11 Ethical Alternatives To ABA Therapy For Autism

Here are the best and most ethical alternatives to ABA therapy for kids diagnosed with autism.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
January 10th, 2023

Looking for the best alternatives to ABA therapy?

ABA therapy has helped countless people mitigate or eliminate the disorder’s most severe symptoms.

The work that ABA therapists do, especially for kids, is rewarding and deserves continued recognition. But like all practices, there are some alternatives.

There’s a large amount of ethical alternatives to ABA, which we’ll cover in this guide. The alternatives below are brought up most often.

Some of them might be useful for children that are already prescribed ABA, or if treatment has been completed recently at a center.

Best ABA Therapy Alternatives

  1. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
  2. Floortime Therapy
  3. Music Therapy
  4. Play Therapy
  5. Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)
  6. Social Skills Group
  7. Dietary Adjustments
  8. Medication
  9. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments
  10. Animal Assisted Therapy
  11. Holistic Therapy

1. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a communicative therapy aimed at helping people with various disorders, including autism, reduce their symptoms by altering the way they make decisions, carry out tasks, and interact with other people.

In most circumstances, CBT is administered to help people deal with severe symptoms that come about from spectrum disorders.

Reducing unwanted feelings such as depression and anxiety are likely to happen with CBT.

The therapy works through concepts. These include a patient’s feelings, thoughts, and senses.

As these sensations are typically intertwined with one another, they can condense into a revolving pattern that doesn’t end.

Autistic individuals are particularly susceptible to such feelings. The goal of CBT is to assist in coping and reducing bad sensations, often which occur in people with disorders to a level that is debilitating on their own.

An autistic child, for example, could have a spell where they begin self-harm, tantrums, or an inability to maintain focus.

These feelings all have the potential to morph into a worse condition that leads to panic attacks or even despondency.

Anything could trigger it but their having unfavorable social skills and difficulty in communicating are typical. And these are characteristics of autism, especially in children.

CBT tackles issues that happen at the moment. It doesn’t deal with past experiences.

The therapy is normally scheduled every week, though more days could be added for children with severe cases of autism. In mild cases, the treatment might be once every two weeks, or even once a month.

Like ABA therapy, the number of sessions done can change per the individual’s needs.

When prescribed by a doctor, expect somewhere between five and 25 days in all. Sessions can last less than an hour to two hours.

However, averages are recommended to be relied on since those provided to a patient could be radically dissimilar.

When the therapy begins, the patient is asked to separate their emotions from one another. These are feelings, thoughts, physical senses, and actions undertaken.

Then the therapist begins work on addressing each of them individually. They encourage them to practice improving each one, and also on ways to deal with the root causes of the anxiety and depression.

CBT is a remarkable therapy best done for people that want to avoid strong medications. It can be prescribed by families with an autistic loved one, resulting from the need for a second opinion. Formats are versatile.

There’s no one carefully regimented way to go about treatment.

Some showcase better results when the treatment plan includes therapy within a group, while a few can have good outcomes through one-on-one sessions.

The therapy can be much shorter than ABA, though some autistic patients with a greater severity might have sessions that are about the same time length.

It doesn’t target behavioral changes the way ABA does.

The objective focuses on identifying, partitioning, and reducing unwanted feelings.

2. Floortime Therapy

Floortime therapy is sometimes referred to only as floortime. It’s oriented toward relationships for children with autism.

Unlike CBT, this therapy is specifically targeted at helping kids that are on the spectrum.

The name comes from what occurs during the therapy. Parents meet the child at their level. Getting on the floor with them during playtime.

It’s a substitute for ABA, though ABA therapists will sometimes work it into their sessions.

When this happens, it’s usually for small children or autistic kids that learn at a slower level.

Flooritme’s purpose encourages adults and their children to broaden their means of interactivity and communication with one another.

In Floortime therapy, six primary reasons are given to help with autistic children’s behavioral development:

  • To give them appreciation and intrigue about the world around them and the ability to manage themselves in it.
  • Social skills are needed for communicating with another individual.
  • The social abilities required for elevated communication with more than one person at the same time.
  • Ways to think up ideas and how to communicate them with parents, guardians, teachers, friends, and siblings.

Floortime gradually becomes more complex for children, though not in a way that would cause them to feel overwhelmed. It helps them to develop better speech and gross motor skills in the environment they interact with.

The typical floortime setting is done in a calm place, somewhere the child will be relaxed. It’s perfectly fine to administer the therapy at home or anywhere else.

The times for which it lasts per day are around five hours at the most and two as a minimum.

Parents can be trained by the therapist on how to conduct floortime on their own or have it accompanied by a professional therapist. Best of all, it might be possible for floortime to be covered by a health insurance provider.

Since most states require providers to cover the costs of a child’s necessary medical needs, a doctor could assign floortime therapy as a necessary treatment. If so, that would mandate a provider to pay for some or all of its cost.

3. Music Therapy

Music is used by people as a way to relax, lounge, or find peace within themselves. But it can also give positive benefits to children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.

Music therapy is used to help autistic kids with their cognitive development, anxiety, and social abilities.

It’s also used for autistic teens and adults.

However, it’s not a music class, so therapists don’t aim to teach patients how to play anything. Though if they do show an interest in learning how to play an instrument, it’s highly encouraged that they do so.

Music therapists may work with other special needs children, sometimes at school or as part of a program provided with routine ABA therapy courses. The therapy can be done by parents at home or carried out with a therapist there.

4. Play Therapy

During play therapy, children learn how to stay true to themselves when they interact with their peers.

Kids are naturally curious about the world around them, and that includes children with autism. Still, some autistic kids express difficulty in socializing and making friends with people in their age group.

This could manifest into issues at home, whereby a child may display tantrums and unwanted behavior patterns.

Kids with autism have this problem in particular, and a caretaker or the parents themselves can utilize playtime to their advantage by getting them to talk more, enhance their motor skills, and keep their behavior at ease when in public.

5. Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

RDI is relatively new, though one that’s recommended. It involves training on intervention with a child’s parent and close family members.

Key areas are targeted where change is needed in autistic children. It also helps them grow socially and cognitively.

A focus of RDI is dynamic intelligence, the capacity for children to think fluidly. They learn to comprehend various outlooks in their environment, make better use of their senses to take in new information, and manage themselves in situations where change may occur.

Read More: Does Autism Get Worse With Age?

6. Social Skills Group

The purpose of a social skills group is to grow a child’s language and speaking abilities. Yet these groups can also be formed for autistic people of any age bracket.

It helps them to better understand and control their emotions, the kind of learning that’s useful for emotional development.

Social skills groups are best when the total number within a group is between two and eight people.

A therapist, parent, or other individual moderates activities, discussions, and other undertakings carried out by the group. These groups can grow and learn together, though some may pick up on goals quicker than others do.

7. Dietary Adjustments

Dietary adjustments center on the belief that some foods, or the ingredients and nutrients within them, can have a profound impact on the behaviors that children with autism exhibit.

With this idea, the meals eaten, either during ABA treatment or on their own, are focused on foods that could exhibit changes in their behavior.

An example of this is caffeine. Caffeine can be found in many ingredients other than coffee. It’s in chocolate, tea, and dietary supplements. If a child’s diet consists of such items, a dietary change is thought to potentially alter the way their symptoms present themselves.

Read More: Optimal Autism Food List & Diet

8. Medication

Autism is incurable, so medication won’t eliminate the disorder in anyone. Still, some medications can help treat or reduce adverse symptoms.

Parents are warned that autistic children can be highly sensitive to different medications and may react differently than a child without the disorder does.

If you’re considering giving medication for your child’s autism symptoms, do so at the recommendation of a doctor with a prescription.

Start with a small dose and tell your child’s pediatrician if you notice any unfavorable reactions right away. Medication might only be needed for a brief moment until there are indications that you can discontinue its use.

9. Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments

Some parents attempt to give their children with ASD treatments that go further than what’s advised by doctors and therapists. Some may include the following:

  • Dry supplements – They may take the form of vitamins in pill form and powders mixed into drinks.
  • Essential oils – Oils or scented cleaning products containing them. There are many essential oils, lavender being one of the most popular.
  • Other supplements – Things such as secretin or even chelation, a medication that reduces the number of metals in the bloodstream.
Such items named above aren’t approved by the FDA to treat autism.

Neither are they recommended by professional doctors or therapists specializing in treating autism.

Some, such as chelation, could be harmful to children and adults. Parents are advised to give their children medication that has been approved and prescribed by reputable healthcare professionals.

10. Animal Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy isn’t used to treat behaviors in people with spectrum disorders. It can be given as a supplement to ongoing behavioral therapy.

They’re usually done outside of what a health insurance provider will cover.

While it might not be in the works for special needs children in school, a field trip outside of the school is an advantageous time to consider such a therapy session.

Animal-assisted therapy is done through interaction with animals of all kinds, including dogs, cats, and even horses. Petting zoos are great places to bring autistic children, or locations that offer supervised horseback riding.

11. Holistic Therapy

Holistic therapy involves practices meant to lower stress. They’re suitable for ASD patients, helping to relieve feelings that may lead to shifts in behavior.

Holistic therapy can be done at home, on video games, or at locations within a community that specialize in a specific type of stress-reducing endeavor. This includes yoga and meditation.

Holistic therapy isn’t meant to reduce the primary symptoms of autism, yet it could be jointly used alongside other therapy sessions as a conciliatory measure.

Small children may show interest, though they might enjoy it more when the format provided to them for the therapy is age appropriate.

Read More: How To Deal With Autistic Children


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  2. https://www.verywellhealth.com/complementary-and-alternative-therapies-for-autism-4797592
  3. https://www.galliantcare.com/articles/alternatives-to-aba-therapy
  4. https://ausometraining.com/alternatives-to-aba/
  5. https://thinkingautismguide.com/2017/04/if-not-aba-therapy-then-what.html
  6. https://optimistminds.com/alternatives-to-aba-therapy/
steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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