Many of the children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder experience an array of issues that can include communication, and social skill problems, as well as behavioral issues. In some, this can lead to overstated responses to certain environments and conditions. This might manifest as a child who demonstrates aggressive behavior when they are exposed to cold or heat.

One of the ways ABA therapists help autistic children with these reactions to irrational fears is with a therapeutic technique known as Graduated Exposure.

What Is Graduated Exposure?

ABA therapists sometimes use graduated exposure therapy as part of a multi-step hierarchy, which combines relaxation techniques and ABA strategies to help children with autism spectrum disorder to overcome their irrational fears. The process often starts with some talk therapy, where the ABA therapist collects information from the child and the family about the subject of the fear. This includes developing a clear understanding of all the related triggers and environments where the child’s irrational fear is manifesting.

This is done through a series of steps. Each step has a threshold that graduates to the next level of the hierarchy. This helps the autistic child to gradually replace the overstated fear reaction with more positive behaviors.

Graduated Exposure Helps To Removes The Fear of Irrational Consequences

Applied behavior analysis uses a variety of treatment techniques to help children with autism spectrum disorder modify negative behaviors while reinforcing positive ones. Graduated exposure is an ABA technique that aims to encourage or diminish irrational behaviors. It does this by repeatedly and consistently demonstrating benign or even beneficial consequences.

In short, graduated exposure is essentially a guided process of exposing the patient slowly and methodically to increasing raw aspects of experiences that manifest an irrational response. This helps them to build up and reinforce the lack of dire consequences that they seem to be imagining.

Graduated exposure therapy techniques stand in stark contrast to sensory flooding, or other types of exposure therapy. The goal is to avoid any sort of instant or overwhelming experience, to give the child time to adjust and apply their capable level of logic to the experience or triggering environment.

Exposure therapy has been successfully used in the past to reduce or even remove irrational phobias. One example would be an individual who suffers from arachnophobia, which is a massive, debilitating fear of spiders. A graduated exposure approach to help treat arachnophobia might start with talking about spiders with the therapist.

This establishes a trust connection, while also helping to warm the individual up to the thought of talking about it. They might even reveal details about how and why they are afraid of spiders. As the graduated exposure process continues, the ABA therapist might show them pictures of spiders, for only a few brief moments. As time goes on, and the irrational responses remain minimal, the therapist might show the spider images for longer and longer periods.

As time goes on, the process of graduated exposure can help increase the individual’s threshold for the unwanted stimulus. In time they might even be willing to observe a real spider, in a jar, or perhaps an aquarium on the far side of a room. With positive reinforcement, repetition, and time, they might even be willing and able to observe the spider out of the jar, yet still at a distance. In time, the patient may actually reach a level of tolerance that allows them to touch a spider or allow one to crawl on them.

This is just one example of how graduated exposure can be used to conquer an irrational fear such as the fear of spiders. Similar concepts can be used to address a wide range of other irrational fears and unhealthy overreactions to certain stimuli or triggering environments.

Gradual Exposure Helps The Brain Slowly Adapt To Different Conditions

Graduated exposure, which is known in some psychological circles as systematic desensitization, is relatively easy to understand. Let’s say you wake up each morning and get in a car to drive to work.

Though unless there is some kind of obvious road hazard, you don’t usually think about the terrible consequences of getting in an accident on the freeway. Your mind tells you that the odds of a severe car accident are low, so long as you drive safely, and follow the rules of the road.

Yet for individuals who have phobias, and other types of irrational fear, the potential negative consequences of an environment or stimuli are the only thing they can imagine. Then they reinforce these irrational fears by intentionally avoiding those things. They don’t have any authentic experience to draw from, to help them counteract their fearful perceptions.

Though with many systems of graduated exposure therapy the exposure doesn’t happen alone. Rather the patient is carefully coached and guided in relaxation or coping mechanisms, as part of each stage in the exposure hierarchy. This helps them to effectively deal with each step of the therapeutic process as it happens. Many times, cognitive behavior therapy, or other ABA therapy techniques are conducted at the same time as graduated exposure to help reinforce the process.

While most people are somewhat familiar with graduated exposure concepts to help reduce phobias and discomfort, these techniques can also be used to help reinforce and expand positive behaviors. It is especially effective for children with autism spectrum disorder, who often have extremely limited preferences for different types of food, or who act out with negative behaviors in certain environments.

A lot of autism spectrum disorder’s repetitive behaviors and sensory issues reinforce negative behaviors, or the unwillingness to try new things. This can make feeding them together with family and peers a considerable challenge, not to mention leading to vitamin deficiencies and other nutritional issues.

Yet ABA therapists can use graduated exposure therapy to eventually expand their tolerance of different foods, through a multi-layered hierarchy of exposure. Though, it’s important to keep in mind that graduated exposure takes time to implement and needs to be guided by a qualified therapist for maximum effect.