and intervention discussion forums. Here there is an opportunity to seek the support and experiences from parents in similar situations and professionals in the field. These communities are amazing and can help one to realize they are not alone.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, technology holds a critical use for autism spectrum disorder children that have communication difficulties and is used as a tool to remove this barrier. AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) gives a voice to children who cannot speak using tablets or computers with specialized apps that utilize text or image to speech technology. These are sometimes called SGD (Speech Generating Devices).
3. Get Intervention as Soon as Possible
Parents that feel that their child might have autism spectrum disorder should speak with their child’s physician as early as possible to investigate a diagnosis. Don’t allow your child’s doctor to dissuade you or convince you to ‘wait and see’. With an early diagnosis and then prompt invention parents are able to start working towards helping their child to address interfering behaviours and increase communication skills.
Intervention is most effective in younger children. If your child’s interfering or challenging behaviour (e.g.: outburst in public) is addressed and dealt with early on, then the hope is that through reinforcing positive or desirable behaviour, the child will eventually be independent in the future in the same situations. Positive outcomes are possible for older children as well, so don’t give up if your child is older when they begin to receive treatment.
4. Ensure your Child’s Treatment is a Family Affair
An autism spectrum disorder diagnosis not only affects the diagnosed child but it affects the entire family. It’s therefore necessary that the therapy plan includes siblings’ and parents’ opinions and experiences. Since schedules and rules set out in the plan will put expectations on the entire family, their input and buy-in is imperative for the success of the program.
It is also vital that family members are involved in the treatment plan to ensure that generalization occurs. This means that your child is able to demonstrate all the skills they are learning in new settings and with new people instead of only with the treatment team. It may become a balancing act for you, however with support, consistency and careful consideration and execution of the therapist’s recommendations your day-to day routines will become less overwhelming.
5. Trust your BCBA, Treatment Team and the Process
As mentioned, finding the right BCBA and program can be a difficult journey, however, once this is accomplished you will soon see that you are on the right path. As your child is unique in their needs you must remain optimistic and open-minded. There will be necessary tweaks and adjustments along the way and through trial and error, you will certainly see positive changes.
Finding a team that suits your family’s needs and expectations is extremely important. You will also need to ensure there is a constant flow of communication between your family and your child’s BCBA so that modifications can be implemented and changes made whenever required.
6. Celebrate the Successes
As you continue to fill your toolbox with more tips and knowledge it will open the door for greater success. At times there may be a lot of growth and positive changes and at others, there may be little or none. It is important to stay focused on the positive and reflect on the successes and celebrate them frequently. Continuing to stay on course and provide consistent routines and expectations for your child. The more you celebrate the successes the more likely it will be that you feel good about your child and family’s future.
7. Make Safety a Top Priority
The challenges and long-term responsibilities that come with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis can be additional stress placed upon an autism parent. To help ease the sense of being overwhelmed it is important to get organized and put proper measures into place for a “just in case” situation (for example, looking into life insurance for family members). As children with autism can engage in more dangerous behaviour (wandering, mouthing and self- injury) a safety plan is essential.
It is necessary to develop a plan to address these safety risks with your treatment team. For example, you should ensure that your child always carries or wears identification, especially if they are a wanderer. A simple google search will yield many options for safety tools for your child with autism spectrum disorder.
8. Work on Establishing a Good Sleep Routine
One of the challenges many children with autism spectrum disorder face is difficulty sleeping. Poor sleeping can exacerbate some of the challenging behaviours associated with autism such as impulsivity, compulsions, hyperactivity and physical aggression. Good sleep hygiene is vital to providing your child with quality restful sleep.
Keep in mind a few things while creating a routine, for instance: maintaining consistent times for going to bed and waking up; how much light is in their bedroom while they’re trying to sleep; ensuring your child has enough play time during the day and not too much screen time prior to bed; perhaps instituting a wind-down quiet period before bed; taking sensory issues into account, i.e. itchy pajama’s, white noise etc.
If your child has recently received an ASD diagnosis and you are looking for ways that the Ontario Government can support you, please know that changes to the Ontario Autism Program are in the process of being established. They are working towards creating a new “needs -based and sustainable autism program”. Eligibility for this program has the following criteria:
To register for the Ontario Autism Program, your child must:
be under age 18
currently live in Ontario
have a written diagnosis of autism for a qualified professional
Your child’s written diagnosis must include:
your child’s full name and date of birth
the date of your child’s assessment
a statement indicating that the child meets the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder
the qualified professional’s name and credentials
For registration information please contact the central intake and registration team at:
The site notes that if you have registered in the Ontario Autism Program before April 1, 2019 you do not need to register again. As well, they mention that once your registration is complete, your child will be added to their waitlist and you will receive a letter from the ministry when it is time to complete further steps to receive funding.
Additional services and support are provided by the Ontario government for children with special needs, these are listed below: