We often hear about ABA therapy in the news and how it is serving those who are non-verbal, who have cognitive delays, or severe behavior problems. Many people apply ABA therapy to only those with autism who need intense interventions or lots of behavioral concerns; not for the more typical child, and certainly not for my child.
In reality, ABA can work on any type of behavior cognitive, behavioral, and even social. Social skill deficits are sometimes hard to spot. Maybe your child can’t get along with children their own age, but do well with adults and older children. Maybe your child appears selfish, too sensitive, or in their own world. Many children who are not autistic struggle socially and would benefit from ABA therapy.
Let’s examine some scenarios:
The inflexible child – Parents of this child are unlikely to see the behavior their teachers talk about if they don’t see their child often with peers. They may get reports that their child is a bully, aggressive towards other, or just “doesn’t play with others”. You see a leader at home. Someone who is confident when they speak to older children or adults and tells their life story to the cashier or waitress. They may appear fickle about schedules or a little anxious at times, but otherwise there are no red flags for you. So what’s going on?
Children with this problem may be having difficulty with a developmental play skill they should be learning at their age. Older children and adults will naturally lubricate the play because they are already skilled at play. Peers are not so forgiving because, they too, are learning and practicing the skill for the first time. A 5-year-old should be starting to become an expert at imaginative play. This requires imagination and flexibility. An inflexible child will want to play their own way with their own play scheme and will have a hard time compromising. They also may have a hard time predicting others behavior and enjoy routine.
An ABA therapist can work with your child become more flexible
Theory of Mind – Social skills go beyond just verbal skills and the motor ability to manipulate toys. Taking turns, recognizing emotions in others, empathy, problem solving, and navigating social scenarios. A therapist can role play with your child on how best to navigate common situations like taking turns, not getting your way, changing a play scenario, or a sudden stop in play and then provide strategies that lessen the stress and anxiety of these situations. Therapy can help your child to understand and react appropriately to social cues that occur during play or conversation and how to react to them. This skill is important as it creates a social bond and is how friendships are made and maintained.
The sensitive child – This child struggles to cope well when presented with obstacles. This may show itself at school when they “mess-up” on a paper or drawing. They can start to melt-down make large exclamations like “I can’t do it” or “it’ll never happen again” to small infractions. They may also have a hard time problem solving with others or see small slights against them as large ones.
Some children have a difficult time controlling their emotions. Their overreaction to seemingly small problems is an expression of their lack of coping skills or problem solving. They encounter a situation and either don’t know how to calm themselves down or are unable to problem solve the situation leading to intense feelings. It is important to remember that while these children may be labeled as “sensitive” hoping or telling a child to “get over it” is not helpful. While they may be overreacting their feelings are very real.
An ABA therapist can help your child by first offering them different coping mechanisms and calming strategies. It is important to teach this step first because a child who cannot calm themselves will have no ability to problem solve in a stressful situation. Next, a therapist can teach the child simple problem solving. Through social stories and real life examples the children get targeted practice that they are able to apply in the classroom.
The spaced-out child – This child is great, imaginative, and likes to pick out her own clothes and dress herself every morning despite your best efforts to get her into something that matches. She also sometimes gets too close to others and may be overzealous in her play. Others can even tell her to stop, but she just doesn’t hear them. It’s beyond simple ignoring, but really not cuing in when others speak. She’s almost a little tornado at times. This results in other children steering away from her. They may also not move with the group, not even noticing when everyone is lined to go outside.
It may be difficult for this child to read the social cues of others. Simple cues like eye gaze, a light touch, or body language goes unnoticed. When someone speaks to them they are too excited or focused to really hear what is going on. They may also not know that “stop” or “no” isn’t part of the game.
This is a perfect example of when you should let your child’s therapist attend the school or play group where your child plays. They can interrupt play as they start to see signs that the child isn’t picking up on hints from the other children. They can help establish routines to take the guess work out of social situations. Extra practice, 1:1, can help establish familiar play schemes that translate to the school environment.
Social skill issues that keep your child from forming friendships isn’t their fault. The skills themselves can be teachable. ABA therapy can help break down the confusing parts of social interactions into more manageable pieces.