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What is Trauma-Informed ABA?

“No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”

Judith Herman, 1998

Whether you are an educator, parent, guardian, or student, you may have heard of the term “trauma-informed ABA.” In the field of behavior analysis, there has recently been a much needed push for more progressive and compassionate ABA practices. If you haven’t read “A Perspective on Today’s ABA” by Dr. Greg Hanley, I highly recommend that you start there to understand some of these mindset shifts in the field. He encourages ABA practitioners to “learn by listening, creating joy, empowering, and while teaching.” This resonated with me as someone trained years ago in ABA teaching practices that prioritized compliance and skill mastery over listening and creating joy. In this blog post, we will explore what trauma-informed ABA is, how to infuse it into your everyday teachings, and where you can find additional resources for further education.

trauma informed aba What is Trauma-Informed ABA?

What is Trauma-Informed ABA?

In general, trauma-informed care seeks to shift the focus from the question of, “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”. The National Center for PTSD states that over 50% of individuals experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, this approach seems extremely critical when working with any individuals, and especially those with developmental disabilities. Given that as ABA practitioners, we are routinely assigned to work with individuals who are not able to communicate extensively or at all, it seems fair that we should be assuming that anyone we are working with has experienced a history of trauma.

In “Toward trauma-informed applications of behavior analysis,” (2022), Rajaraman et al. outlines four basic components of trauma-informed care, including:

  1. acknowledge trauma and its potential impact
  2. ensure safety and trust
  3. promote choice and shared governance
  4. emphasize skill building

The authors propose incorporating these components into trauma-informed ABA specifically by adopting core values with client relationships such as: having sensitivity toward potential trauma, building relationships and rapport, avoiding restraint techniques (when possible), promoting client autonomy and increasing client choice-making opportunities, and teaching functional adaptive skills.

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What are specific examples of trauma-informed ABA?

While there is no one size fits all approach to this topic, we can strive to go beyond teaching clients basic wants, needs, grooming, daily living and social skills to include a more nuanced approach. Some guiding questions I utilize in skill assessment and teaching include:

  • Does my client have access to a preferred and comfortable working environment? Do they prefer to sit by the door or by the window? Are they likely to get cold or warm during session? Do they enjoy working in dim lighting as opposed to bright? Is music playing in the background something they enjoy? These are all tiny details that we incorporate into our everyday life on a daily basis without giving it an extra though. As such, allowing a client’s input, whether it be explicitly communicated or gleaned from an informal preference assessment, is critical to establishing a mutually respectful relationship.
  • Can my client communicate the need to escape from unpleasant situations? I have seen too often students learn to request a “break” only for this response to slowly be put on accidental extinction as academic demands increase over the years. This is a skill that should be continuously maintained and reinforced to ensure that the individual remains fluent with it and does not lose practice. This is a great blog post with tips for teaching this skill with a fantastic FREE protocol included.
  • Am I reflecting on more than just data points ensuring skill mastery but also on my client’s happiness and overall disposition? If there are specific programs they seem to strongly dislike, have I considered whether that skill is truly necessary and functional to teach right now (or at all), and/ or if I could modify it in some way to be less aversive? Can I increase communication opportunities for them to request their preferred things or activities so that they are more likely to be able to communicate these needs to less familiar individuals they may encounter in their future?
  • Can my client “wait” for preferred items or activities? Prioritizing and shaping this skill with reinforcement from an early age can minimize the need for potentially trauma-invoking behavior strategies down the road such as extinction or planned ignoring. Using a visual such as this free printable timer can assist with this skill.
  • Can my client tolerate “no”? While cultivating joy is the ultimate goal, you may very well be working with someone who finds joy in pulling fire alarms in public places, running across busy streets, or other activities with potentially harmful consequences. Shaping tolerance with accepting “no” can be a vital safety skill while also promoting alternative or replacement activities that can lead to safer and more naturally reinforcing consequences.
  • Am I using the least intrusive prompts possible? If I can effectively teach a skill using modeling or gesture prompts, I would prefer to minimize any potential trauma associated with more intrusive physical prompts.
  • Does my client have choice-making opportunities built into their day? Can they choose their work station or the order of their programming? Can they respond to choices of appropriate break structures such as, “Would you want to have snack at 10:30 or 11:00 today?” Can they choose the time length of their preferred breaks (“How about 5 or 10 minutes on your video?”). Not only does embedding choices promote autonomy and self-advocacy skills, but it also proactively reduces the risk of behaviors that may cause harm to self or others or disrupt learning environments (e.g., aggression, disruptions) that stem from feelings of a lack of control. Check out this free training video on how to artfully incorporate choice into your instructional sessions.

By no means is this an exhaustive list of trauma-informed ABA components! These are merely questions I try to reflect on in the hopes of building relationships, cultivating joy, reducing potential trauma, and teaching adaptive skills. More specific assessment tools, goals and objectives, teaching protocols and data sheets geared around teaching adaptive behavior skills can be found here.

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Where can I find additional resources about trauma-informed ABA?

Since I am by no means an expert in this area, I have compiled a list of additional resources should you want to further research.

Conclusion

Trauma-informed ABA is an evolving movement in the current field of behavior analysis. Core principles include acknowledging clients’ past trauma (known or assumed) and the impact it has had on them, cultivating a safe and warm atmosphere and relationship, promoting choice and autonomy, as well as teaching adaptive and meaningful skills.

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