Behavioral therapy is an umbrella term for types of therapy that treat mental health disorders. This form of therapy seeks to identify and help change potentially self-destructive or unhealthy behaviors. It functions on the idea that all behaviors are learned and that unhealthy behaviors can be changed. The focus of treatment is often on current problems and how to change them.
Behavioral Therapies for Autism
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
This therapy is the most-researched intervention for autism, and has been used for more than 50 years. It is a highly structured, scientific approach that teaches play, communication, self-care, academic and social living skills, and reduces problematic behaviors. A lot of research shows that it improves outcomes for children with autism.
ABA involves a therapist breaking down skills into component parts and, through repetition, reinforcement, and encouragement, helping a child learn them. With ABA, a therapist observes a child’s abilities and defines what would benefit him, even when a child is not interested in learning particular skills. For example, if a child is not interested in greeting others or in learning toilet training, an ABA therapist might focus on those skills anyway, because she recognizes their long-term value long before a child can.
ABA is the usual starting point for children with more severe symptoms. Therapists recommend as many as 40 hours a week of therapy, often in a full-time, classroom-based program. Even as skills improve and children begin to make friends and improve socially, ABA often continues to play a useful role.
Verbal Behavior Therapy (VBT)
This type of applied behavior therapy teaches non-vocal children how to communicate purposefully. Children learn how we use words functionally – to get a desired response. It’s not enough for a child to know that a cookie is called a cookie or to point to a cookie that he wants. VBT seeks to move children beyond labeling, a first step of learning language, and gesturing to vocalizing their requests – “I want a cookie.”
In a typical session, the therapist will present stimuli, such as food, activities, or toys, based upon a child’s preferences. The therapist uses stimuli that will attract a child’s interest — a cookie in the kitchen or a swing on the playground. Children are encouraged through repetition to understand that communication produces positive results; they get what they want because they use language to ask for it.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which has been around since the 1960s, is usually recommended for children with milder symptoms of autism. Cognitive behavioral therapy aims to define the triggers of particular behaviors, so that a child starts to recognize those moments himself. Through practice, a therapist introduces practical responses. In other words, kids learn to see when they are about to head down a habitual behavioral or mental path (“I always freak out on tests”) and to practice something different instead (“I’m going to do that relaxation exercise I was taught”). CBT helps with concerns common to autism, such as being overly fearful or anxious.
Other behavioral models for autism focus more on developing skills a child already has and working on their deficiencies in subtler ways.
Developmental and Individual Differences Relationship (DIR) Therapy
DIR therapy (also called Floortime). With this therapy, a therapist — and parents – engages children through activities each child enjoys. It relies on a child having the motivation to engage and interact with others. The therapist follows a child’s lead in working on new skills.
Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)
RDI is a family-centered approach to treat autism focusing on defined emotional and social objectives meant to establish more meaningful relationships. This includes the ability to form an emotional bond and share experiences. It is commonly used with parents trained by RDI consultants. Goals are set to develop skills related to interpersonal engagement, such as empathy and overall motivation to engage with others. RDI breaks its various objectives down into step-by-step paths adults use to prompt development, such as building eye contact or back-and-forth communication.