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What does it mean to provide ABA services with a Trauma-Informed Care Prospective?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a therapy designed on the principles of learning and behavior. I like to say that ABA is where the world of Special Education and Psychology meet: with focus on socially significant behavior change. In ABA, skills such as social skills, communication, daily living skills and more, are broken up into small pieces and taught using evidenced based strategies. Simultaneously, a Functional Behavior Assessment is completed, and a Behavior Intervention Plan is created.

ABA is an evidenced-based intervention that is shown to be effective for lots of groups (not just young children with autism!). But what does it mean to implement ABA inside a trauma-informed model? In this approach, every behavior is viewed not just through the simple lens of antecedent-behavior-consequence, but through an expanded lens, one that considers the many experiences influencing a child’s emotional and behavioral responses.

Case example: an eighteen-year-old who yells and bangs his head every time he is overstimulated. This is not a “maladaptive behavior;” for him, this is a very adaptive behavior as he knows no other way to communicate to others that he needs a break and a quiet space. Sometimes extinction would be recommended for this client – that is, no longer reinforce the behavior (yelling and head-banging) with escape (allowing him to go to a quiet space). But this is hard for the client to understand and he thinks, “Why isn’t this working??” Extinction can lead to increased behaviors, an extinction burst, as the client tries harder to be understood. Extinction is hard for staff and parents to implement, because it is hard to see the client so upset.

Instead, in a trauma-informed perspective, staff focuses on providing a comforting environment that helps meet his needs while teaching him the skills he is missing to succeed in the least-restrictive environment. Staff are taught to identify key precursor behaviors, such as biting his fingers, pacing, or saying “all done.” Immediately at that point staff would prompt him to request a break, reinforce him for asking, and implement the break that will meet his needs.

While ALL quality ABA programs focus on teaching new skills and reducing unsafe behaviors, ABA with a trauma-informed perspective will focus on the comfort of the clients, listening to the direct staff and family, and keep the needs of the client as the focus of the treatment. In this model, the true beneficiary of ABA services is not just the client, but the child-parent or student-teacher relationship, as healthy relationships are essential for client success.

Submitted by:

Kristina M. Turner, MSEd, BCBA, LBA

Director of Applied Behavior Analysis Services

If you are interested learning more about employment opportunities with Intercept Health ABA, please email Kristina Turner at

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