ABA for Older Learners

I have an adolescent with autism and want to know how his IEP goals should prepare him for adult life? Is ABA still useful?

Answered by Jed Baker, PhD

This is such an important question. As an adolescent begins to age out of the educational system, the choices that are made with respect to goal selection become even more important. In order to create IEP goals for the transition to adult life, those who know the student must first develop a vision for the life they would like him or her to have. Never underestimate the possibilities; with the right help and support anything is achievable. The vision should address:

  • Where will he live? In his own home, with family, or in some type of supported living arrangement? What skills will he need to live there? Will he need to shop for himself, utilize transportation, manage his money, and keep up the house?
  • What type of job or career will she have? What type of supports will she need to get and maintain employment? Will she require some kind of post-secondary education or training to have the career she wants?
  • What kind of activities will he do on in his free time?
  • How will she develop and maintain social supports and friendships?

A key part of creating such a vision is to consider your adolescent’s current abilities, interests and preferences as these will influence what future environments we consider. The IEP should spell out how we will assess these factors and indicate the community linkages and teaching curriculum that will be used to give the student an opportunity to explore interests and obtain needed training.

ABA is useful, relevant, and appropriate when educating adolescents and when undertaking the important task of preparing them for adulthood. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) can be a crucial tool in teaching academic skills, independent living skills, social skills, and understanding how best to intervene with problematic behaviors. ABA is a broad term referring to the application of behavioral learning theory to understand how to modify behavior. It does not, as is often thought, refer to only one set of techniques, activities or programs. Remember that ABA is by its very nature an individualized and comprehensive approach: it should always be tailored to a person’s particular learning needs. For example, an adolescent with a great deal of language will not need the same programs as an individual who has very limited receptive language.

ABA strategies often include breaking down complicated skills into smaller components; verbally, visually or gesturally prompting individuals to enact skill steps; rewarding desired behaviors and ignoring unwanted behaviors; and making careful plans to teach and generalize skills in relevant settings such as the classroom, community and work environments. Lastly, ABA typically involves collecting measurable outcome data to see if progress is being made. Without this feedback, it is impossible to determine if one is achieving the IEP goals.

In creating a useful IEP, the goals must be determined prior to deciding what strategies will be used to reach those goals. Thus, the IEP should not simply state that ABA or any other therapy will be provided, but rather should articulate how a type of therapy will be utilized to teach specific skills related to the IEP goals.

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