What Does a Typical ABA Session Look Like?

This question is impossible to answer. Frustrating, I know. Every child is different, with their own strengths and challenges. And every child has different goals. That’s why this is such a difficult question to answer. But I will detail actual ABA sessions that I ran for 2 different clients below. (Names have obviously been changed.)

Brian

All about Brian-

He was 3 years old and spoke very few words: Cracker, Up, Open, All done, Bunny, Swing, Tickle—These were all words he would use to ask for things he wanted. Usually preceded by the words, “I want”. He was very hyper and enjoyed running around and climbing on things. Brian loved letters and numbers. He could actually spell and read some words, but usually he just liked lining them up and saying them, in order.

Goals: Eye contact, greeting people, playing in a functional way (the way kids his age generally play), using more words, sharing, sitting at circle time, imitating, matching items, and reducing some problem behaviors. Brian was aggressive, and would drop to the floor in a tantrum or cry many times throughout the day.

Preschool Setting

9am:

  • I entered the classroom and saw him playing on the floor with puzzle pieces (letters).
  •               Me: “Hi, Brian.”
  •               Brian: continued lining up pieces
  •               I sat next to him, blocked the pieces and said, “Hi, Brian”
  •               Brian: Looks up at me and says, “Hi.”
  •               Me: I moved my hand so he could continue playing.

 

Another kid approaches Brian and starts trying to put the puzzle together, but Brian takes the pieces and turns his body to block the child.

      • Me: “It’s time to share.” I put my hand over Brian’s and hand a puzzle piece to the other child. “Good job sharing, Brian! Where does this piece go?” The other child and I helped Brian put the puzzle together.
  •               Brian: “All done.”
      • Me: “Great. Let’s clean up.” Brian started taking the puzzle apart and we put all the pieces back into the box together. “Thanks for cleaning up. 3 minutes until circle time.” I set a timer for 3 minutes.

This is Brian’s free time. He earned it by sharing, completing the puzzle, and cleaning up. I just stayed near him to make sure he’s safe.

9:15 Circle time

Timer goes off

  •               Brian: Looks at the timer and hops and skips to the other side of the room.
  •               Me: I gently guide him to the circle with the rest of the class.

Circle time is generally 20 minutes, but Brian can only handle approximately 4 minutes before walking away. We’ve built up his tolerance to 4 minutes, and will continue to build it every session.

Class: Sings a song.

Brian doesn’t sing or show any interest in participating with the class. He is looking around at the numbers and letters on the wall.

    • Class: Greets each other one by one. They get to Brian:
    • Me: I prompt Brian to say, “Hi,” and wave.
  •        Brian: “Hi.” Waves
  •        Me: “Great job!” A pat on the back (he loved pats on the back, hugs, and tickles)

For the rest of the time we stay in circle time, I sat behind Brian on the floor, redirecting his attention to the teacher (by pointing, or guiding his head toward her, or using the object of interest (letter) by putting it between him and the teacher so he’s looking in her direction). Brian starts to get fidgety, so I whisper, “Calm body.” Brian sat still and he was immediately given the letter to play with for the rest of the time. At the 4 minute 15 second mark, I tell him, “All done with circle time.” (This is done to make sure we leave circle time before he engages in any problem behaviors. Each day we try to extend the time by a few seconds.) I hold his hand and we leave the circle and go get our materials for the rest of the session. (Materials: His program book, all items used to reach his goals such as cards for matching, and a bag of toys he can play with when he earns his free time.) We leave the classroom and go to a private room to continue the session. When we get there he immediately gets his 3 minutes of free time (he earned it by sitting in circle time and following me to the other room). I use this time to set up. I place 3 cards to face the area he’ll be sitting, and have the rest of the cards and items ready, and I have his data sheets out. The timer goes off. Brian comes and sits down in front of me.

  • Me: “Great job sitting to work!” and give him a High five. I hand him a card and say, “Match.”
  • Brian: Takes the card and looks at it, looks at the 3 cards in front of him. And then puts his card on the right one
  • Me: “Good job!” I rearrange the cards and hand him another one, “Match.
  • Brian: Same as before
  • Me: I point to a picture of a bear on the other side of the room and say, “Brian, Look.
  • Brian: Looks at the picture.
  • Me: “Great job looking!” I hand him another card, “Match.”
  • Brian: He matches again.
  • Me: “Good. Where’s your arm?”
  • Brian: Touches his arm.
  • Me: “You’re right! That’s your arm. Can you do this?” As I said that I clapped my hands.
  • Brian: Claps his hands.
  • Me: “Awesome!” I hand him another card, “Match.”
  • Brian: Matches the card
  • Me: “Good job matching. All done work. 3 minutes of play!”

 

I wrote down all the data for the programs I just ran…matching 4 items, looking at the picture, identifying his arm, and imitating me. That’s a lot of work he just did in 2 minutes! After writing the data I played with him for the rest of the 3 minutes. I let him choose the activity since it’s his free time. He started stacking blocks so I stacked some next to him. Then he said, “I want fly.” So I picked him up and made him “fly” around the room. He loved this game. When the timer went off I said, “Let’s clean up the blocks.” Brian and I cleaned up the blocks.

    •  Me: “Time to work.”
    •  Brian: Sat down in front of me.
    •  Me: I placed 5 cards in front of him. “Where’s the lion?”
    •  Brian: Picked up the lion card and handed it to me
    •  Me: “Great job! That’s a lion! Where’s the giraffe?”
    •  Brian: Gets up and walks to the chair and tries to climb on it.
    •  Me: “Brian, it’s time to work. Come sit down.”
    • Brian: Climbs on the chair.
    • Me: I picked him up off the chair and put his feet on the floor, and said, “It’s time to work.” I placed my hand on his back to guide him back to the workspace. “Where’s the giraffe?”
    • Brian: Picks up the giraffe card and hands it to me.
    • Me: “That’s right! Touch your nose.”
    • Brian: Touches his nose
    • Me: “Good! That’s your nose! Can you stomp your feet?”
    • Brian: Stomps his feet. “I want bunny.”                                   
    • Me: “First work, then bunny. Where’s the elephant?”
    • Brian: Picks up the elephant card and hands it to me.
    • Me: “Awesome! Copy me.” I knocked on the table at the same time.
    • Brian: Knocked on the table.
    • Me: “Good job. All done work. Here’s the bunny.” I handed him the bunny toy he wanted to play with and set the timer for 3 minutes.

I wrote down the data and then joined him for play time. “Can you make the bunny hop?” He didn’t, so I helped him by moving his hand while he held the bunny and said, “Hop, hop, hop.” Then I let him continue to play because it’s his free time so I don’t want to make it too much work for him. When the timer went off he put the bunny down and sat in front of me.

  • Me: “Thank you for sitting down! Let’s do this puzzle.” I put out a number puzzle, with just numbers 1 through 10. I hid the 5 behind me, and he started to put the pieces in. He does it in order. When he got to 5 he looked around and didn’t see it so he started moving things to try to find it.
  • Me: “What do you want?”
  • Brian: “I want 5.”
  • Me: I handed him the 5, and he continued with the puzzle. Then to try to get him to make eye contact I said, “Brian.”
  • Brian: Looks at me.
  • Me: “Good job looking! Where does 9 go?”
  • Brian: Finished the puzzle and then cleaned it up by himself, without prompting.
  • Me: “Thanks for cleaning up. Play time.” I set the timer for 3 minutes.

I wrote down my data and we played with the bunny again. Then Brian said, “I want tickle.” So I tickled his belly and he laughed and then said, “I want fly.” So I made him fly again. The timer went off and I said, “Time for snack.” He walked to the door and I took his hand so we could join his class for snack.

9:45 Snack

Brian leads me to his cubby where his snacks are and says, “I want crackers.” So I take the crackers out of the container and tell him, “First sit at the table, then crackers.” Brian screams, cries, drops to the floor, and starts kicking his legs.

I say nothing and look away for 30 seconds and then, “First sit at the table, then crackers,” without making eye contact with him. He continues his tantrum for another 40 seconds and then gets up and walks to the table. I say, “Thank you for sitting with your friends,” and hand him the crackers. I sit in a chair behind him, close enough to block him in case he tries to run off, but still giving him his own space to have snack with his friends. He tried to get up a few times, but I blocked his path and he sat back down. The kids get 15 minutes for snack, but Brian can only sit at the table for about 10 minutes. He is required to eat his snack, say “All done,” and throw his trash away before he can get free time. He has learned this over many sessions and that is exactly what he does. Recess follows snack so he plays with the classroom toys until its time for recess. I used this time to help him with his play skills.

Brian walked to the train set, picked up the train and started spinning the wheels. I guide his hand to the track and we push the train on it. He pushes it a little more and then walks away. Then he finds a book and starts flapping it open and closed, so I have him sit down with me and we look at the pages. I ask him to find the bird, the sun, the tree, and the dog. He points to all of these and then says, “All done.”

  • Me: “Put the book on the shelf.”
  • Brian: Puts the book away.
  • Me: “Good listening!”
  • Brian: Finds letters on the table and starts putting them in order.
  • Me: (Trying to get eye contact again) “Brian.”
  • Brian: Continues playing.
  • Me: I put my hand over the letters. “Brian.”
  • Brian: Looks at me.
  • Me: “Good job looking.” And I move my hand so he can continue playing.

10:00 Recess

Class is instructed to line up for recess.

  •               Me: “Brian, it’s time to line up for recess.”
  •               Brian: Ignores me and continues with his letters
  •  Me: “All done letters. Time to line up.” I put my hand over the letters.
  • Brian: Starts to cry.
  • Me: I pushed the letters away and positioned myself to prevent him from accessing the letters.
  • Brian: Hits me and pushes me.
  • Me: “Time to line up”
  • Brian: Continues to cry while he walks to the line.
  • Me: “Good job lining up.”

We follow the class outside and Brian runs toward the swings. I stay about 10 feet away from him so he will have to find me to ask for help. After staring at the swing for about 30 seconds, he says, “I want swing,” but I’m still 10 feet away so I ignore him. 20 seconds later he walks to me and grabs my arm to try to pull me.

  •               Me: “What do you want?”
  •               Brian: “I want swing.”
  •               Me: “Good job asking! Can you touch your nose?” (He does) “Where’s your belly?” (He touches his belly) “Do this.” I clapped my hands. (He claps.) “Great work!” I picked him up and put him in the swing.
  •               Brian: “Push.” (I did)

A classmate walks by and says, “Hi, Brian.” Brian doesn’t respond so I prompted him by guiding his head toward the classmate and saying, “Hi.” Brian looks at her and says, “Hi.” She asks me if she can push him in the swing, so I tell Brian, “Your friend wants to push you.” Then she continued pushing for a few minutes until he said, “All done.”

  •               Me: I prompted him by saying, “All done. I want up.”
  •               Brian: “All done. I want up.”
  •               Me: “Thank you for telling me!” And picked him and helped him to the ground.

Brian ran toward the play structure to climb. I followed to be able to help him interact with his peers and help if he needs it. I had to prompt him to say hi to 3 more of his peers. He wanted to go down the slide, but kids were waiting. He tried to push past them.

  •               Me: “Wait for your turn. Katie’s turn, Mike’s turn, then your turn.”
  •               Brian: Starts fidgeting.
  •               Me: “You’re doing a good job waiting. It’s almost your turn. Let’s count. 1, 2..”
  •               Brian: “3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10”
  •               Me: “Its your turn!”
  •               Brian: Goes down the slide. Then runs around to climb up the stairs again.

We do the wait and count again. This time he just runs around the playground after going down the slide. I let him have this time to run around until 3 minutes before recess is over. Then I let him know, “3 more minutes,” and show him the timer. Back to running. I position myself very near him right before the timer sounds so I can block him if he doesn’t line up at the tone. The timer goes off and he tries to run away, but I blocked him and guided him to line up with his class. When we got back inside the teacher changed his diaper (he’s not ready for toilet training yet). Then I tell him, “It’s time to work,” and we go to the private room.

This goes the same as before, with the work trials lasting about 1 to 2 minutes, with 3 minutes of play in between. At 11, it’s time for him to go back to his classroom, and a new therapist takes over.

Lucas

All about Lucas-

Lucas is 9 years old. He is very intelligent and high functioning. He loves everything about dinosaurs. The amount of knowledge he has about dinosaurs is impressive! He enjoys doing crafts, reading books (especially about dinosaurs), playing with toys, using his iPad, and walking around outside.

Goals: Eye contact, conversational skills, accepting changes in routine, accepting loss when playing games, manners, and reducing some dangerous behaviors. He was aggressive and engaged in tantrums which usually meant screaming, laying down and kicking things, throwing items around the house or at people, and occasionally he would run out of the house and hide.

Home Session

4-6pm

Lucas was usually on his iPad when I arrived because that was his routine: Get home from school and play on his iPad. So I come in and find him on the couch on his iPad: “Hi Lucas.”

  •               Lucas: “Hi.”
  •               Me: “Are you ready to start?”
  •               Lucas: “Can I have 5 more minutes?”
  •               Me: Prompting him to say please: “Pl…”
  •               Lucas: “Please.”
  •               Me: “Sure. I’ll talk to your mom. Come into the kitchen when you hear the timer please.”

I would talk to his mom to see how his week was going and we were discussing some goals she was working on to do ABA strategies throughout the week. The timer went off, but Lucas didn’t come in the kitchen. I went into the living room and said, “Lucas, it’s time to set up your schedule.” He reluctantly got up and followed me to the kitchen (while mom hid the iPad).

We set up his schedule using some cards that we had made in a previous session. I gave him 2 choices and he picked activities until the schedule was complete. This included reading a book, doing homework, playing games, eating dinner, crafts, his choice, my choice, and mom’s choice.

 

Today his schedule looked like this:

  • Playing games
  • Reading a book
  • Homework
  • Dinner
  • My choice
  • Craft
  • Mom’s choice

Once the schedule was set we went over his rules and a social story. The rules were that he had to keep his hands to himself, use nice language, and follow directions. The social story explained that it was ok to get angry and upset. And it went over strategies to use when he gets angry, such as asking for a break. Anytime Lucas said, “I want a break,” we set the timer for 2 minutes and he was able to sit on the couch free from any work or play. He earned tokens for any “good” behaviors and once he got 10 tokens he earned 5 minutes of free time. This turned into 10 minutes if he was free of any problem behaviors during that timeframe.

Game: Trouble

We played Trouble often because it was really helpful with his coping skills. If he sent me back home, I would model the appropriate way to handle that (Oh, that stinks. Oh well. Back to the beginning. That’s Ok.) Then if I sent him home, I would prompt him to say, “That’s ok”. Today’s game went like this: He was stuck in home for about 7 turns and he was getting a little agitated because one of my pieces was halfway around the board. But he finally got out without any problem behaviors so I told him he was doing a great job by staying calm. We continued playing and he was doing really well. It was clear that he was getting a little frustrated, but he wasn’t acting on it, so I kept praising him for taking deep breaths and staying calm. He had earned 6 tokens. But, I was about to win the game and he got extremely upset. He picked up the board and threw it across the room, and the pieces went everywhere. He yelled, “It’s not fair. I want to win!”

    • Me: “You need to clean up the game.
    • Lucas: “No!”
    • Me: I waited 2 minutes, and then said, “Clean up the game, and then we can check the schedule.”
    • Lucas: Ignored me and sat still. He tried to get a dinosaur book.
    • Me: I moved the book and told him he had to continue with his schedule to earn tokens to get his book.
    • Lucas: Grunted and sat still for 2 more minutes. Then he picked up the game pieces and put everything away.
    • Me: “Let’s go check the schedule.

We checked the schedule, removed the “playing games” card and found the book we have been working with. The books we read are written for his age group, so there is a lot of social content in them. Sometimes kids were breaking rules, or lying, bullying, etc. It was a great opportunity to teach some social skills. So we took turns reading 1 page each. I was able to ask things about how a character may be feeling, if a character’s behavior was appropriate, and ask what he would do in the same situation. He earned the rest of his tokens while reading.

  •               Me: “You earned 10 tokens. How much free time do you get?”
  •               Lucas: “I get 5 minutes. I can’t get my extra time because I threw the game.”
  •               Me: “Good. I’ll set the timer for 5 minutes.”

He read his dinosaur book until the timer went off. He put his book down and came over to me to check his schedule. He earned a token for immediately ending his free time and returning to work. He removed the “read a book” card and said, “It’s time for homework.” He enjoyed the easy homework, but some of his problem behaviors came out when he didn’t understand the work.

He came to a problem he didn’t like, and said “I’ll just skip this one.”

  •               Me: “You can ask for help.”
  •               Lucas: “No. I’ll skip it, the teacher doesn’t care.”
  •               Me: “You need to finish your homework to earn tokens.”
  •               Lucas: “Fine. Help me!”
  •               Me: Modeling the correct phrase and tone: “Will you help me, please?”
  •               Lucas: “Will you help me, please?”
      • Me: “Of course! Thanks for asking. Let’s look at it.” I helped him through the parts he was stuck on, and he earned 4 more tokens while doing his homework.

His mom had finished dinner by the time he was done with his homework, and she served him.

  •               Lucas: “Mom, can I have some juice please?”
  •               Mom: “Great job asking!” He earned another token and Mom gave him his juice.
  •               Lucas: Took the juice from mom.
  •               Me: Prompting him: “Tha…”
  •               Lucas: “Thank you mom” He got a token
  •               Mom: “You’re welcome.” And she kissed his cheek.

Lucas ate the rest of his dinner. He didn’t like talking or being spoken to while he was eating. When he was done eating, he tried to walk away.

  •               Me: “Where should you put your plate?”
  •               Lucas: Picked up his plate and put it in the sink. (He earned another token)
  •               Mom: “Thank you Lucas. What’s next on your schedule?”
  •               Lucas: He looked and smiled, and said, “My choice! Mom, will you play Uno with us?”
  •               Mom: “Of course.”

The 3 of us played Uno. He won pretty quickly. We played another round, and when he had to draw cards he said, “That’s ok,” and picked up cards. (Another token and praise: “Great job Lucas!”) We played, and mom won the game.

  •               Lucas: “Good game.” (Earned a token)
  •               Mom: “Thanks honey. Good game.”
  •               Lucas: “And I earned all my tokens.”
  •               Me: “Yep. What did you earn?”
  •               Lucas: “10 minutes of free time”
  •               Me: “How come?”
  •               Lucas: “I got all my tokens, and I followed all my rules.”
  •               Me: “Yep. Great work Lucas.” I set the timer.
  •               Lucas: “Mom, can I have my iPad please?”
  •               Mom: Gave him his iPad

When the timer went off Lucas gave the iPad back to his mom and checked the schedule. (Token)

  •               Lucas: “It’s time for crafts, but I don’t want to do crafts.”
  •               Me: “Ok, what do you want to do instead?”
  •               Lucas: “Nothing.”
  •               Me: “Well, that’s not a choice. We can read a book or play a game. Which one?”
  •               Lucas: “I want a break.”

Me: “Ok. 2 minutes.” I set the timer. When the timer went off I said, “How do you want to earn your tokens? Reading or game?”

  •               Lucas: “Reading.” (token)
  •               Me: “Great. Get your book.”

When he got his book and sat next to me, he got another token. We took turns reading and I asked him some more social questions. I prompted him to make eye contact while he was talking to me and answering these questions. He earned the rest of his tokens while reading.

  •               Me: “How many minutes did you earn?”
  •               Lucas: “10!”
  •               Me: “Yep! Great job! You even asked for a break when you needed it.” I set the timer.

This time, when the timer went off, Lucas ignored it.

  •               Me: “Lucas, it’s time to check your schedule.”
  •               Lucas: “When are you going home.”
  •               Me: “After we’re finished, let’s go check.”
  •               Lucas: “No. Leave.”
  •               Mom: Took the iPad and said, “Free time is up. It’s time to check your schedule.”
  •               Lucas: Screams and hit mom.
  •               Mom: Turned her back to him.
  •               Lucas: Continued punching her and yelling, “Give me my iPad.”
  •               Mom & I: Ignore this behavior and don’t make any eye contact.
  •               Lucas: “Look at me. Why won’t you look at me? Give me my iPad! Look at me!”
  •               Mom & I: Continued to ignore Lucas
  •               Lucas: Stops hitting and yelling. Sits on the floor and cries
  •               Me: After he’s calm (about 3 minutes) “Let’s check your schedule.”
  •               Lucas: “Ugh. I just want to do nothing.” Walked over to his schedule. “Mom, it’s your choice.”
  •               Mom: “I really want to do a craft with you.”
  •               Lucas: “Ok, but can I go outside afterwards?”
  •               Mom: “When you earn your free time you can go outside.”
  •               Lucas: Smiles. “What kind of craft did you bring?”
  •               Me: I showed him pictures of 2 different crafts, and he chose to make a dinosaur (of course).

The 3 of us worked on crafts. This helps him work on manners, sharing, carrying on a conversation and making eye contact, complimenting the other person’s work, etc. And he had fun, even though he didn’t want to do it at first. He earned the rest of his tokens and he got his 5 minutes of free time outside. While he played outside, I was able to talk to his mom again to go over the plans for the next week. When I left Lucas said, “I’m sorry I threw the game. I won’t do that next time.”

As you can see, both of these children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and their symptoms and capabilities are extremely different. Therefore, their goals are extremely different. Both programs are based on ABA principles, but the sessions look very different from each other. When you start ABA services you should be getting a program that is written specifically for your child addressing his or her goals. Your child’s session will probably look different than both of these as well. I just wanted to provide examples of what some actual sessions look like so you can at least have something in mind.