In the diverse educational and career background that I have, I have always been most drawn toward early childhood, specifically the ages of zero to nine years old. As I have observed and worked with young children in various capacities, I have noticed and learned a few important things. These early childhood experiences are no less important in a child with autism as they are in a child with no diagnosis at all (a typically developing child).

When providing applied behavior analysis (ABA) to young children, remember the importance of the following points.

  1. Young kids need to move.

It is necessary to allow young children to be physically active. Young kids aren’t meant to sit still for an extended period of time. Even if we, as behavior analysts, CAN teach a three year old to sit at a desk for 45 minutes, doesn’t mean we should. Other kids might seem like they can sit for long periods of time but this might only be when they are engaged with an electronic device. Other children, particulary kids with autism, might have some kinds of self-stimulatory behaviors that make them remain still for awhile, but this still should not be a reason to down-play the importance of movement.

2. Young kids are in the beginning stages of learning functional communication.

It should be noted that young kids are transitioning from a phase in which they HAD to cry or whine in order to survive. Babies and young toddlers have to display these types of behaviors in order to get their basic needs met, like food, sleep, and keeping a clean diaper. Of course, there are parents out there who may attend to these needs without their baby or toddler having to cry about it which is good but it is totally natural for babies and toddlers to have to communicate in this way to ensure their own survival. In the behavior analysis field, it seems that it is also frowned upon to cry or tantrum for attention, but babies and toddlers must do this, as well.

Of course, the job of a behavior analyst involves teaching the functional communication skills that will replace the crying and whining, but it is still a good idea to remember that young kids HAD to do this prior to developing their functional communication skills.

Additionally, when young kids experience caregivers who are appropriately responsive to their behaviors and appropriately provide for their needs and wants, they develop healthy attachments (a word that isn’t often present in the behavior analysis field). With healthy attachments comes better social skills, communication skills, better self-management techniques, more relaxed physical states, and more.

3. Young kids don’t need electronics.

Our American culture is giving electronic devices to kids at younger and younger ages. Our kids (with diagnoses or not) are being consumed by the use of electronics. Electronic use is not horrible, but electronics must be used in moderation and with good purpose.

Young kids should only have very little use of electronic devices. Without using electronic devices frequently in an ABA program or even at home, young children will have the chance to engage with others socially, to have more learning opportunities for how to initiate and respond to social situations. In ABA, we focus on offering the most learning opportunities needed to practice and master a skill. Electronics blocks a child’s chance to even encounter so many learning opportunities because they are captivated by the device.

Thanks for reading. Remember, kids with autism are still kids. And young kids have different developmental needs than older kids. ABA providers should keep in mind what is age appropriate and what should or should not be expected of any child. Even if it is possible to teach that child to engage in a specific behavior, it may not be ethically appropriate to do so.

image credit: Andres Rodriguez via Fotalia