Written by Sudha Ramaswamy, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA
What is an ABA Skills Assessment?
An Applied Behavior Analysis Skills (ABA) Assessment is an extremely useful tool in accurately pinpointing the appropriate number of ABA hours (both compensatory and future), the clinically applicable makeup of these hours (direct therapy, therapeutic location, parent training, treatment planning, supervision, etc.), as well as providing a road-map to treatment planning and goal formulation. These assessments measure skills across a wide range of domains-from language, motor imitation, independent play, social and social play, visual perceptual and matching-to-sample, linguistic structure, to group and classroom skills, and early academics, and are most commonly used to assess individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental disabilities. These Assessments are not designed to diagnose but rather play a critical role in determining the makeup of ABA support that will provide the best starting off point to make a child whole.
An ABA Skills Assessment conducted as an Independent Evaluation will assess whether a child is progressing in the school district’s program with existing variables in place(e.g., instructional practices, student to staff ratio, staff development opportunities). If progress is not being seen through this evaluation, then changes to the child’s educational program must be contemplated and effectuated. Popular assessments utilized in ABA Skills Assessments include The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS), the Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP), and the Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS) . Although there is no specific licensure required to administer an ABA Skills Assessment, there are several necessary prerequisite skills to conduct the assessment: 1) a comprehensive understanding of Skinner’s (1957) analysis of verbal behavior, 2) knowledge in basic behavior analysis, 3) familiarity with basic linguistic structure; 4) familiarity with the linguistic development of typically developing children, 5) and, have a thorough understanding of autism and other types of developmental disabilities. ABA evaluators typically have master’s or doctoral degree in education, behavior analysis or psychology with a BCBA credential. Typically, the ABA Skills Assessment involves approximately 20 hours of direct testing, observation, interviewing and writing.
What is a Neuropsychological Assessment?
The goal of a neuropsychological evaluation is to comprehensively assess and identify strengths and weaknesses across multiple areas. The evaluation measures such areas as attention, problem solving, memory, language, I.Q., visual-spatial skills, academic skills, and social-emotional functioning. Some children referred for an evaluation may already have a known learning disorder or other diagnosis. Other children may be referred because of a concern or question. The results of a neuropsychological evaluation can help clarify diagnoses related to a range of learning and psychological concerns and develop specific recommendations to address a child’s needs at home and at school. Recommendations for particular therapies and methods as they relate to specific diagnoses stemming from the neuropsychological assessment can also be made. The results and diagnostic conceptualization of a problem—or multiple problem areas—can also assist parents in better understanding their child’s strengths and weaknesses and address related concerns in the home setting. Neuropsychological assessments are administered by neuropsychologists who possess a doctoral degree in psychology, and advanced training in neuropsychology.
What are the similarities and differences between a Neuropsychological Assessment and ABA Skills Assessment?
The goals of the two types of assessments vary. The goal of a neuropsychological evaluation is to assess and identify strengths and weaknesses across multiple areas: intellectual level, language skills, nonverbal or visual skills, memory, attention, organization, judgment, planning, efficiency, academic skills and social/emotional functioning. Neuropsychologists examine how a child’s intellectual ability, learning style, and personality traits interact to affect overall development. A neuropsychological evaluation can help clarify diagnoses related to a range of learning and psychological concerns and develop specific recommendations to address a child’s needs at home and at school. A neuropsychological evaluation will include information about the child’s weaknesses and strengths as a learner and practical recommendations for interventions at school and home will also be offered.
The goal of the ABA Skills Assessment is to provide a representative sample of a child’s existing verbal and related skills repertoire. The assessment contains measurable learning and language milestones that are sequenced and balanced across developmental levels. The skills assessed include mand (requests), tact (labels), echoic (imitation), intraverbal (conversational skills), listener (instruction following), motor imitation (copying), independent play, social and social play, visual perceptual and matching-to-sample, linguistic structure, group and classroom skills, and academics. The ABA Skills Assessment measures specific skills which constitute a designated curriculum. The skills measured are quantifiable and measurable and can be used to document baseline and skill acquisition. The results of the assessment are used to establish priorities and the most effective intervention program. For example, once a child reaches a specific milestone, what’s next? The focus is on establishing a balance among all the skills, establishing their functional use in the natural environment, promoting generative and spontaneous usage of the skills, and verbal and social integration with other children. In addition, a variety of potential IEP goals are presented for each skill area, at each developmental level.
The results of both types of assessments can provide helpful insight into the type of methodology that would best fit the child’s needs and provide professionals, teachers, attorneys and parents or guardians a way to better understand why a child may be having difficulty in specific areas. The evaluations can also provide recommendations for the types of interventions or treatments that may be effective and appropriate, given the child’s specific set of strengths and weaknesses.
How is an ABA Skills Assessment different from a FBA/BIP?
ABA Skills Assessments test overall language level and functioning whereas a Functional Behavior Assessment examines problem behavior(s). A FBA is a process that identifies problem behavior(s), the purpose of the behavior and what factors maintain the behavior that is interfering with the child’s progress. In school, a FBA can be utilized to identify the extent to which a behavior is interfering in educational progress. During a FBA, the behavior analyst conducts baseline observations to collect data on: 1) antecedents, or the environmental prompts leading to the behavior, 2) behavior, or the actions themselves resulting from the antecedents and consequences, the outcome of the behavior that tends to reinforce it. Together, these ”ABCs” of ABA provide the information required to intervene in behavioral problems. An important part of their assessment will start with reviewing previous case history and discussing the child’s behavior with other medical professionals, teachers, family, and caregivers. If previous interventions have occurred, the behavior analyst will study them to gauge their effectiveness and glean any clues from the outcomes.
Hypotheses of the function of behavior based on the FBA then leads to intervention. A behavior analyst will then determine what the child is trying to accomplish through the problem behaviors. Is the child seeking attention? Escape? Sensory stimulation? All the various possible motivations must be analyzed and examined to determine a plan of action that can alter the behavior. If a child yells in class frequently because they are trying to get attention, it requires a different approach than if they are yelling because the work is too challenging. When the functional consequences of the behaviors are understood adequately, the necessary interventions often become obvious, which are then documented in the Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).
Case Study Example of the Effective Use of an ABA Skills Assessment as an Independent Evaluation
A family argued that their child with autism did not make measurable progress on his IEP goals and that the school failed to address his worsening behavior problems. The parents advocated for an Independent Educational Evaluation that involved an ABA Skills Assessment and Neuropsychological Assessment.
The ABA Skills Assessment revealed:
- Deficits in all of the skill areas tested.
- IEP goals were not appropriate for the deficit areas found on the ABA Skills Assessment.
- Instruction in the classroom did not teach to those specific deficits evidenced through the assessment.
- Evidence-based educational practices were not being utilized in the classroom.
- The staff-student ratio in the classroom did not support the needs of the child.
The Neuropsychological revealed:
- Strengths in visual reasoning and visual-spatial/visual-constructional skills
- Strong rote memory
- Weaknesses in language processing and expression
- Attention and executive functioning challenges
- Reading and writing delays
- Difficulties with self-regulation and social pragmatics
The results of the ABA Skills Assessment were utilized to assess the appropriateness of the child’s IEP goals as they relate to the specific curriculum-based skills tested on the ABA Skills Assessment. The ABA Skills Assessment was also able to offer a comparison of the child’s specific skills with the instruction he was receiving in the classroom and give the evaluator an opportunity to comment on the methods that would best meet the needs of a child with autism.
The results of the Neuropsychological Assessment were utilized to present the child’s overall levels of functioning and how the child’s placement affects the child’s responding. The neuropsychologist was able to observe functioning in the classroom in the following areas: behavioral response to teachers and peers, social interactions with peers, ability to work independently when expected, compliance with adult directives, ability to sustain attention with tasks, and any withdrawal or anxiety in the classroom.
When working with the family of a child with ASD, there is no better tool in determining educational methodology, duration, intensity and frequency of support. ABA is the gold standard intervention for students with ASD, and therefore must be considered in all cases in which ASD is the primary diagnosis. A licensed behavior analyst (LBA) has achieved the highest level of education available in the field of ABA and through an ABA Skills Assessment, is able to accurately pinpoint both compensatory and future ABA support, including the provision of parent training, location of service, and treatment planning hours.