Setting the Pace: How Long Does Autism Therapy Take?

As parents with newly diagnosed children review the steps involved in the Applied Behavior Analysis therapy model, parents often begin to wonder how many hours will be involved in a typical ABA treatment plan.  As with many broad questions like this, the answer is simply, “It depends.”

For a child over the age of three, if the goal is to remediate skills – that is, to help close the gap between the child’s actual developmental level and the typical level for the child’s chronological age – 30 to 40 hours of intervention per week is typically recommended. For a child under the age of three, therapy may be slightly less intense, typically around 26 to 30 hours per week.

Ultimately, the goal of ABA therapy is to maximize the child’s independence, so these time ranges can vary depending on the child’s skills. For many parents, though, this number is a bit of a shock and may seem too high. However, it’s important to remember that, even as a child with autism progresses during treatment, their typically developing peers will be progressing as well. In order to help close that gap, intensive treatment is often required.

The importance of intensity

When presented with the recommendation to place their child in up to 40 hours of therapy per week, parents often remark that their child is already in school for that amount of time. While that may be true, it’s also important to look at the quality of time spent in school, not just the quantity of hours. What is the intensity of the work being done at school on the child’s deficit skills?

We measure intensity as the amount of opportunity the child has to practice the skills being taught. The more opportunities – called “trials” – that the child has to practice a skill, the greater the intensity. The right instruction intensity will vary with every child. For instance, the earlier the learner, the more trials he or she will typically need in order to learn a new skill. In other words, a child at an early level will require more time than a child at a more advanced level.

In many school environments, only a handful of hours will actually count as appropriately intensive. Teachers simply can’t spend every minute of class time in active, one-on-one teaching; the dynamics of the classroom also involve sitting or waiting quietly, listening to the teacher or other classmates, and so forth. While this experience can be valuable to a child who has the ability to learn through observation, early learners may not be able to gain many new skills from the traditional classroom format.

This is by no means to say that school will be all wasted time. Every classroom is different, and there is value in putting a child in a variety of group experiences. But for an early learner, if the child is spending a significant amount of time sitting passively in a group experience, this may not be the best use of the child’s learning time. It’s likely that very little observational learning is actually taking place – beyond the child simply learning how to sit quietly and wait. Once the child has learned how to sit in a group, there may be little more for the child to gain from the group experience.

Finding a balance in autism therapy

If parents want to make informed decisions about how to schedule their child’s time in order to maximize learning, it’s important to be aware of this need for intensive hands-on trials. Parents should make sure they understand, no matter where the child is – be it ABA therapy or in school – how many trials the child is being exposed to and how much actual learning is taking place. The person in charge of the child’s instruction should be able to address all of these concerns.

This is a critical time in the child’s development; taking the time to conscientiously invest the appropriate amount of time in the right kinds of intervention will make a big difference in the child’s ability to succeed.

Do you need help determining the appropriate amount of therapy for your child? Contact us today to set up a meeting!



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