THE BLOG
09/22/2014 07:01 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Learning New Skills Through Applied Behavior Analysis

For a child with autism spectrum disorder, developing a new skill can manifest a significant level of stress, uncertainties and disinterest, resulting in fear of failure. Successful instruction requires much more generic task sequences. There are multiple variables to consider, including the child's personal interests, skills, weaknesses, aversions and motivators. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and a person-centered approach, with an emphasis on the relevance of behavioral assessment and encouraging input from the child and their family, are all essential to drive the educational process.

It is suggested that behavioral educators use practical strategies that: (a) involve recipients of ABA in program design, (b) consider the values of the recipients and the implementers, (c) consider the skills of the implementers, (d) secure the approval and endorsement of both recipients and implementers, (e) consider the resources and support needed to implement the strategies, and (f) provide the support needed to sustain the use of effective strategies. A thorough assessment must be conducted to determine the strengths and preferences a child has and whether the skill to be learned is of value in the first place. The goal of ABA is that the skills being taught through this method will improve the quality of life.

In one case study, the selected targeted behavior was bike riding, a skill that could enhance a child's independence, quality of life and participation in the community. Clay, a 9-year-old boy with a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, participated in this study. His experiences of riding a bicycle were not favorable. His parents had attempted to teach him to ride a bicycle by using a fairly common method: They held on to the seat to stabilize Clay, ran beside the bicycle while he attempted to pedal, and let go when there was some degree of forward motion. Falling was inevitable and immediate and rendered Clay intolerant of instruction. Clay correctly judged that he would not have control over his balance and would be at risk of falling.

Following this initial failed instruction, an assessment was completed (based on interviews and direct observation) and an eight-step task analysis program was developed. A behavioral educator who worked with Clay on community skills, and Clay's mother conducted all training sessions. The following phases were used:

  • PHASE 1 --- With the bicycle on a Kurt Kinetic Trainer, a frame device used for stability and balance, Clay was required to mount the bicycle and pedal for five minutes.
  • PHASE 2 -- Pedaling was increased to eight minutes and Clay was required to brake and dismount.
  • PHASE 3-5 -- Pedaling was increased to 10, 12 and then 15 minutes, followed by braking and dismounting.
  • PHASE 6 -- The bicycle was disengaged from the Kurt Kinetic Trainer, the pedals and pedal shafts were removed from the bicycle, and the saddle was lowered. The bicycle was brought out onto a slightly declining grassy slope. Clay was required to mount the bicycle, lift his feet when he was ready, glide for seven meters, and then position his feet back on the ground.
  • PHASE 7 -- The pedal shafts and pedals were replaced and Clay was required to pedal his bicycle down a slightly declining grassy slope for 14 meters, brake and dismount.
  • PHASE 8 -- Clay was required to ride his bicycle on the road in front of his house for .4 kilometers.

Each phase required anywhere from one to 14 sessions, which Clay completed with minimal errors. At the end of the instruction, he rode his bicycle for .4 kilometers on three occasions without falling.

Clay's initial refusal to practice bicycle riding, unless he was assured he would not fall, resulted in the introduction of the Kurt Kinetic Trainer. For every minute Clay spent riding his bicycle within each phase of instruction, his parents rewarded him by matching a minute of assess to his Game Cube, his most preferred reinforcer.

The purpose of this study was to show how the theories of ABA could be used to develop an educational program based on practical strategies and guided by social values. Our work at Pacific Child & Family Associates as well as studies show that choice-making opportunities often lead to increased participation and a reduction in challenging behaviors. By removing obvious obstacles that would probably lead to failure, mastery of skill can be obtained. By considering failure and subsequently altering components previously unacceptable to the learner, the entire task becomes agreeable and success comes within reach.

For more information on ABA and where families can get help, visit http://pacificchildandfamily.com/. Pacific Child & Family Associates (PCFA) is an insurance accepting, national leader in the delivery of services for children with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities. PCFA services are provided in homes, schools, and in clinics across the United States.

Source: Bicycle Riding: Pedaling Made Possible Through Positive Behavioral Interventions. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. http://pbi.sagepub.com/content/7/3/153.short.