Generalization in Applied Behavior Analysis

A diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in a child leads to lots of planning, questions, and problem-solving. As a parent, you will receive a lot of information about different interventions and therapies that may benefit your child immensely. One of the most important elements of applied behavior analysis is generalization. You will hear about this particular facet of therapy frequently, from therapists and peers alike.

Before we discuss the specifics of generalization and its importance to ABA therapy, let’s talk through what ABA therapy is and the core components that will make up your child’s play therapy plan.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is a therapy that draws a connection between learning, environment, and behavior in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. ABA therapy is designed to help you and your therapy team understand how your child’s behavior works, how their behavior can be negatively or positively affected by their environment, and how learning takes place for your child.

In children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, applied behavior analysis can help grow their language and communication skills and decrease behavioral problems. Applied behavior analysis is also shown to improve attention and focus, as well as memory and social skills.

How Does ABA Therapy Work?

Applied behavior analysis is a flexible treatment, meaning it can be adapted to suit the individual needs of your child. ABA therapy includes the following major components:

  • Positive Reinforcement: This is one of the main foundational elements of ABA therapy. Your child is more likely to repeat a positive behavior if it is followed by something of value, such as a reward. Over time, this results in a positive behavior change.
    Your therapist will identify your child’s goal behavior. Then, each time your child uses this behavior successfully, either in ABA clinic or elsewhere, they will get a personally meaningful reward. Maybe for your child, it would be watching a particular video or snacking on a type of cookie they enjoy.
  • Antecedent,Behavior, and Consequence: Antecedents are what happen before a particular behavior occurs. They can be verbal or physical. A specific environment or particular thought or action can trigger these behaviors as well. Your child’s response is directly related to the antecedent.
    Consequences occur directly after the behavior in question and may include positive reinforcement or a lack of reaction for an incorrect or inappropriate response.
  • Planning and Assessment: Whether your child’s therapy takes place at home or in an ABA clinic, your child will work directly with a behavior analyst. This specialist is trained to design a program customized to your child’s needs, skills, and preferences. Data is collected in each session so that your child’s therapy goals are consistent, taking into account their progress.

Play Therapy in Applied Behavior Analysis

One of the most common elements in ABA therapy is play therapy. The method of using play during applied behavior analysis helps your child work on social skills and behavior changes. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder deal with short attention spans, sensory issues, and communication barriers. Classroom settings can exacerbate behaviors, as children are expected to sit quietly and respond to their teacher without disruption.

With play therapy, children are encouraged to move freely about and explore their surroundings. This exploration can take place either in their natural environment or an inviting room at an ABA clinic. A setting where your child feels at ease allows them to express their natural behaviors, which are invaluable for your therapist to observe. Your child’s therapist can note responses to reinforce or to work on changing while your child plays naturally in a safe setting.

What is Generalization in Play Therapy?

Your child’s applied behavioral analysis needs to extend beyond the ABA clinic to reach your child in their everyday life. This is where the concept of effective generalization in ABA therapy becomes very important to your child’s goals.

As one of the seven dimensions of applied behavior analysis, generalization’s importance cannot be overemphasized. In broad terms, generalization is the ability to use new skills in other settings and with other people. For your child, this means that positive behavior learned at the ABA clinic carries over into contexts other than the training environment. You will need to be there to help your child practice the skills they have learned in therapy out in public, with non-therapists, with their siblings and other family members. You’ll know you’re succeeding at generalization when your child’s positive behavior change proves durable over time, shows lasting effects, and appears in a wide variety of environments and situations.

So how best to practice generalization outside of the ABA clinic? Your ABA therapist will provide you with many instructions regarding the proper way to reinforce behavior learned in the ABA clinic. But before we get to that, there are several essential terms related to generalization that you should learn.

  • Response Maintenance

Proper generalization should take place in a variety of contexts with a myriad of people who are not your child’s ABA therapist. One of the most important aspects of practicing generalization with your child is response maintenance. Response maintenance is the continuation of a learned behavior after you remove the intervention from the current situation.

Your child may be able to produce the expected responses to their behavior in the context of the ABA clinic and with their therapist. But what happens when you’re in the living room at home? Or when your child is with you at a neighbor’s barbeque? Practicing response maintenance not only reinforces what your child has learned during applied behavior analysis, but it also helps normalize the expected behavior outside of the ABA clinic.

It is essential to test for maintenance over time to be sure that your child has mastered their new skill.

  • Response Generalization

It is one thing for your child to repeat a learned positive behavior correctly. But what about a behavior that is functionally similar to the behavior learned at the ABA clinic? Response generalization occurs when your child shows a positive learned behavior in a novel way and is something that you should look for to gauge your child’s progress. For example, after learning to use a spoon to eat cereal, response generalization would include your child selecting to use a spoon to eat ice cream.

  • Stimulus Generalization

This term applies to your child’s potential inability to discriminate between similar stimuli. Imagine if your child learned to call their father “dad.” Overgeneralization would occur if they called another male “dad,” as well. While their father a man, not every male is their father. Thus, calling another man “dad” is an example of stimulus generalization.

  • Stimulus Discrimination

While stimulus generalization focuses on your child’s ability to discriminate between two stimuli and respond to them differently, stimulus discrimination occurs if your child responds in the same way to two different stimuli. For example, imagine showing your child two pictures. On the left is a cat, and on the right is a dog. If the picture placement never changes, your child may not necessarily internalize what makes a cat a cat. They may only learn to point to the left image.

What happens if you switch the picture placement and ask your child to identify the cat? They may end up pointing to the left picture, which now shows a dog.

Participating During ABA

As the parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, your role will involve practicing and reinforcing positive learned behavior at home, during play. The necessity for parents to practice generalization through play therapy at home can cause some parents to feel anxious or overwhelmed. Some are scared that they will “mess up,” or somehow set their child’s progress back. Worry is a normal response, as working with your child on positive behavior changes is a lot of responsibility!

You will learn strategies and techniques during your child’s ABA therapy sessions, so you will not be entering into your role with no support or understanding of what outcomes you are meant to see. By seeing it in action and noting the effect it can have on his learning, you’ll be able to carry out applied behavior analysis steps in your daily routines.

Actively participating in your child’s sessions not only gives you more confidence and knowledge to carry out generalization outside the ABA clinic, but it also normalizes your role in the process to your child. They will come to respond to the stimuli and rewards you present in the same way they would to their ABA therapist.

Play Therapy at Home

Implementing your child’s new skills at home doesn’t have to be overly complicated. It can be as easy as playing a simple game to enforce a new behavior they’ve recently learned at the ABA clinic.

A great game to play to reinforce learned behaviors is Simon Says, as it encompasses a variety of elements reinforced during play therapy with your child’s ABA therapist. Simon Says will help your child work toward communicating more effectively. By having your child study your body language and facial expressions during the game, you will see them mimic what you are demonstrating, both physically and verbally.

It is essential for you to remember to reward your child for showing the appropriate reaction during play therapy. Meaningful positive reinforcement will make your child feel proud of their success and, over time, will help solidify their understanding of how to behave given certain stimuli. A high five or verbal praise motivates your child to improve his actions.

Try Play Therapy Outside the Home

When your child’s positive behavior carries over from the ABA clinic to your home, you will feel a sense of pride in your child’s success, and your ability to
support generalization at home. But what happens when you don’t see the same positive carry over, despite your best attempts, at a relative’s house, or school, or in the grocery store?

The purpose of play therapy is not only to reinforce positive behaviors but also to help your child develop the skills to display these behaviors naturally, regardless of the context. If you do not see your child’s behavior generalization when they are outside of the home or ABA clinic, you and your child’s teachers and ASD professionals will want to work together to come up with strategies that can be applied consistently across settings.

For example, you and your child’s therapist may arrange a room in the ABA clinic to mimic a school setting. You will want to include the same toys, activities, room set-up, and rewards into this facet of your child’s applied behavior analysis therapy as they would experience in their classroom. The more similarities you can create between a training and non-training setting, the easier it will be for your child to generalize positive behavior across contexts.

Setbacks in Generalization

No matter how much progress your child makes, there is always the chance that you may see a relapse of behavior. After making strides in generalization, such a relapse can be heartbreaking for both you and your child. Rest assured that, in applied behavior analysis, relapse will occur at one point or another and does not mean that you or your child’s therapist are failing in any way!

Both you and your child must prepare for the possibility of setbacks during generalization. Working with your child’s therapist to identify high-risk situations that may lead to a relapse of behavior is a perfect first step in preparing for a setback. The more you can identify triggers, be they physical, contextual, or verbal, that may cause your child to revert to the previous behavior, the easier it will be to overcome these momentary setbacks.

Preparing your child for setbacks is crucial, as well. If your child is aware that a lapse in behavior can happen and is no cause for alarm, they will be more likely to move on from the setback more easily.

Keep Track of Progress

As you and your child move through ABA therapy together, you will become more used to your role as your child’s supporter, cheerleader, and behavior reinforcer. You will develop a stronger sense of what is working for your child and what could use some fine-tuning. Keeping a notebook of questions you have, achievements you’ve noticed, and struggles for your therapist to weigh in on will help you grow more confident in your ability to assist your child outside of the ABA clinic!

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