Figuring out the alphabet soup of autism

Many families who seek help for a child with development delays or who get an autism diagnosis are faced with a whole bowl full of acronyms or “alphabet soup,” as we like to call it. The vocabulary can be intimidating, the abbreviations mystifying, and the labels confusing. We even get stumped ourselves once in a while.

Because our autism program is brand new, it’s the perfect time to help demystify some of the jargon so prevalent in the autism, disability, and special education community.

So, let’s get started with a few of the basics.

What is behavior analysis?

Behavior analysis is a natural science that seeks to understand the behavior of individuals. That is, behavior analysts study how biological, pharmacological, and experiential factors influence the behavior of humans and nonhuman animals.

What is applied behavior analysis or ABA?

Used as a scientific approach to understanding different behavior, applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a method of therapy used to improve or change specific behaviors. In simple terms, ABA changes the environment in order to change the behavior. It’s not just used to correct bad behavior. While we often think of the word “behavior” as meaning bad behavior, that’s not always the case. In reference to ABA therapy, behavior is what we do and how we act. ABA therapy is used to improve behaviors like social skills, reading, academics, and communication as well as learned skills like grooming, hygiene, fine motor dexterity, job proficiency and even simple things like a child dressing herself.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior including social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.

There is not just one type of autism, but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

What is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst or BCBA?

A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) is a graduate-level certification in behavior analysis. Professionals who are certified at the BCBA level are independent practitioners who provide behavior-analytic services. In addition, BCBAs supervise the work of Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT), and others who implement behavior-analytic interventions.

Our BCBA will complete an assessment of your child’s skills and preferences and use this analysis to write specific treatment goals for both your child and your family. Your child’s treatment program will be individualized to address their unique needs, skills, interests, as well as the situation in your family.

Currently at Kids Who Count we have one full-time BCBA on our staff.

What is a Registered Behavior Technician or RBT?

A Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) is a paraprofessional who practices under the close, ongoing supervision of a BCBA. The RBT is primarily responsible for the direct implementation of behavior-analytic services. The RBT does not design intervention or assessment plans. It is the responsibility of the RBT supervisor to determine which tasks an RBT may perform as a function of his or her training, experience, and competence.

Our Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) will work directly with your child to apply the principles of ABA to teach language, social skills, self-care, play and learning.

Currently at Kids Who Count we have two part-time RBTs on our staff.

What will by child’s ABA instruction play look like?

An ABA instruction plan will break down skills into small, concrete steps—taught one-by-one. Your child’s RBT will start with simple activities (like imitating single sounds) to learning more complex skills like carrying on a conversation.

The BCBA and your child’s RBT will collect data and measure progress so they can continue to help your child move toward goals and benchmarks. Your Kids Who Count team will meet regularly with you and your family to review progress with specific goals and objectives and adjust the treatment plan as necessary.

We want to help!

We’re always more than happy to help if you come across an acronym you’re unfamiliar with or some words or jargon that don’t make sense. Don’t be afraid to ask!

At Kids Who Count, we envision a community where children and families have access to local services that promote positive change and give children with autism spectrum disorder a chance to reach their unique individual potential. We hope we can help you!


Written by Sara Madsen, BCBA

Sara Madsen is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst or BCBA at Kids Who Count. She oversees and supervises all of the ABA treatments for the children we serve on the autism spectrum. She is currently in the PhD program in Applied Behavior Analysis at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She loves the outdoors—fishing and camping—and is a Utah Jazz fan.






Holly BushnellFiguring out the alphabet soup of autism

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