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What is the ABLLS-R?

The ABLLS-R, is a device for assessing skills in children with language and learning deficits and is most commonly used in the process of the development of a behavioral program for children in the autism spectrum.  ABLLS-R stands for Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills - Revised.  The ABLLS-R has many advantages in guiding the development of a program for a child with language deficits because it is an assessment, curriculum guide, and skills tracking system.  The ABLLS-R contains a task analysis of the many skills necessary to communicate successfully and to learn from everyday experiences.

At core the task analyses of the ABLLS-R are fundamentally guided by a behavior analytic perspective on all aspects of human behavior, principally language.  Skinner's book Verbal Behavior, and the subsequent research literature building on that work, is one of the principal sources for the structure and assumptions of the ABLLS-R.  Understanding technical aspects of behavior analysis and Skinner's Verbal Behavior are important to a robust understanding of the ABLLS-R.  The ABLLS-R provides both parents and professionals with criterion-referenced information regarding a child’s current skills, and provides a curriculum that can serve as a basis for the selection of educational objectives.  It is not a diagnostic device; it does not compare the child to norms or the performance of other children.  The ABLLS-R looks at fundamental skills in a hierarchical sense and breaks them down into their essential components in order to facilitate the development of laser-like interventions designed to build on abilities already possessed by the child in order to increase their skills repertoire.  

The ABLLS-R has examines 25 categories of behavior across a wide range of skills sets.  Skills measured range from essential abilities like orienting on people and objects to complex skills like talking about pleasant things that are not immediately present (i.e., "How was your day?").  The largest subcategory of skills examined are language with the categories defined by function of language and not by traditional abstract categorization.  While the literature is crystal clear that increases in communication skills can indirectly result in decreases in dysfunctional behaviors, the ABLLS-R is not meant to directly address inappropriate behaviors or dysfunctional behaviors as is done through a Functional Behavioral Assessment and the subsequent Behavior Intervention Plan.  The overall goal of the ABLLS-R is to refine the level of examination of skills so that teaching can occur in increments that are manageable and likely to result in meaningful, and permanent, gains for the child.  Therefore, each of the skills is clearly operationally defined with measurable increments identified.  The hierarchical nature of the ABLLS-R means that, generally, earlier skills within each category are necessary for the independent and sustained demonstration by the child of skills later in the hierarchy.  This has a practical impact on the use of the ABLLS-R in that gaps in skills that occur earlier in each category typically are given higher priority in the writing of initial goals for the child's treatment program.

In general, behaviorists agree that direct observation of skills is the gold standard for measuring the ability of a person.  That standard applies, again generally, to the use of the ABLLS-R.  The main mechanism for collection of skills data for completion of the ABLLS-R should be direct observation by the evaluator of the child demonstrating the skills in question.  However, there are a variety of life circumstances that can prevent direct observation of the full range of skills assessed via the ABLLS-R.  Therefore, interview of key caregivers is an alternative and complimentary process that can be used to complete areas of the ABLLS-R which might be inaccessible for logistical reasons to the examiner.  The overall goal of the ABLLS-R, as any device, is the accurate summarization of the child's skills in order to facilitate as accurate and meaningful a treatment program as possible.  The recommendation by the authors, and one that I endorse for functional reasons, is that when in doubt about the mastery of a skill by the child the examiner should under-estimate the skill in question.  This may result in attempts to teach skills that the child already possesses, fine.  What it does not do is stress the child unnecessarily by pressing them to demonstrate skills they do not possess thereby potentially creating an aversive situation for the child that can negatively impact subsequent therapy.

The end result of the ABLLS-R assessment, which can take 10-12-14 hours, should be a set of recommendations that fit the child like a finely tailored suit of clothes.  In addition to its utility as a treatment planning guide, the ABLLS-R is also a program monitoring device.  Because the ABLLS-R is not a traditionally normed device, and because we actually do want the child to learn the skills involve - however they learn them, repeating the ABLLS-R within less than one year is both appropriate and expected.  Typically, devices like the IQ tests (e.g., WISC, DAS, etc.) can not be repeated in less than a year because of the potential for the student to have remembered questions thereby spoiling the tests ability to accurately assess their ability other than their memory.  The ABLLS-R is meant to be a curriculum guide and program monitor and the recommendation is that it be redone every 6-12 months in order to fulfill that role as a treatment progress monitor.  

Finally, the ABLLS-R is only as useful as the accuracy of the information that went into completing it and the skill of the administrator in both completing the ABLLS-R and sorting through the potential recommendations for future goals.  While it is popular to say that anyone can complete an ABLLS-R, it has been my experience that without an understanding of the behavioral principles underlying it the resulting profile is less accurate and informative.  We recommend that the ABLLS-R be completed by someone who is likely to be objective about a child and their abilities who also has significant experience with children with language delays and other behavioral deficits commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders.  It has been our experience that the resulting profile is more likely to be a tight fit with the child and the resulting recommendations much more likely to hit essential core skills that when addressed will have the greatest impact on the child's life in the shortest timeframe.  

I hope that this brief overview of the ABLLS-R has been informative and helpful.  If you have any questions about the ABLLS-R, how we at Reinforcement Unlimited, LLC use it, training on the ABLLS-R offered at our clinic, or anything related to our services please do not hesitate to contact us.  Thank you.



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