What Is Priming in ABA Therapy

ABA therapy uses a wide range of science-based, data-driven approaches to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to reach increasingly higher positive outcomes. Priming is one of the more effective ABA techniques for helping individuals with ASD to live their best possible lives.

It uses a cognitive therapy process where one idea, event, person, or object is linked to another. It works especially well for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, as it borrows from processes that most human beings are already exposed to.

In reality, we all experience priming without even realizing it. Advertising, marketing language, and media networks all use priming to get consumers to associate their information or brand with specific feelings or experiences. We then develop ingrained associations around these negative experiences and connect with them when making conscious and unconscious choices.

ABA therapists often use priming to help prepare a client for a future event. This serves to reduce the stress that might otherwise be associated with that specific change. In time it can even help the patient manage major transitions with ease. It’s a technique that is particularly helpful for children with ASD who often struggle with any change, large or small, in their routine.

ABA Therapy Uses Priming to Help Support Transitions

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental condition with varying symptoms that range in severity. It primarily impacts skills such as socializing, communication, learning, and cognition, as well as some degree of motor coordination.

Since it is evidence-based and data-driven, ABA therapy does a great job of creating tailored treatment plans for individual patients. It is especially beneficial for children with ASD who need help learning skills that they will take with them into their adult life.

A lot of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulty with even minor changes in their lives and daily routines. Many times a break in routine, unclear instructions, changes in schedule, or differences in the food served at mealtimes can lead to intense emotional distress.

Children with ASD might react in a variety of ways to these changes, making it difficult to calm them down.

Priming is one effective way for parents, caregivers, teachers, and therapists to manage this reaction is through priming. It’s a highly effective behavioral technique that’s designed to ease anxiety about unexpected changes by providing a sense of stability. This makes transitions easier for children with ASD as well as the caregivers who support them.

How Does Priming Work?

One easy example of priming that you are exposed to on any given day might be walking past a billboard with a picture of a juicy-looking delicious hamburger. Seeing the succulent flame-broiled meat then evokes a feeling of hunger. These feelings tap into your subconscious, and your mind reacts by making you feel hungry.

In ABA therapy the priming concept is based on an essential understanding of information stored as units, or “Schemas,” in a person’s long-term memory. Anytime a schema is activated, by an external stimulus, it becomes easier to access as it repeatedly enters your consciousness. This increases the likelihood of experiencing these feelings, in a way that leads to action.

In the example of seeing a hamburger. If you see that same billboard every day and you feel hungry each time, it increases the chances of you going to the store to order it. Especially if the billboard is in front of the restaurant selling it, and you can smell them cooking in the wind. This doubles up the schema being activated to increase your chances of purchasing a burger.

Anytime an ABA therapist uses priming, they intentionally link these schema units together to create a network in the patient’s mind. This can eventually be used to trigger specific behaviors and emotions to prepare the patient for a certain sequence of events.

Children with autism often struggle with restrictive or repetitive behaviors, which include a rigid insistence on many parts of their lives staying the same. People with autism may develop rituals and routines so they can keep a sense of sameness. When these are disrupted, they often struggle and have trouble controlling their emotions and behaviors. Priming can help to ease these transitions so children with autism can feel more secure with less structure and routine.

Different Types of Priming in ABA Therapy

There are a few different types of priming techniques that an ABA therapist might use as part of a larger therapeutic process.

Repetition Priming

After a specific schema has been activated, it takes less stimulus to activate it again the next time. If the schema is frequently activated, it starts to become “Hyper-Accessible.” To the point that the rate of activation decreases along with it.

Associative Priming

This technique is most familiar with word association activities. This might start with reading the word cat which might then bring up the word dog to associate with therapeutic pets. One subtype of associative priming is known as semantic priming where the stimulus is processed better when a related stimulus is introduced.

Negative Priming

Negative priming can be used to decrease the activation of related schemas by triggering inhibition in place of activation. These techniques are often used in instances where units of two differing schema are competing for the individual’s attention. Ingraining negative priming then helps the individual make the better of the two schemas to engage in.

Priming Applied Correctly

Priming needs to be applied correctly and in short bursts for a child with ASD to develop the necessary behavior pattern association. This helps them manage their emotions around changes later in life. Priming essentially lays the foundation for how to deal with change in the short term, while also preparing the person for bigger changes that will inevitably occur throughout their life.

An ABA therapist works closely with a child with ASD to gradually introduce priming in a way that prepares them for potential changes. The therapeutic environment must be calming and encouraging. Priming needs to be first introduced by the ABA therapist to ensure it is correctly applied.

As time goes on, parents and caregivers can help reinforce the approaches used in ABA therapy sessions in their daily interactions with the child. As these important lessons take hold, they can be applied to other situations and changes in the child’s life.