What skills does an ABA therapist have?
An ABA therapist is uniquely positioned to help transform lives for those on the autism spectrum. But what skills for ABA therapy must therapists harness to teach vital language, communication, social and learning skills to clients?
Rebekah Kakos, a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst with Illuminate ABA Therapy, discovered and “fell in love” with ABA in the senior year of her BA in journalism and psychology. Here, Rebekah explains what makes a brilliant therapist, and what skills ABA therapy requires to help clients realize their full potential.
What skills for ABA therapy are most important?
The most important skills for ABA therapy are the ability to be brilliantly organized and a great communicator, with superb attention to detail. Empathy with the needs of the client and an eye for picking up on the smallest of details are critical.
“From client to client, nothing is ever usually the same,” Rebekah says, pointing out that a combination of skills holds the key to delivering customized therapy.
Rebekah adds that being a good communicator is at the top of the desired skill set: “It’s super important. We will be talking with clients, their families and other Board Certified Behavior Analysts. Lots of clients have deficits in communication, and learning how to engage with them or find alternative ways to talk is essential. Behaviors such as aggression can happen when someone doesn’t have the function to communicate and, as a result, their needs are not met. We can give them a functional way to communicate, such as an iPad, or use picture icons to speak to us. Usually, we then see unwanted behavior decline. It’s vital to know how to read non-verbal communication such as body positioning, noting whether the client is smiling or not.”
Patience and a willingness to listen to criticism and learn from it are hallmarks of a therapist who will successfully develop new skills. “It definitely helps if you’re able to take feedback on board. At first, a supervisor will observe you to make sure the therapy is proceeding well. You need to be comfortable with being watched and accept critique,” Rebekah adds.
Engaging with bubbly personalities
The ability to gain insight into clients’ ‘wants and needs’ is at the core of a good ABA therapist and success can be driven by a friendly, outgoing personality. Rebekah explains: “In the past I had been in a band and took part in music lessons and dance. I definitely use that in therapy, as many clients love music and like to sing songs or play drums. Being passionate about helping others is essential.
“A bubbly personality comes in handy in my day-to-day work, helping to bring clients out of their shells. As an ABA therapist, you can’t be afraid to be silly, to dance, sing and play board games. While I can take the lead, it’s important to make sure an activity is something that the client wants to engage in.”
Training for success
An experienced therapist knows what skills for ABA therapy can be taught, but their specialist training underpins the effectiveness of client programs. Therapists commonly have undergraduate degrees in psychology, occupational therapy, special education, social work and speech and language pathology – but that’s just the start of the journey.
Therapists often enter the field as a Behavior Technician, having completed a 40-hour registered behavior technician (RBT) training course. It provides a broad overview of ABA principles with insight into key areas such as how to prompt clients, and descriptive stimulus – using what you say or do to evoke a response.
The next level is Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA), which requires BA degree certification, 1,500 hours of supervised fieldwork and a board certification exam. Those who rise to Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) – a Master’s degree-level certification – no longer need to be supervised but must complete 2,000 hours of fieldwork and an exam, in addition to their Master’s degree. Therapists who take on extra schooling to gain a Ph.D. can rise to the top rank of BCBA-D.
Therapists require training in related fields such as first aid and the life-saving technique CPR. Quality Behavioral Solutions (QBS) training and Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) training equips therapists with skills to handle challenging situations and keep themselves and clients safe – essential if a client should attempt to bite or run out of the building.
Harnessing the power of technology
Innovation is redefining the way ABA therapists carry out their roles. Rebekah explains that at the start of her career, data was logged on paper, so she would have to arrive half an hour before a therapy session to “go through a giant binder and read relevant data sheets”.
“A behavior technician is almost always taking data while with a client,” Rebekah says. “Now we use an electronic data collection system called the Central Reach app, which pulls up the client profile and explains what goals they need to work on during each session. It can provide direction for each program while warning of behaviors to look out for. With pen and paper, it was harder to keep track of everything. Now, with apps, it’s easier and the way that technology carries out all the graphing is a big time saver.”
Developing life skills with ABA therapy
While effective communication is a core skill for ABA therapy, the ability to help clients develop essential life skills is at the heart of a successful program. The range is broad, from teaching clients how to brush their teeth and make a bed, while toilet training is vital for younger clients. The pandemic has introduced a new aspect to life skills training, as clients must learn new skills to protect themselves from Covid-19.
Rebekah explains: “I’ve had to teach clients how to use hand sanitizer, how to wash their hands and ways to tolerate wearing a mask.” The latter can be challenging, so starting with learning to wear a face-covering for just five or 10 seconds has proved to be effective.
For therapists, seeing clients develop new skills is the ultimate reward. Rebekah sums up: “I love it when clients are happier and can effectively communicate in their day-to-day lives. I’ve seen clients go from special education to a general education classroom where they can take part in bigger classes and make more friends. It’s the best result and proves that all those hard days’ work were worth it.”