Resiliency, Autism, and Applied Behavior Analysis in Children and Teens

Resiliency is one of the buzzwords in effective treatment and early intervention of autism among children and teens. Although children have a certain degree of inherent resiliency, it must be carefully nurtured and protected. But, resiliency is not invulnerable.

Today’s children are under extremely high levels of stress compared to previous generations, and the amount of stress only grows higher among children and teens with autism, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a social worker or authoritative figure, you need to understand the benefits of resiliency and how it can be damaged to help those with autism overcome their challenges.

The Protective Effect of Resiliency in Children and Teens With Autism

Resiliency is defined as the ability to recover from an incident or event that causes an additional burden on a person. Children and teens with autism often experience difficulty controlling emotions or behaviors, and this where resiliency becomes critical.

When children and teens learn they have the power to make decisions to impact outcomes, such as spending time outdoors after performing chores, they are more likely to develop a sense of ability to overcome obstacles. This concept applies to children with autism as well.

Resiliency also has a way of helping to mend problems that occur during everyday life. In a recent Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) advisory, Dr. Kenneth Barish, Ph. D. explained how parents and caregivers can improve resiliency in children. For example, caregivers who spend the time before bedtime speaking with their children are more likely to learn how to balance the struggles of life.

For social workers, caregivers and parents of children and teens with autism, this conversation can appear one-sided at times. However, the simple act of spending additional time explaining how challenges may develop and the learning opportunities granted by challenges can influence a child to think more about a specific situation. For children who are engaged in applied behavior analysis (ABA), this conversation can serve as a chance to reiterate the lessons learned during ABA sessions. The key to making this work is connecting with children on a personal level.

Consider the following conversation starting point:

 “I remember when my friends wouldn’t let me play with their toys, and I felt…”

Now, this conversation can go in many directions, but it must come with some sort of lesson that emphasizes how individual decisions can impact outcomes. This same conversational tactic can be applied to the learning of occupational skills during ABA by transforming words and hypothetical scenarios into action.

How Does Resiliency Impact ABA?

ABA is directly linked to resiliency as it is a form of behavior modification. Consider the fundamental basis of ABA; it uses positive reinforcement to help those with autism learn appropriate skills and behaviors. During ABA, the instructor or the learner may initiate “behavior analytic procedures,” explains Autism Speaks.

For example, a child decides to spend time working with colors when colors are part of the session to obtain a positive outcome, such as additional time to play. While it may take several sessions to reproduce this outcome, the child has demonstrated resiliency. With time, the child may initiate the same learning opportunity in the hopes of obtaining the same reward, which further builds resiliency and improves the effectiveness of ABA.

What Can Damage Resiliency in Children and Teens With Autism?

Any form of abuse or neglect to children or teens is associated with poor resiliency skills. While adults usually categorize abuse as an event most likely during childhood, adolescents can be the victims or perpetrators of abuse as well, explains MedlinePlus. For example, children and teens with autism who are repeatedly exposed to violence through video games or television may be more likely to feel unable to control their surroundings.

Unfortunately, the emotions of adults can also damage a child or teen’s ability to bounce back from a negative event, asserts the National Institute of Mental Health. Tragedies in society evoke feelings of remorse, sadness or even guilt, but children may interpret the despair of adults as punishment toward their actions. Consequently, those who work with children and teens with autism must ensure their actions or tone do not reflect the woes of society.

In fact, the Child Welfare Information Gateway specifically lists protective factors as the key means of helping children and youth overcome the physical and emotional scars of abuse, which include the following:

  • Self-efficacy.
  • Sense of purpose.
  • Self-regulation skills.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • Relational skills.
  • Involvement in positive activities.

Each of these skills require the involvement of the child in learning his or her actions can contribute to a more positive outcome. Moreover, children who develop these skills are less likely to be placed in out-of-home situations, suffer from additional stress and anxiety or experience secondary mental health problems. Yet, these skills do not simply rely on resiliency; they are critical to the formation of resilience after a traumatic event has occurred, such as abuse or neglect.

Putting It All Together

Children and teens need advocates to overcome the challenges of living with autism, but other factors, such as child abuse or neglect, can destroy a child’s ability to rebound from setbacks. However, resiliency and learning how to help children improve resiliency through additional protective factors can be fundamental blocks toward future successes in ABA.

Your role in helping children and teens with autism is expansive, and you must continually work to identify potential issues that could contribute to poor resiliency. Understanding resilience is an effective means of improving treatment outcomes for those with autism. As a result, consider implementing opportunities to build resilience within all of your interactions with children and teens who live with autism, and take note of how quickly learning can be achieved.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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