What Are Alternatives to ABA Therapy?
Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Autistic Children
At Waypoints, we offer ABA (applied behavior analysis) services tailored to individual clients’ needs, based very directly on what goals they wish to pursue and what resources will be most effective in helping them meet those goals. Behavior analysis is a complex science of learning, but you can learn more about applied behavior analysis in simple terms in our previous blog post here!
ABA, though, is not always the right fit for each client’s specific goals. For example, our sessions at Waypoints are typically conducted one-on-one with clients, building skills in their own homes. Clients wishing to practice social skills and spend time with peers would likely want to look into other options.
As another example, our clinicians and behavior technicians help clients practice expressing their thoughts and feelings, but don’t provide traditional talk therapy – cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) would be better suited to meet those needs.
In this post, I’ve already referenced a couple alternatives to ABA therapy, and the list of potential options seems to go on and on – occupational therapy, speech therapy, even music therapy and play therapy. However, at Waypoints we do not consider ABA to actually be a form of therapy. That is because we do not believe it is possible (or even appropriate to attempt) to “cure” autism. As such, our ABA services are focused on skill-building and making adjustments to the environment in order to foster effective learning, and many practitioners providing the other kinds of services I’ll mention here have the same or similar goals.
If you are looking into autism services for yourself or a loved one, I encourage you to always consider what your desired outcomes are first and foremost. Regardless of what a company calls their services, therapy or not, you will then be able to determine whether they’re offering what you want and need.
Other Therapies and Services Based on Behavior Analysis
As I mentioned in another previous post, a couple of behavior-analytic services not provided here at Waypoints include Precision Teaching and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). More so than being strict “alternatives” to ABA, these services and those described below can be a wonderful supplement! There aren’t enough hours in the day to pursue all of these, of course, but different needs are met by each of these options.
Companies specializing in Precision Teaching would be a great option for clients hoping to work on fluency of motor or academic skills. Common procedures of ABA like discrete trial teaching (DTT) and natural environment teaching (NET) can be very effective in teaching early learning skills, while the structure of Precision Teaching is especially suited to building speed and accuracy of those skills. You may find Precision Teaching offered in in-home sessions, tutoring centers, and both public and private schools.
ACT, meanwhile, is a more traditional form of talk therapy that is nonetheless based upon the same behavior-analytic principles as ABA. Clients hoping to address symptoms of depression, anxiety, or even simply stress could benefit from seeking out an ACT therapist.
Other Clinical Services
A common alternative to ACT is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I want to emphasize again that these therapies do not “treat autism,” but may help to address mental health concerns. CBT is a very general term, and there are many approaches, including Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Rational Living Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
In sessions based on CBT, the client and therapist talk together to reach a shared understanding of the concerns to be addressed, and identify how those concerns might be affecting thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, feelings, and daily functioning.
The focus of CBT is to enable the client to identify solutions that are more helpful than the way the concerns have been dealt with previously. It is a collaborative effort between the therapist and the client, and as such can also offer important opportunities to practice expressing thoughts and feelings in a safe space.
Other Skill-Building Services
While we focus on skill-building at Waypoints, other professionals’ areas of specialization can absolutely go beyond our expertise. For example, teaching verbal behavior is a huge priority of ABA services, but speech therapy would be of much more help when it comes to building up oral-motor strength and musculature, or working on precise enunciation and articulation of vocal language.
Another service that commonly supplements ABA is occupational therapy. While somewhat similar to physical therapy, occupational therapy is focused on improving fine and gross motor skills that allow clients to gain independence with daily living skills. Again, this is something that ABA also prioritizes, but an occupational therapist will be better able to assess and intervene upon deficits related to muscle tone, balance, flexibility, or proprioception. Occupational therapists may also address sensory integration and provide options for clients with sensory-avoidant or -seeking needs.
As I noted above, sessions at Waypoints are typically conducted with a single client at a time, and as such there isn’t much of a chance for socialization. Social skills groups or sensory therapies based on music or play introduce more opportunities for interaction with the environment and peers.
For the most structure and goal-oriented practices, look for options that highlight a focus on social and emotional learning (SEL)! These kinds of activities often include small groups of peers who may or may not all be neurodivergent, usually with an adult moderator.
Do Your Research!
There are many different options out there for autistic people and their family members and loved ones seeking support services, but there is a lot of misinformation and poor quality control as well. ABA therapy itself is in no way guaranteed to be ethical or effective, depending on the practices of the company providing the services. It is vitally important that you research different options available to you as well as the specific companies providing those options, or seek out a healthcare advocate who can support you in doing so.
As one example to be wary of, dietary changes such as avoiding gluten are sometimes suggested for autistic children. If someone has a gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten will definitely make them feel better, but no particular dietary needs are directly associated with a diagnosis of autism. (Of course, proper nutrition is obviously important for all humans!)
As another example, autistic children often enroll in Montessori schools as an alternative to public education. The goal of Montessori education is to provide a wide array of natural sources of stimulation in the learning environment, and to pursue the teaching process with less structure in order to provide students with more freedom and opportunities for making choices. Some evidence indicates the effectiveness of certain components of the Montessori method, but it’s important to note that Montessori schools are not required to be licensed or accredited. As such, the quality and consistency of the curriculum and teaching methods can vary. In addition, Montessori methods may not be the best option for learners who thrive with more guidance and structure, which can be the case for some autistic children as well as neurotypical children.
Any of these options could be a good fit for you or your loved one, but they are not one-size-fits-all, and you will want to find companies that both suit your needs in particular and meet high quality standards. If you’d like to chat about Waypoints’ standards such as BHCOE accreditation, or if we can offer any support in finding a healthcare advocate to help you explore your options further, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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In a previous blog post, I discussed what registered behavior technicians (RBTs) and board certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) do and
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