How is ABA Therapy Used to Benefit Preschoolers with Autism

July 21, 2022

How ABA Therapy Benefits Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Are you wondering if Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy should become a part of your child’s preschool experience this fall? If your child recently received an ASD diagnosis, you are likely inundated with making decisions, and balancing the time of your child between ABA therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and preschool, too! Learning more about the benefits of ABA therapy during preschool can help in that decision-making process. Consulting with your child’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or pediatrician can be another helpful perspective to consider when deciding when to begin ABA therapy.

Why Is ABA Therapy Beneficial for Preschoolers?

ABA therapy is an evidence-based approach to helping individuals with autism build positive behaviors and developmental skills, and decrease problem behaviors. ABA therapy allows the therapist to evaluate the individual’s skills and abilities and then create an individualized program to help that person meet their greatest potential. The patient will experience positive reinforcement for desired behaviors across a variety of skills. Specifically, ABA therapy focuses on:

  • Communication
  • Social skills
  • Leisure
  • Daily living skills

When it comes time to make the decision best for your learner about how to balance ABA therapy with preschool and other therapies, here are some recommended next steps:

  • First, ask the preschool that you are considering for a list of skills needed prior to attending the preschool.
  • Ask your BCBA what skills the child is performing that would be functional in preschool and what skills still need development.  
  • Schedule a tour of the preschool during regular hours to see what the children are doing. Watch a child who seems to be a typical learner, and ask yourself “Can my child do (skill)?”

*We don’t want to constantly measure our children based on what skills other children have, especially when working with children with autism. Children develop at different rates and it’s not always useful to compare a child with autism against a typically developing child. However, when determining if preschool is an option, it’s important to know what skills the children in preschool are engaging in and estimating whether your child can perform those skills to be successful.  

Schedules to Incorporate ABA During Preschool

If you are currently evaluating preschools, it’s an ideal time to begin conversations with them about how they have accommodated ABA therapy during the day for students, or if there are students that currently undergo ABA therapy during the day. What works for one child may not be suitable for all, so there are many ways to structure the day to accommodate both ABA therapy and preschool. 

Acorn Health has served children that were best suited with a variety of schedule types and mixtures between preschool and ABA therapy. As examples, some children attend preschool for half the day and ABA for the other half, while we have seen some children attend preschool two days a week and ABA the other three, while others have participated in ABA therapy in a preschool or daycare setting. Additionally, many families shift their balance of preschool and ABA therapy over time as their children grasp new skills and a new prioritization between school and therapy becomes more appropriate for them. 

If you are exploring the option of your child undergoing ABA therapy during preschool, here are some questions to consider:

  • Would therapy in this setting be ​​appropriate based on the goals needing to be addressed? 
  • If you have private insurance, do they cover services in that setting? 
  • Does the ABA company permit therapy to occur in that setting? (At Acorn Health, we consider the setting based on its appropriateness for the learner)
  • Does the preschool allow outside therapies to occur at their location?

Another consideration is the learning environment. Preschools traditionally are taught in a group-based environment. Children can learn by watching their peers accomplish tasks, sit for a story, or recite new letters or sounds out loud. This approach to learning may not be suitable for all children, especially if your child becomes uncomfortable in large group settings or doesn’t have the necessary skills to learn in a group. ABA therapy provides a 1-1 learning environment for your child that for some, can make them feel more at ease, and can provide many more individualized learning opportunities.

Prerequisite Skills for Preschool

Group learning prepares children for their future school years where that type of learning environment is more common. Preschool also provides consistent opportunities for socialization since it’s largely taught in a group learning environment. Necessary prerequisite skills for preschool typically include:

  • Toileting
  • Hand-washing
  • Sitting in a group
  • Following group directions
  • Listening to a speaker
  • Waiting for a turn
  • Sharing 
  • Tolerating divided attention
  • Communication needs

If your child doesn’t yet have those skills, preschool may be frustrating for them, and not nearly as beneficial for your child. 

Introducing Sensory Experiences

One exciting way preschoolers enjoy learning is through sensory experiences. Introducing new sensory experiences can be an overwhelming step for a child with autism, so as with any new skill, caregivers or teachers should approach it slowly, and monitor the child’s reactions. Take small steps to introduce the new sensory activity, and discuss textures, feelings and the experience overall as you introduce the new activity. Teachers should express their excitement over the new sensations. Introduce the activity frequently, and over time, the child may become more interested and excited about the new sensory activities.

Sensory Experiences in Preschool

In a preschool setting, many children will get introduced to exciting sensory experiences. At Acorn Health, your child’s therapist may also incorporate sensory experiences into the therapy sessions. However, ABA does not target sensory processing skills as a part of treatment, rather the focus is on communication and the development of meaningful social behaviors. That being said, sensory-based activities for ABA therapy can be embedded into learning and reinforcement. Some common preschool sensory experiences include:

  • Play-doh: Choose a variety of colors, and show the learner how to make new shapes or combinations. 
  • Paint: Experiment with different types of tools to use with the paint, such as cotton balls, Q-tips and paintbrushes. If the child is interested in finger-painting, let them explore the activity in that way, as well. Just be prepared with wet wipes or a towel before they move on to the next activity!
  • Sensory boxes: First, choose a base for your sensory box such as rice, beans or sand. Then either purchase small toys or trinkets, or simply use what you have already to create an imaginative play space for the learner. Consider using play dinosaurs, cars, rocks, sticks or small cups so they can experiment with moving the materials around in a contained space.
  • Musical instruments: Whether the preschool has child-friendly instruments or you choose to show your child “kitchen instruments” like wooden spoons, and pots and pans at home, listening to new sounds and making music is another sensory activity your child may enjoy exploring.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

At what age is ABA therapy most effective?

ABA therapy is generally most effective as early as possible, typically between 2 and 6 years old. At Acorn Health, we work with learners as young as 18 months. The earlier your child begins ABA therapy, the sooner their communication skills and daily living skills can be addressed and improved, preparing them for a positive preschool experience.

Does ABA therapy work for toddlers?

ABA therapy has shown improvement for toddlers diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and Acorn Health provides therapy for children as young as 18 months old.

What is ABA in preschool?

ABA in preschool is when therapy is delivered within a traditional preschool setting, and then that child will have other time learning alongside peers in a group environment.

What are examples of ABA therapy for young children?

Activities that young children may do during ABA therapy include developing and refining functional communication, tolerating a variety of experiences, development of functional and socially meaningful skills, and responding as a listener. The activities vary widely based on the child’s own unique goals.