Why is goal setting important in ABA therapy? A key reason is to help the client learn how to achieve an acceptable, realistic level of self-sufficiency in their lives. This can mean working toward accessible and challenging goals, such as:
- Daily living skills, covering time management, toileting and hygiene, and feeding themselves.
- Developing (or establishing) expressive communication, such as learning to vocally speak, using complex language, and improving conversational skills (greeting others, asking for help, making requests).
- Receptive language skills, such as following directions and identifying items and stimuli when requested.
- Social skills, such as sharing, engaging in peer activities, waiting for their turn, and establishing assertive (not passive or aggressive) behavior.
- Community skills, such as covering answering questions from strangers, shopping for groceries, ordering at a restaurant, moving safely through public spaces, and recognizing threats and signs of danger.
None of these skills can be introduced, taught, or developed without framing them as goals to strive for and then creating plans to achieve those goals.
In order to conceptualize these skills as goals, parents and therapists should look at the developmental standards and milestones for neurotypical children of the same age. This can also work if the parents of an autistic child have other children who are neurotypical. In either case, it is important to review the development of neurotypical children without judgment against the neurodiverse child.
The way to approach this is to think about how many words the child should know at that point of their development. Other questions to ask include:
- Are they able to imitate others?
- Have they learned motor actions?
- Can they perform daily activities, such as washing their hands?
- Are they distressed by soiled clothing, which would suggest that they’re ready for toilet training?
As an example: By age 3, most children are capable of standing on a stepstool and turning on a faucet (even if they need some assistance). When parents and caregivers know where children “should be” as a point of reference to where the children are (To what degree is the child able to ascend the stepstool and operate the faucet?), the adults can make the evaluation as to how far the neurodivergent child is from those goals, and what is required to help the child get to that point.
Realistic Goals in ABA Therapy & the Bigger Picture
An important way of making your child part of the goal-setting process is to set realistic, achievable goals. Setting the goal of talking like a typical kindergartener for a nonverbal child is not realistic and can alienate your child from the process. An ABA therapist might choose instead to work on setting and celebrating smaller goals, starting with things like nonverbal communication, social interaction, and mimicry. Once your child has met (or improved on) these goals (among others), the conversation about verbalizations can begin. It will be easier for your child to feel like they are part of the journey.
Another thing that helps to make your child part of the process for their goals is to focus on the bigger picture. This is because the day-to-day work can be exhausting, occasionally even disillusioning. Some families struggle to see past the next week, let alone thinking about the years-long journey ahead of them.
However, for your child’s development, it is vital to put all frustrations into the context of building for the future. It is essential to remind your child of that, even as they struggle. Your child may not understand that — even neurotypical children have difficulty thinking of the long-term future — but it is important nonetheless to continue to remind them of what they are working toward.
Showing your child how to create foundational skills in the present is crucial. Similar to setting realistic goals, aiming for school preparation skills (such as knowing when to raise their hand, how to work with a classmate, etc.) is important if the board-certified behavioral analysis (BCBA) believes that the child is ready to be integrated into a typical classroom.
But if the child has more significant challenges (such as exhibiting aggressive behavior or making transitions), then the focus should be on the foundational skills, such as creating positive associations or clearly communicating any distress they might be experiencing.
Even if it means going over the basics again (however many times is necessary), the goal is to keep on building your child’s progression for the longer-term goals.
At all points of the process, your child will feel like they are being worked with, not worked on. This is vital in helping them feel like they have some investment in their development and goal setting.
An extension of that is working with the specific family culture. Your child and your family are different from every other family with a neurodiverse child. Developing a unique treatment and intervention plan takes your child’s needs, whatever they are, into constant consideration for their therapy and learning. ABA therapists look at socially significant skills to do this.
For example, in India, Japan, and China, families traditionally sit on the floor during mealtimes. In regions of Central and Southern Africa, eating with the fingers is more commonplace than using utensils. Socially significant skill-teaching works with the specific family culture to help a neurodiverse child understand how to properly wipe their hands and mouths, how to share food, and how to be a part of the family practice of mealtimes.
Trying to teach a child with autism how to use forks and knives while sitting at a table, when this is not the common practice they would see in their own home, is not only confusing for the child, but it would be culturally inappropriate for the ABA therapist to attempt. The more the child can see their parents and caregivers model the desired behavior, the more they will feel that they are an equal and equitable part of the intervention, and the more their own behavior will develop along those lines.
Building Short- & Long-Term Goals
Something that the BCBA should communicate to the parents as well as the child is that the short-term goals may seem incremental. It might not feel like there is any forward movement, but they should emphasize that every part of the treatment process is meant to build toward a bigger goal. Do not discount the foundational importance of the smaller steps. It might take repeatedly reminding your child of this to help them with their persistence and patience.
In the short term, it is important to consider what day-to-day skills your child is not doing that they (and the family as a whole) could start to do, which would benefit them. Such skills could be dressing and feeding themselves. Other skills could be chores that neurotypical 3-year-olds can do around the house. The idea is to create a set of quick goals that can be easily taught and transferred to a home environment to increase the child’s independence.
This has the added benefit of making things a little easier for the parents. Universal reinforcement helps everyone.
For long-term goals, consider what the future and the desired results are. For example, if your child is 3 years old, what would you like to see them realistically do when they are 5 years old? This can be anything from learning how to sit at a desk, follow directions, or stand in line.
All of these plans put together could start with creating a profile of your child, identifying the most problematic behaviors, and the most desired goals. The interventions could be gamified and practiced at home before being deployed in public settings. Positive behavior can be reinforced, and connections between the intervention, the task, and the outcome can be reiterated.
Examples of Goals to Address in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). (October 2019). Psych Central.
Celebrating Neurodiversity in the Classroom. (September 2020). The Atlantic.
Language Development Milestones: Ages 1 to 4. (November 2018). Parents.
Executive Functions and Adaptive Behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorders With and Without Intellectual Disability. (January 2014). Psychiatry Journal.
My Future Self: Young Children’s Ability to Anticipate and Explain Future States. (July 2005). Cognitive Development.
In Search of Culturally Appropriate Autism Interventions: Perspectives of Latino Caregivers. (May 2018). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Are Parents Identifying Positive Aspects to Parenting Their Child With an Intellectual Disability or Are They Just Coping? A Qualitative Exploration. (February 2017). Journal of Intellectual Disabilities.