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Skill maintenance is among the most important elements of successful ABA therapy. Even after a child has learned a new behavior, we can’t assume that this behavior will be retained over time. In this article, we explore the ways to promote the maintenance of acquired skills in children with autism.
What Is Maintenance in ABA?
Maintenance in ABA therapy refers to the ability to retain a previously acquired skill and perform it once the applied behavior procedures have been removed. In other words, after a therapist fades all prompts and reinforcements, the behavior will continue to occur.
For example, a therapist uses a token system to strengthen the desired behavior, such as teaching a child how to greet others. If the child continues to display the target behavior correctly and greets his or her peers appropriately after the therapist takes away the token board, we can say that skill maintenance has been achieved.
Why is maintenance important?
Children on the autism spectrum have a harder time than their neurotypical peers learning from experience and transferring newly learned skills to other settings. A child with autism may respond correctly when the therapist says “hi” in the clinic environment, but then fail to apply this knowledge when meeting a friend on the street. Below, we list some ways in which maintenance contributes to the generalization and retention of new skills.
A child may be able to produce the expected responses in one particular setting, without knowing how to apply that knowledge to other environments. Practicing maintenance not only reinforces what the child has learned during ABA therapy, but it also helps generalize these skills outside of the clinical environment, for example, in school or at home.
Prepares for interaction with others
Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulties generalizing interpersonal skills. After a child has learned a specific behavior from a therapist or parent, they might need consistent maintenance with different people before they can master the skill.
Promotes further learning opportunities
Maintenance allows children with autism to build upon basic skills towards more complex ones, for example, using fine motor skills such as pinching, pointing, and pulling as a starting point for performing more advanced tasks like getting dressed or holding a pencil. Maintenance is more likely to occur when initial skills are used for teaching new behaviors.
Enables recalibrating behaviors
Skill maintenance sets the ground for adjusting learned behaviors to match changes in the environment over time. Some learned behaviors may need to be modified to suit the child’s age or a new setting.
Improves long-term retention
Children with autism tend to forget the skills that are neglected over a long period of time. With constant practice, the child will be ready to apply the necessary skills when needed. This is especially important in situations such as asking for help and performing daily tasks without assistance.
Below, read more about how you can best ensure that a child will retain previously acquired skills.
How to Make Maintenance a Reality
Here is what therapists and other individuals working with children with autism must keep in mind when it comes to skill maintenance:
- Prioritize teaching small skills and gradually building upon them.
- Use words that match the child’s interests, for example, if the child is interested in music, teach them relevant terms.
- To maintain behavior over time, rely as much as possible on naturally occurring forms of reinforcement in the child’s environment.
- Reinforce specific skills, for instance, say that you’re pleased the child put the shoes on to go outside without being asked.
- Look for opportunities to practice newly acquired skills in the child’s natural environments, for example, at home, in school, or on the playground.
- Practice behaviors that increase access to environments in which other important skills can be learned and used.
- Integrate skill maintenance into the child’s daily routine. This will make practicing skills easier for children with autism who appreciate predictability.
- Stay consistent when it comes to requirements. The child may forget skills if they are allowed to revert to easier behaviors.
In the following section, we take a look at the different ways to promote the maintenance of learned skills.
Three Ways to Promote Maintenance
ABA therapists typically use three different ways to promote the maintenance of skills in children with autism:
- Withdraw antecedents
- Withdraw task requirements, and
- Withdraw consequences/reinforcement
In all three instances, it is crucial to fade assistance provided over time. The ABA therapist should slowly start giving fewer prompts or reinforcement and offer them less often. If the therapist fades assistance too quickly and there’s suddenly no reinforcement at all, the child is likely to stop displaying the desired behavior.
Antecedents such as visual schedules, verbal or gestural prompts, and written instructions may be required when teaching a new skill or when a child is not able to independently produce correct responses. Withdrawing antecedents refers to systematically removing all cue-related stimuli that trigger a target behavior. All antecedent procedures should be faded as soon as they are no longer required to avoid prompt dependency and ensure the maintenance of skills.
Withdraw task requirements
Withdrawing task requirements means that all criteria related to the target behavior are removed until the behavior becomes as similar as possible to the post-intervention setting.
This technique consists of gradually ceasing all interventions that follow the target behavior. Through consequence and reinforcement fading, the therapist decreases the frequency and level of assistance for completing a task. Maintenance is fully achieved when the child is able to engage in the skill independently, without receiving any type of reinforcement.
For example, when teaching a child to raise a hand to get attention in the classroom, the teacher may start by giving verbal praise every time the child behaves appropriately. After a while, the teacher can offer reinforcement every other time the wanted behavior occurs, and then less and less frequently until a reward is no longer necessary.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.
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