Behavior Chaining

Autism spectrum disorder is usually diagnosed in a child around 2 years old. This is an important point in brain development when the first signs of ASD start to manifest. Many parents notice that their child stops learning new skills, words, or behaviors. Oftentimes the child struggles to maintain the skills they have learned and might even start to show signs of regression.

Many times these issues will also be detected during early childhood screening, where young children’s skills and behaviors are tested before they start school. If the screener detects an area of concern, they will likely refer you to an ABA specialist for further diagnosis.

ABA therapy is a data-driven approach to behavioral science that uses key metrics to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to live their best possible lives. There are several techniques within ABA therapy to help patients learn new skills, adopt more positive behaviors, and unlearn maladaptive behaviors.

Two of the most effective techniques used by ABA therapists are known as backward chaining and forward chaining. Understanding each approach, and how it is applied to help your child with ASD learn new skills helps you provide them with the support they need to achieve success.

What Is Behavior Chaining?

ABA therapy’s evidence-based, data-driven approach to treating behavioral issues is seen as the gold standard for the treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It’s a therapeutic technique that has been proven to be highly effective for supporting improved socializing, learning new skills, and improving communication.

A lot of people with ASD find it challenging to understand subtext, sarcasm, body language, or facial expressions. It is especially challenging for children with autism and might lead to problems learning specific tasks because they do not pick up on all the steps of the process.

Many ABA therapists will use behavior chaining to help children with autism. This is a process of breaking down tasks into steps that can be reinforced, rewarded, and tracked for increasingly successful outcomes.

By breaking the skill down into the most basic steps, so the entire process can be learned completely. Learning the task in these small steps is called behavior chaining, or simply chaining.

What Is Backward Chaining?

A lot of children with ASD need help learning to perform daily tasks. This is often compounded by the communication troubles that many have to some extent. At the same time, many children with ASD tend to take spoken language literally, without accounting for the speaker’s body language, implied information, or tone of voice.

ABA therapists often use backward chaining to guide the child through an entire task, step by step, until they reach the last step. At that point, the ABA therapists then prompt the child to complete on their own. This is a process that typically takes multiple iterations.

Once the child completes a step successfully, they are rewarded. Then the therapist will start going through the task again until the second to last step. This child will be prompted again to do it on their own, repeating the entire process and being rewarded.

This process continues as the therapist guides the child backward through the process, chaining behaviors together to help the child comprehend the entire chain. Through multiple iterations, rewards, and reinforced conditioning the child with ASD eventually masters the task.

What Is Forward Chaining?

Forward chaining is another highly effective behavior chaining technique used by ABA therapists to teach multi-step, complex skills to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other developmental disorders. It has many things in common with backward chaining, though the ABA therapists use task analysis to break it down into very small parts.

In the forward chaining technique, the child is rewarded when they complete the first small step correctly. Once this is achieved the ABA therapist will move on to the next step, following through with the progression until the child has learned the full process.

The underlying goal of the forward chaining approach is to teach a new skill or behavior in a logical or chronological order. Throughout the process, each step of the behavior is reinforced one at a time as they are learned until the first step is mastered. The process then progresses to the second step is mastered. The progression continues until the entire skill or behavior chain is mastered.

Forward chaining specifically involves building on one step and then adding another to make the multi-step task easier for a child with ASD to digest. The goal is to get them to a place where they can complete the process on their own without prompting. Though this often takes many iterations.

The data-driven approach to ABA therapy gives therapists the ability to modulate the skills and process to the child’s specific needs. It can also play an integral role in task analysis as the child with ASD continues to learn more and more new skills as they age.

The Science Behind Behavior Chaining

There is a significant and growing body of research on the effectiveness of forwarding and backward chaining and their ability to help individuals with ASD learn specific motor skills. These studies demonstrated positive results for both behavior chaining techniques.

The most notable differences between ABA therapy’s forward chaining and backward chaining techniques weren’t considered to be statistically significant. This seems to suggest that children with special needs and those with ASD don’t benefit from one approach more than the other. Both seemed scientifically viable.

Though it does give ABA therapists two different tools to meet the unique needs of children with ASD. Especially when you consider that autism spectrum disorder is a variety of different symptoms that can manifest in different severity in different people. This means that each child’s ASD symptoms, learning ability, and needs are unique to them.

An ABA therapist can then use forward chaining and backward chaining to help a child with ASD learn various simple, multi-stage skills. If the child seems to do better with one methodology over the other, the ABA therapist can apply that knowledge to future skill development exercises.