What is ABA Therapy: Your Questions Answered

child doing therapy explaining ABA Therapy
child doing therapy explaining ABA Therapy

Following an autism diagnosis, many professionals recommend ABA Therapy as the first form of support. But many parents often leave those meetings wondering what is ABA Therapy? It’s common to have lots of questions. It’s important to feel informed and clear on treatment options as you seek support for your child. Not to mention, choosing a therapy provider can be overwhelming and can take a lot of time. We’ll break down some commonly asked questions about what ABA Therapy is so you can feel prepared to help your child.  

What is ABA Therapy? 

Considered the “gold standard” in autism treatment, ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) Therapy is a scientific approach to understanding behavior. It’s a method of therapy used to improve specific behaviors, decrease interfering behaviors and help a child gain new skills such as communication, play, social, and daily living skills. ABA Therapy is evidenced-based and the most frequently recommended option for the treatment of autism.  

Is ABA Therapy effective? 

ABA Therapy proves to be highly effective, based on over 50 years of research. Medical professionals and institutions such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the U.S. General Surgeon approve ABA as a valid treatment for autism.  

ABA Therapists and BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analysts) create and implement plans for the client to meet specific goals tailored to the client’s needs. They set the client up for success by breaking down the steps to each goal. If an approach isn’t working, the ABA Therapist and BCBA will find another one. For example, a child may be working on regulating their emotions during tantrums. The ABA Therapist and BCBA might implement tactics such as deep breathing, sensory input, and physical relaxation. But if sensory input seems to further aggravate the child, that tactic will be removed and replaced with a helpful one. 

Is ABA Therapy a fit for my family? 

Parents love their children and want what is best for them, no matter their diagnosis. You may be asking, ”How can ABA Therapy help my child?” All children have the right to learn important skills in order to be independent and to maximize their happiness later in life. For children with autism, learning some skills can be harder. ABA Therapy can build on your child’s strengths while also supporting their learning in the areas they need it most.  

In deciding if ABA Therapy is a fit for your family, it’s important to understand the provider’s approach to ABA. ABA Therapy should be customizable to your child’s needs, with an emphasis on generalization to make sure skills transfer to the natural environment.  

Additionally, it’s important to know the credentials of the BCBA and understand the center’s training program for their ABA Therapists. This is to ensure they are qualified for the work they are providing. Another factor is to make sure they have a positive and comfortable relationship that allows room for learning. There should also be frequent and open communication between you as the parents and the child’s BCBA in order to build goals that are appropriate and sensible to you. Remember, you know your child best and it’s important to find professionals that align with your specific values.  

What do ABA Therapists do? 

ABA Therapists are trained behavioral professionals that work closely with and under the supervision of BCBAs. They help implement behavioral goals set for the client. As a team with the child and BCBA, the Therapist will help teach functional skills, address problem behaviors that interfere with learning. They also help the child gain skills that will allow them to better participate in school and the community. 

What is a BCBA? 

According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, “A Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA, has a graduate-level certification in behavior analysis. Professionals certified at the BCBA level are independent practitioners who provide behavior-analytic services. BCBAs may supervise the work of Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts – (BCaBAs), Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs), and other professionals who implement behavior analytic interventions.” 

At Healing Haven, BCBAs also provide parent training and can work with school professionals to help therapy translate efficiently across all situations and settings the client is in. To become a BCBA, an individual must undergo a 5-step process that includes: earning a relevant Master’s Degree, completing required behavior-analytic graduate coursework, completing required supervised fieldwork, apply for, take, and pass the BCBA exam, and then apply for state licensure.  

What happens during an ABA session? 

An ABA session typically begins with specific goals established for the child, which are discussed prior to starting therapy sessions. Throughout the session, the Therapist works one-on-one with the child. Their job is to ensure the child is learning and understanding the skills that are being taught. ABA Therapists utilize encouragement, praise and other motivational tactics tailored to the specific child and programs being worked on. Therapy is delivered both with and without supervision by the BCBA. 

Kate Fritz, MA, BCBA, LBA, is the Clinical Manager of our Early Intervention Clinic. She describes a typical ABA session at Healing Haven this way: 

In ABA sessions, we work hard and play hard! How an ABA session looks can greatly vary depending on the client’s age and skillset – programming is individualized to the client. In general, you can expect to see the use of play to work on communication and social skills, building up independence with daily living skills (e.g., working on putting on a winter coat), and both individual and group times to work on behavioral goals related to school-readiness. In action, this may look like a kid sitting in circle time imitating song motions, then reading a story with their therapist and pointing to animals and colors throughout the story, sitting and eating snack with peers, going to the restroom to work on washing hands independently, then heading to the playroom and pointing to toys up on a high shelf to communicate what they want to play with.  

When should my child start ABA? 

A child should start ABA Therapy if deemed appropriate, after receiving a medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Autism, for example, can be detected and tested for as early as 18 months old and by age 2 can be considered a reliable diagnosis as a means for therapy intervention.  

Early intervention is key. “Research very clearly states that early intervention for children with autism and other developmental disabilities is vital,” explains Jamie McGillivary, MS, LLP, BCBA, Founder and President of Healing Haven. “When children start therapies like ABA early on, they receive strategic learning opportunities that support them in the areas they need.”  

However, ABA Therapy is also beneficial for older children and teenagers. Even if a child is diagnosed later, ABA therapy could be worth looking into to learn and improve in areas that may be challenging for them. It is also important to remember that ABA Therapy isn’t automatically a lifelong commitment. Many children transition to lesser levels of therapy as they master skills.  

Is ABA Therapy covered by insurance? 

Because it is considered a behavioral health service, ABA Therapy is covered by most insurance policies. However, this can vary by plan and from state to state. In Michigan, it can vary by employer insurance plans, so it is important to call your insurance provider. It is important to discuss the specifics of what is and what is not covered by your plan as it pertains to ABA Therapy services in your location. More information about this can be found when you search “Autism Spectrum Disorder Health Coverage” on your state government website. For example, Michigan’s explanation of autism health coverage is found here. The Autism Alliance of Michigan is also a great resource for parents navigating insurance coverage. 

We hope this information is helpful as you navigate therapy options for your child. To learn more about Healing Haven’s ABA Therapy programs for children and teens up, contact us today

Great Gift Ideas for Autistic Children

With holiday season fast approaching, it’s time to scheme gift ideas! But finding useful and entertaining gifts for kids with autism can be tricky. For the past few years, we’ve compiled lists of gift ideas for autistic children. These categorized suggestions come from experts at our clinics as well as popular preferences from our clients.

A few things to note: Remember to consider the child’s interests and developmental stage. If they love a certain character or sport for example, find something that includes that. Or if they are intrigued by a certain sensory experience, such as fluffy or smooth items, gift from those categories. Their developmental stage also might not match age-appropriate toys and activities, so keep in mind what they might enjoy based on their abilities and interests.

Here is your guide with great gift ideas for an autistic child (or teen)!

Gifts that encourage movement

Many kids with autism often need to incorporate lots of movement into their day to counteract sensory issues. Try an anti-burst peanut exercise ball for core strength development and calming deep pressure, or a balance board for balance and coordination.

Additionally, according to one of our Occupational Therapists, jumping is an excellent way for kids to get sensory input. She suggests a monkey jump, where small children can engage in a game of Five Little Monkeys. A mini trampoline is another fantastic go-to option for kids who need to get energy out.

Sensory gift ideas

Water beads are a huge favorite of our clients. After expanding in water, put them in a bin and let kids run their hands through them for some mesmerizing sensory fun.

Sometimes a child with autism finds solace with alone time. Make a peaceful haven in a tent that you can fill with pillows, stuffed animals, or any other objects that help your child experience calm.

Poke-A-Dot books offer interactive sensory input while enjoying a story. Children can pop the dots on each page, which is a great opportunity for fine motor skills.

If your child often gets overstimulated and likes body pressure, try a weighted vest, blanket, or neck wrap. The added weight can aid in focus and help kids feel safe and secure.

Toys that support fine motor skills

Kinetic sand is a perfect gift for kids that like to squish, mold, and create—another favorite of our clients. As opposed to real sand, kinetic sand prevents big messes as it sticks together. Scoop into molds or build little creatures and sandcastles for fine motor practice.

Do you have a child who loves taking things apart and putting back together? Check out this take-apart car, complete with a drill. Our OTs utilize these cars during sessions to encourage fine motor skills. The car can also go for a drive when construction is completed, offering an enticing reward at the end of a task.

Do.A.Dot markers help kids work on fine motor skills through learning to hold and control something in their hand. With a sponge tip applicator, they are also mess-free! These markers are a great option for quick art projects.

Gifts for tweens and teens

Many of these gifts work for younger children, but may not satisfy needs of older kids and teens with autism. Finding gifts for teens can be difficult, but we suggest fidget-friendly items than can ease stress. As kids get older, they need to concentrate longer on tasks. Gifting a fidget spinner, a Kinekt gear ring, or finger fidget pencils can therapeutically relieve extra energy and stress when trying to focus.

Stocking stuffers

Try these smaller items to stick in a stocking. “Pop-its” are all the rage right now, for both neurotypical and autistic children—we see many around our clinics! Therapy putty often comes in a small container for easy transport to pull out and squish when needed. Our clients also enjoy stretchy tubes that pop and bend. For kiddos who like to mouth items, try packs of fun-shaped chewies such as these shark teeth. An anti-stress toy like this cool fidget or a liquid timer can simultaneously entertain and ease sensory induced anxiety.

Gift ideas to treat parents

If you’re planning to give to a child with autism, it’s a nice gesture to gift their parents as well. Parents of kids with special needs often endure a lot of stress. Self-care and fun experiences are excellent options, such as a manicure/pedicure, a massage, restaurant gift cards, or movie gift certificates. A relaxing night out is often a wonderful gift for parents, given all they balance!

We hope we’ve helped take some of the stress out of your holiday shopping this year with these great gift ideas for autistic children. For even more gift suggestions, be sure to check out all our holiday gift guides.

6 Ways to Calm a Child With Autism

calm child with autism
calm child with autism

Raising a child with autism brings surprises and challenges. One possible difficulty is managing meltdowns. While every child has rough moments, for a child on the spectrum meltdowns are different. They often happen when the child is overstimulated and cannot communicate why they are upset. A valuable way to cope when meltdowns occur is to learn ways to calm a child with autism. Through detailed preparation, you and your child will feel more equipped to handle big emotions the next time they experience distress.

Warning Signs

Meltdowns may occur out of the blue or perhaps they come after a specific trigger. This can be very stressful for not only the child but parents and other family members as well. However, certain displays of behavior can cue parents to when their child might be on the verge of a meltdown. Some of these behaviors may include:

  • Increased stimming- agitated hand flapping, body rocking, pacing, hands over ears
  • Loud vocalizing
  • Crying
  • Eloping – running away from a situation
  • Self-injurious behavior (SIB)- banging head, picking at skin, hitting or biting self

Perhaps it is a certain location, a noise, or denied access to something that set off your child. Keeping a log of triggers can help prepare you for future incidents and allows you to be proactive in recognizing and coping with meltdowns. And in the meantime, try some of the following six ways to calm a child with autism when they are in distress.

Addressing Sensory Needs

Children with autism often have many more sensory needs than an average neurotypical person. Deep pressure stimulation such as gentle head or shoulder squeezes can help kids feel secure and move their nervous system into the parasympathetic nervous system, also called “rest and digest.” When we are in the parasympathetic nervous system, our bodies feel safe and secure which in turn calms our minds.

Additionally, learn what objects or toys are soothing to your child and have them on hand. Keep a bag of sensory objects with your child that they can utilize when they are feeling overwhelmed. Fidget spinners, blankets, squishy toys, or chew toys can bring comfort to an overstimulated nervous system.

A sensory friendly “calm down corner” can also help quell meltdowns. At home, designate a safe area for your child that includes soft lighting, calming music or white noise, and comfortable items such as bean bags or pillows. If your child attends school, coordinate with teachers to create a calm down corner in the classroom. If you’re in public during an episode, remove your child from the triggering environment as soon as you can and take them to a neutral location.

The Power of Music

Music can be very therapeutic to individuals with autism. Music increases brain connectivity which in turn helps regulate emotions. Additionally, singing a favorite song of your child’s may help them relax, as familiarity can be grounding. Try softly singing or playing soothing quiet tunes on headphones to help your child self-regulate.

Deep Breathing

Breathing is very powerful in calming the mind and body and can assist in regulating emotions for a child with autism. Sit face-to-face with your child and have them breathe deeply with you. Counting inhales and exhales as they breathe is a helpful technique. The exhale places the body back into the parasympathetic nervous system so make sure your child is releasing all the air. Breathing together will also help you feel more calm during a meltdown.


Moving and fresh air help all of us feel better and is another great strategy to calm a child with autism. Walk with your child around the block, visit a nearby park, or put on a kids yoga video to help them center.

Stick to Schedules

Sometimes unpredictability triggers a meltdown. Pre-planned agendas can provide comfort to children with autism so they know what’s coming next, reducing anxiety. You can even create visual schedules for your child to reference throughout the day, which can help them stay on task. There will obviously be times when the schedule needs to change last minute, but try to give your child as much notice as possible.

Avoid Reinforcing Behavior

It’s natural to become worked up and overwhelmed watching your child experience such high levels of distress. But it’s important to avoid displaying strong emotions in front of your child in the heat of the moment in order to avoid reinforcing their behaviors. Remain as calm as you can and focus on deescalating your child through whichever method they respond best to. But be sure to make space to process your own emotions after the episode so you can regulate as well.

We hope these six ways to calm a child with autism will help you and your child the next time a meltdown arises. Know that you are not alone and that it is ok to feel overwhelmed. Our parent training resources include strategies in addressing specific meltdown situations. For more info, visit our ABA Parent Training page.

Supporting Autism Families: Meet Our New Social Worker


One of the unique services we provide here at Healing Haven is counseling for a variety of people impacted by an autism diagnosis. Our counselors support autism families through working directly with individuals with autism, as well as their parents and siblings.

Navigating an autism diagnosis can be complex for parents, as well as for some children and teens who feel different compared to their peers. Some may also struggle with social skills and interacting with others, or need help in understanding and controlling their emotions. We did a previous post on counseling and autism, featuring our onsite therapist Danielle. And now we are excited to announce the newest addition to our team, Mallory Meter. Mallory is a social worker who started providing counseling services for autism families here at Healing Haven in September 2019.

Mallory worked in the Chicago area for the past four years. She has a Bachelors of Arts from the University of Notre Dame where she majored in psychology. She then received her Masters of Social Work from The School of Social Service and Administration at University of Chicago. 

In preparation for her transition here to Healing Haven, we sat down with Mallory to get to know her better. Learn about her experience and approach to therapy, and how she might support you and/or your child:

HH:  Why did you want to work with kids with autism / special needs?

MM: I have always been passionate about working with children. I am a strong believer that children can teach us so much about ourselves and how to be better human beings. This is especially the case when it comes to children impacted by autism and developmental differences. While these children can face a number of challenges, they also carry so much creativity, potential, and strength. Being able to face challenges alongside these children, to learn from their resilience, and to witness their growth and change is endlessly exciting and a true honor for me.

HH: Describe your career background and other experiences you have that are a benefit to the work you will do here at Healing Haven.

MM: My first job out of graduate school was at a Chicago-area therapeutic day school for children with autism called Giant Steps. This role provided me with extensive exposure to interventions aimed at promoting social-emotional development in this population. Additionally, I learned how to navigate the world of public schools and IEPs. As a result of working closely with a multidisciplinary team made up of speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, BCBAs and special education teachers, this role provided indispensable opportunities to learn new and creative ways to intervene with and support children impacted by autism spectrum disorder.

Following this role, I worked as a social worker on the inpatient psychiatry unit at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago where I also completed my training practicum in graduate school. Here I was able to further develop my understanding of a range of psychiatric diagnoses and strengthen my skills in providing evidence-based treatments at an individual, family, and group therapy level. Most recently, I had moved into a new position within the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics where I provided case management, parent training, and therapeutic/educational support to families and children impacted by ASD, Down Syndrome, Intellectual Disability, and a range of additional learning differences. More than anything, my time at Lurie Children’s Hospital confirmed my passion for working with children and adolescents impacted by developmental differences, especially those impacted by comorbid mental health concerns.

HH: What motivates you coming to work every day?

MM: My favorite part of this work is partnering with children and families. I love helping them feel understood, accepted, and supported in a way they haven’t before. The moments when a caregiver or child communicates in some way these feelings of being seen, accepted, and supported are what motivates me to come to work everyday. Coffee is always helpful too…

HH: Describe the types of counseling you will do with clients at Healing Haven. Skills you will work on, tools you will incorporate to help clients grow, etc.

MM: I hope to promote a wide range of skills and areas of growth in my work at Healing Haven. These include emotional identification and regulation skills, perspective taking and social skills, and coping/distress tolerance skills. I would describe my therapeutic lens as trauma-informed, strengths-based, relational and family systems-informed. Attachment therapy is also a guiding framework in my work. Within this broader stance, I pull from a number of evidence-based treatments including: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Brief Solutions Focused Therapy to name a new. Additionally, a few specific tools I love to utilize in my work with autism families and children include mindfulness, Collaborative and Proactive Solutions, and Social Thinking strategies.

HH: What is a favorite memory of working with a client?

MM: My favorite memory was being staffed with a little guy on my caseload at Giant Steps. We had a field trip to a pool. He had previously been extremely scared (emphasis on extremely) of water. After a ton of work he was able to get in the pool and even go on the water slide! As a result, I’ll never forget his smile that day.

And here some fun things to know about Mallory 😊

  • Favorite food: Bread, bread, bread
  • Radio Station/Music on iPod: NPR or my own music
  • Favorite movie: Wild
  • How do you relax/de-stress outside of work: Spending time with family, yoga, reading (I’m a huge bookworm!)
  • Drink: Coffee
  • Favorite book: I don’t think I can pick just one!

As you can see, Mallory is a great asset to have on our team. We are excited to have her here helping autism families! If you are a parent in need of help for yourself, or your child is struggling with things related to their autism, ADHD, depression or anxiety, we are here to help! Simply fill out the Contact Us form and we will get back with you!

Autism Parenting: Help for Stressed Relationships


Having a child with autism, Down syndrome or any other type of special needs brings all kinds of new realities into your life. Some can be amazing – like gaining a whole new community of people you may have never met before. But other things can definitely add stress to the lives of autism parents. From more doctor appointments to navigating special education and IEPs, to scheduling therapies – all of these new realities can put stress on your relationships with your spouse, your family members and your friends.

With the help of Allie Young-Rivard, LLPC, we’ve compiled some information and resources to help autism parents with relationships that may be under stress.

Marriage – The odds are NOT stacked against you

There’s an often-quoted statistic that the divorce rate among parents who have a child with autism is around 80%. Or it’s at least quoted as being higher than the general population. This outdated figure was based on older, smaller studies, which can often lead to inaccurate data.

The Interactive Autism Network, which connects the autism community and researchers, breaks down the updated research findings in their article Under a Looking Glass: What’s the Truth About Autism and Marriage?:

“Researchers in Baltimore investigated the supposed 80 percent divorce rate for parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Unlike other studies, this one was particularly large – using data from almost 78,000 parents, 913 of whom had a child with autism – and included families from across the United States. The bigger the study, the less likely the results are due to chance or something unique about the pool of people studied. The researchers, from Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University, found no evidence of an 80 percent divorce rate.9 In fact, parents of children with autism split up as often as parents of children who don’t have autism, according to their research.”

We hope this new information encourages you that even though you may face some stress in your marriage due to your child’s diagnosis, it doesn’t automatically mean your marriage is doomed because of autism. If your marriage is struggling, ask for help before it’s too late.

When Divorce Does Happen

Even with this hopeful news for couples who have an autistic child, there are still a lot of marriages under stress. Deciding to divorce is complex and difficult. This life-altering course can cause intense anxiety. It can also cause worry about how the decision to separate will affect your children. For parents of children with special needs, the choice to separate and/or divorce is particularly difficult because of the added needs and responsibilities.

Support for Your Child

Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty adapting to change. So naturally it is common for parents to worry how their child will acclimate to their new reality, routine and living situation. It is important to prepare your child for the changes that are going to happen.  Providing your child with a visual schedule that outlines the custody arrangements will help them know what to expect. Having consistency at both houses will also be helpful. Work together to have a similar calendar at both locations that shows your child’s daily routines and notes what house he or she will be at. By using tools that prepare them you can help them understand their new routine and hopefully reduce some anxiety. Additionally, talking about the schedule ahead of time to avoid surprises is beneficial for everyone involved.

Another helpful idea is to create a social story explaining the changes and what to expect. If your child receives ABA therapy, talk with their BCBA about creating a personalized social story to prepare them for their new routine and the changes in their family situation.

Lastly, depending on the age of the child and their communication ability, seeking a therapist who specializes in adjustment could be helpful. We have counselors on our team who work with children and teens on the autism spectrum. Seeing an experienced therapist can help children process their new family dynamics and adjust to the changes. Please contact us if you would like to pursue counseling for your child.


It is important for a divorced couple to remember that is it about the child (or children). The definition of co-parenting is:

Verb; (especially of a separated or unmarried couple) share the duties of parenting (a child).

Keeping your focus on doing what is best for your child can help both parents stay on track and follow through on maintaining routines. Establishing and upholding proper communication with your former spouse will ensure support and success for your child. If communication with your ex is difficult, seek out family counseling and/or individual therapy if your former spouse is unwilling to join you. Counseling can help you learn how best to work together for the common interest of your child.

Family or Friends Who Don’t Understand Your Child’s Unique Needs

When your child is diagnosed with a disability it can often feel like you’re alone. Those close to you may not understand what you’re going through as you navigate therapies, doctors, support at school and situations that are difficult for your child. Some may spend less time with you and your family. This often stems from not really understanding the diagnosis. When a family member or close friend expresses criticism of your child’s behavior, or of you as a parent, it’s important to address it.

You can first try to explain what your child’s diagnosis means, how it impacts them medically, emotionally, behaviorally, etc. Explain the therapies and medical treatments they are receiving and why. Talk about what their education situation is like and how it benefits them. If your child has sensory issues, repetitive behaviors or stimming, difficulty with change, etc, it’s good to take time to explain them to your family. Being open and honest can help your loved ones understand and hopefully lead to support from them. 

Is It Time To Set Boundaries?

If, however, after explaining all of these things, they isolate you or stop talking with you, first know that it’s not you or your child. It is their inability to be sensitive and understanding of differences and supportive of those with unique needs. If you are facing criticism or lack of understanding toward your child, you may need to establish boundaries. This may mean limiting time spent at family gatherings, or not taking your kids to their grandparents’ house.

Whatever the situation you are facing, it’s important to remove yourself from unsupportive relationships and find support from others in similar situations. Setting boundaries with unsupportive family members can be tough, but putting your mental health and the child’s well being first is beneficial for everyone. Additionally, a professional counselor can help you develop coping skills to navigate strained relationships, as well as help you process your own feelings regarding your child’s diagnosis.

We hope you’ve found this information and ideas for autism parents helpful as you encounter stress in various relationships. And if you find you need some outside help and perspective, please reach out to us!

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