When treating children with autism, developmetal disabilities and other emotional behavioral disorders, ABA therapy has proven successful in helping them learn behaviors that can lead to safer and more fulfilling lives. Gains are most likely to happen when the child’s therapists and family work as a team.

It’s not just parent involvement that can enhance a child’s progress. Siblings and other family members, such as grandparents, with regular contact and interactions with the child, can also provide opportunities for growth outside of regular therapy sessions.

ABA therapy can include all friends and family members in the child’s life. Sibling play is often a skill that must be discretely taught to children with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities.

Of course, societal and familial barriers exist to family members being directly involved in a child’s ABA therapy. For example, a sibling may feel embarrassed around their peers or may not know how to explain their sibling’s disability. A parent may not feel like there are not enough hours in the day to focus on work, responsibilities, paying the bills, caring for all the children, and the demands of raising a child with a disability. Grandparents may feel ill-equipped to aid a child’s therapy at home, or to take their grandchild with high support needs in public.

There are ways in which incorporating family involvement in their child’s therapy can overcome those barriers while also providing the necessary avenues for success the child will need outside of treatment.

First, families should find a provider that can meet their family’s needs and is a good match to their lifestyle. It’s important to ask questions to make sure that the therapeutic relationship is functional. Upon choosing a provider, parents might ask questions like:

  • What are your priorities for your in-home clients?

  • What does a typical therapy session look like?

  • What does your training process look like for in-home therapists?

  • How do you choose the staff members that will be in my home?

  • What does your parent/caregiver collaboration and training model look like?

  • How do you incorporate sibling play and relationships into therapy?

  • How do you ensure there are open lines of communication in therapy?

Parents trained on ABA techniques reported lower levels of stress and higher satisfaction levels compared to other early intervention programs (Dillenburger, Keenan, Dohtery, Gallagher, & McElhinney 2002).

When it comes to specific interventions, your child’s therapist can help you find ways to best support your child’s language and learning development. One of our favorite principles that we share in the beginning of parent collaboration is by Dr. Greg Latham – “Stay close to your child.” In his book, The Power of Positive Parenting, Dr. Latham talks about being intentional about finding time to just “being” with your child. This is making sure you aren’t supervising, leading conversations, correcting, judging, advising, or reasoning with your child- you are simply following their lead. As a parent, your instinct is always to do those things – but one of the greatest ways to build a strong foundation for behavior change is to give them time to lead the way.

Set aside time that you are going to let them lead the way. During this time, you won’t look at your phone, multi-task, or talk to other adults. Even 5-10 minutes of this per day is sufficient! For older children, or children with language, this might look like talking about what they want to talk about – even if it’s the same topic for 30 minutes. Remember, you are a participant, not a leader! If behavior needs to be redirected, you might change the subject and not acknowledge it if possible.

For younger children, or children who are learning language and foundational skills, this might look like following their lead in play. We often say “sit there, and wait for your invite.” Sometimes, all they need is for you to watch them play! Maybe they want you to repeat everything they say, or be the red power ranger, or start the video over 10 times. Remember, you aren’t asking questions or coming up with ideas, it’s their lead right now! It’s okay if they never invite you. Simply being present while they do their thing is just as important. This will make a difference with children with disabilities and their siblings.

Autism Speaks, an advocacy group for individuals with autism, has a very helpful guide for grandparents. In it, they discuss the advantages of having grandparents’ involvement in their grandchild’s progress and how grandparents can feel more comfortable in their role. Some suggestions include changing what they can and letting go of the rest, making memories and savoring the moments, and learning to love the quirks of their grandchild’s behaviors.

It is important to find a provider who will recognize your family’s strengths and needs while building programming around your family norms. You should be able to be open and honest with your provider, and feel like therapy is an open place for communication and collaboration.