Adopting a Trauma-Informed Approach


Adopting a Trauma-Informed Approach

What does it mean to implement ABA through a trauma-informed lens? In this approach, every behavior is viewed through the austere lens of antecedent-behavior-consequence and through an expanded lens, which considers the many experiences influencing a child’s emotional and behavioral responses.

For example, consider an eight-year-old who yells and bites others every time he is overstimulated. He knows no other way to communicate to others that he needs a break and a quiet space. If a behavior analyst simply blocks the behavior and utilizes extinction (planned ignoring), there is no ability to teach replacement behaviors. Trauma surrounding social interactions and distrust in other people may begin to develop. Thus, inadvertently resulting in increased behaviors. However, suppose the behavior analyst interacts with the child in an empathetic, compassionate manner and utilizes proactive approaches (e.g., teaching the child to request a break/space from others when he is not escalated, acknowledging how they feel when they are upset, etc.). In that case, they can begin to build and teach the child about healthy boundaries, relationships, and methods to communicate their basic wants/needs with others.

Implementing a trauma-informed approach

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

While all quality ABA programs focus on teaching new skills and reducing unsafe behaviors, ABA with a trauma-informed lens focuses exclusively on child-led treatment that ensures dignity and respect for the whole person and ensures that every treatment session is centered around the child’s happiness, relaxation, and engagement. In this model, the true beneficiary of ABA services is not just the learner but the child-parent or student-teacher relationship, as healthy relationships are essential for client success. Trauma-informed ABA focuses on collaboration, active listening, caring, motivation, relationship-building, accepting feedback, celebrating both learner and family gains/successes, reflection, and empathy/perspective-taking.

Why implementation is necessary

Why is implementation necessary? Many professionals within the ABA community want to see practices adapt and evolve for the better. Still, the way to bring about this change differs. Some people want to see profound, sweeping change at the top levels of the field and others believe that practitioners doing their job differently every day, in small and impactful ways, accomplish change. Different people have different perspectives, so it makes perfect sense that although many people are talking about changing and improving ABA therapy, there is little consensus on how to do that.

“We aim to set the gold standard for ABA therapy and be a leader in the ABA reform movement.” Katrina Boik, Director of Community Engagement, SOAR Behavior Services.

Trauma-Informed ABA can be operationally defined as recognizing someone’s history lived experience through their own eyes and how mistreatment or microaggressions directly impact their behavior. It is viewing someone through the context of who they are in the world and how they self-identify or are identified or labeled by others. For example, abuse, crisis events, significant illness or injury, neglect, mistreatment, prejudice, misjudgment, or social rejection are all traumatic events that should influence how any intervention or therapy is applied and carried out. In short, trauma-informed ABA is an intentional decision to provide services and care in a highly personalized, unique, and respectful manner while recognizing that we are all products of our environment, for better or worse.

A Child-Centered Approach

At SOAR Behavior Services, we approach each learner individually. We modify and tailor intervention techniques to what the learner needs and prefers, not what we think is best or should happen according to “old school” practices. We collaborate with caregivers, parents, and other professionals working with that learner, and we design interventions in a way that respects client dignity, autonomy, choice, and preferences. If the care being provided is focused on what is best for that individual and is trauma-informed, the treatment will ultimately be far more impactful and result in less harm to the individual.

There is a movement happening all around us, and while it may have many different voices, that does not negate the need for change. We can do better at how we help our learners, how we listen to our learners (especially those who do not communicate by speaking), and serving the disability community.


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