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fine2Recently I had lunch with my friend Jess. It was good to see her, as always. Jess and I have known each other for years. We worked together at a clinical center that specialized in autism. Maybe because she was a parent of a child with autism as well as a professional in the field, Jess was a top-notch clinician with that magical, unteachable ability to connect with kids and parents alike.

It should come as a shock to you that the reason for our hastily arranged lunch date was that Jess needed someone to commiserate with.

She’d just been fired.

That’s right. One of the best clinicians I knew, loved by families and respected by other professionals, had lost her job. What was her fireable offense? She had suggested to a family that they try meditation for their teenage child with Asperger’s who was suffering from anxiety.

ABA is Evidenced-Based
We’ve got a problem in the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) community. It is so exciting to be recognized as a valid, legitimate, and even–in some places — medically-necessary treatment that we jealously guard our evidence-based status. But just because ABA is evidence-based doesn’t mean that there aren’t other, equally valid, helpful, and, yes, evidence-based therapeutic practices that might help your child as well. We are doing ourselves a disservice in the ABA community if we refuse to acknowledge that ABA is one of many valid approaches, and that other modalities of treatment can help our kids in reaching their full potential. That IS the ultimate goal here, right?

Options in Addition to ABA
Refusing to consider other treatment approaches that might help a child who is benefitting from ABA therapy is as counter-productive as saying that for a healthy heart you either need to eat right or exercise, but not both. So in honour of Jess–who I’m happy to report that since I wrote this article has been snatched up by one the most reputable large-scale autism agencies to work as an ABA consultant–here are five therapies to consider that might enhance your child’s learning, well-being, or life skills.

  1. Sensory Intervention. When I started in the field, sensory intervention was viewed as one step above witchcraft. I am so pleased to see that over the last 15 or so years, it has been widely accepted by the mainstream. There are plenty of articles on it, including some excellent ones right here on Special-Ism. We increasingly understand that everyone’s sensory system works a little differently from one from the next—whether they’re on the hypersensitive end or the hyposensitive end of things. And individuals with autism just tend to be a little bit more extreme than their neurotypical peers, which why so many benefit from sensory-based strategies.
  1. Meditation. In honour of Jess, let’s talk meditation. Yes, there’s evidence that it is beneficial for individuals with autism (Singh, Nirbhay). But you know what? That really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, given the overwhelming evidence showing that in terms of mental health, meditation is just about the closest thing to a magic bullet that we have (Whitelocks, Sadie). The evidence basically says we should all be meditating — neurotypical or otherwise (Nauert PhD, Rick).
  2. Music Therapy. The evidence in support of the effectiveness of music therapy with individuals with autism is emerging at best (Science Daily). But there is a mountain of evidence on the benefits of music for the brain in general (Science Daily, 2006) and the developing brain in particular (Bilhartz, Terry D.). We’ve all heard of pregnant women playing Mozart to their unborn babies, and there’s no reason to think that music is any less beneficial once you’re actually, you know, born. Music is good for cognitive functioning at every age and stage of development; my uncle, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, no longer recognizes his children, but can still remember the words to the songs of his childhood. Long after he lost the ability to use the toilet independently, he could still play his guitar. Plus, music and dance are a real universal human instinct that is expressed in every culture. So who knows? Music therapy might just end up being your child’s favourite reinforcer (Blood, Anne J.)!
  1. Physical Activity. Although not strictly a therapeutic practice, this one falls into the category of so-good-everyone-should-be-doing-it. Exercise is good for your brain (Posit Science), your physical health, and your mental health (Mayo Clinic Staff). Your typically developing child should be exercising, and so should your child with autism—more than you think! I’m not going link-crazy in this section, because I think we’re all aware of the importance of physical activity—but it still bears repeating. One caveat: research seems to show that individuals with autism, unsurprisingly, benefit more from individual rather than group-oriented fitness activities (Sowa, Michelle).
  2. Recreation Therapy. Here’s why this makes this list: after high school, many individuals with autism just…disappear from their communities. Don’t enter the workforce. Don’t enroll in post-secondary. Don’t start doing volunteer work. This isn’t good for the individual, or for the rest of our society–we all lose out on the unique gifts of the spectrum when an individual fails to integrate into the community. Recreation therapy helps a person build up a repertoire of enjoyable leisure skills, and that keeps the individual connected to the community. That is important at any stage of life.

What do you think? Is there anything I left off the list? What do you consider the most important practices that enhance your ABA program? Let me know in the comments!!


Bilhartz, Terry D.; Bruhn, Rick A.; & Olson, Judith E. The Effect of Early Music Training on Child Cognitive Development. Science Direct. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Volume 20, Issue 4, December 1999, Pages 615–636.

Blood, Anne J. & Zatorre, Robert J. Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 25 September 2001; 98(20): 11818–11823.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Exercise: 7 benefits of regular physical activity. Mayo Clinic, 13 July 2013

Nauert PhD, Rick. Even Brief Meditation Can Improve Student Performance. Psych Central. 10 April 2013.

Posit Science. Physical Exercise for Brain Health.

Science Daily. First Evidence That Musical Training Affects Brain Development In Young Children. 20 September 2006.

Science Daily. Music Therapy Improves Behavior in Children With Autism, Study Suggests. 19 February 2013.

Singh, Nirbhay. Adolescents with Asperger syndrome can use a mindfulness-based strategy to control their aggressive behavior. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 5 (2011) 1103–1109, 1 February 2011.

Sowa, Michelle & Meulenbroek, Ruud. Effects of physical exercise on Autism Spectrum Disorders: A meta-analysis. Science Direct. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Volume 6, Issue 1, January–March 2012, Pages 46–5.

Whitelocks, Sadie. Meditation really is good for the brain as study reveals it switches off areas linked to ADHD and Alzheimer’s. Mail Online. 21 November, 2011.