Why Early ABA Therapy Gives Children the Best Results

Updated on April 2, 2024

As the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm and that same philosophy can be applied to autism care.

We now know more about Autism Spectrum Disorder than ever before and, with that knowledge, children as early as 18 months old can now be assessed and receive a diagnosis for autism. That timing may seem too soon for some, while for many families it is not soon enough, but one thing has become undeniable in recent years: early diagnosis and treatment leads to the greatest positive impact in setting a child up for success throughout their life. 

Although diagnosis can begin around 18 months old, signs of autism in young children become clearer around the two to three-year mark. In fact, this is the most common age range for an official diagnosis. During this timeframe, toddlers develop and refine motor skills, and begin to develop more defined personality traits. The rapid developmental benchmarks that children achieve between years one and three make it easier to render an autism diagnosis if one is warranted. Once diagnosed, there are plenty of products out there that provide comfort and reduce sensory overload. From weighted blankets to sensory friendly clothing for kids, it is not difficult to find things that support their development and wellbeing.

Why Applied Behavioral Analysis is the Gold Standard Program

There are many programs available for children with autism that have various philosophies and designs, but one remains the gold standard: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), an evidence-based behavioral modification approach designed to provide critical intervention and care to those with autism and other neurodivergences. While ABA treatment can be effective for individuals of all ages, with an 89% overall success rate data has proven that therapy is most effective for children when they begin before age 5. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening all children between 18-24 months for autism. Doing so ensures children do not slip through the cracks and miss the treatment they need during the most essential educational years. Knowing a child has or may have autism early on makes it easier to shape behaviors and improve the ability to learn.

Early Intervention is Key to Improved Outcomes

Early intervention with ABA therapy can be a life-transforming experience for many children that helps build skills early and it is during this time that children will learn the tools that they will use for the rest of their lives. Children with autism enrolled in an early intervention ABA program have an increased likelihood of building massively critical developmental skills, which include social skills, language, and communication. Studies also show that over time ABA therapy can even help raise a child’s IQ with early intervention.

The reason there is such an emphasis on early intervention is because of the brain’s ability to form new connections, known as plasticity. While the brain can do this throughout life, there are sensitive periods in brain development where it is most ready and has the most significant capacity to change. This change is based on the child’s experiences because they alter brain function and development. Children with autism have foundational deficits in how they consume information from the world around them and, if that can be modified, it may be possible to minimize the effects of autism.

Children receiving 20 or more hours of ABA therapy during early childhood are more likely to attain age-equivalent scores than their autistic peers who received little or no treatment. Additionally, the verbal skills of children who received treatment through age five improved more rapidly than their peers who received little or no treatment.

Today’s Methods of ABA Therapy is a Recipe for Success

ABA therapy has come a long way since it originated. The most effective method of ABA therapy of today is one that is play-based and is rooted in positive reinforcement and compassion. Compassionate ABA therapy is founded in the motivation to alleviate the stresses and challenges that a child is experiencing and is implemented by meeting a child where they currently are developmentally. The goal is to help a child better navigate a life of neurodivergence, not hide it nor hold it against them. To weave compassion throughout the therapy process, it’s important for clinicians to listen to children and their caregivers, understand their individual needs, and act upon these findings. 

Using play-based ABA methods helps clinicians build rapport quickly and allows them to identify reinforcers and points of interest naturally. ABA therapy methods that use play start with the unique needs of a child in mind. Instead of prioritizing a strict and rigorous lesson plan, this approach provides children with a fun, welcoming, and educational environment, all while using the core principles of ABA therapy. A play-based activity might be a behavior technician asking how a teddy bear can sit at a table. If the child chooses a chair, they’ve shown that they understand the function of a chair. Studies have shown that children who learn through this method have an easy time generalizing their new skills to real-world situations and circumstances.

The future for autism care is hopeful, considering the science, data, and what is being communicated about the power of early intervention. We can now create treatment plans to help toddlers build skills they will value for a lifetime, with the goal of enriching their lives through ABA therapy. The more we understand, the more help there will be for families seeking a better quality of life for their children as we strive for a more accessible and inclusive future for the neurodivergent population.

Ms. Quatiba Davis
Quatiba Davis, M.Ed., BCBA, LABA
Chief Clinical Officer at ABA Centers of America

Ms. Quatiba Davis is a distinguished Board-Certified Behavior Analyst with a remarkable career trajectory characterized by leadership, innovation, and a steadfast commitment to enhancing the lives of individuals and families through Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Presently serving as the Interim Chief Clinical Officer of ABA Centers, Ms. Davis exemplifies her commitment to the organization’s growth and transformative mission. Her vision encompasses a comprehensive strategy that encompasses professional development, client support, and community engagement.

Ms. Davis's professional objectives revolve around addressing families' concerns and needs by leveraging data-driven insights from trained professionals and providing unwavering support through parent training. Furthermore, Ms. Davis is resolute in her commitment to promoting diversity within the ABA community, particularly among underrepresented populations. Driven by her passion for the science of ABA, she has witnessed the transformational impact it has on individuals' lives and firmly believes in its potential. Her influence extends to BABA (Black Applied Behavior Analysts), where she supports and empowers minorities in the ABA field through mentorship and motivational platforms.