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Using ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) in ABA Parent Training

Using ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) in ABA Parent Training

Applied behavior analysis has core dimensions and characteristics that define its identity as a field of study and practice.

However, in recent years, ABA has grown and developed as does most other fields.

One way that ABA is expanding is by incorporating principles related to acceptance and commitment therapy into its practice.

Using ACT in ABA can be helpful when working with individuals including youth or adults but it can also be helpful when working with parents who are looking for guidance and training.

Review this article for an overview of ACT and how ACT can apply to ABA parent training services.

Brief Overview of ACT

Foundation of ACT

Acceptance and commitment therapy - otherwise known as ACT - is based on relational frame theory which was created based upon human behavior and cognition.

ACT and RFT are based on basic behavioral principles and were traditionally used as theoretical models in behavior therapy (Hayes, et. al., 2006).

Aim of ACT

The main goals of acceptance and commitment therapy are to increase psychological flexibility, increase attentiveness to the present moment, and the development of personal values with committed action toward those values (Kowalkowski, 2012).

Third-Wave Behavioral Therapy

ACT is one of the interventions that are considered to be in the realm of ‘third-wave behavioral therapy.’

Other third-wave behavioral therapies include functional analytic psychotherapy, integrative behavioral couples therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

Third-wave behavior therapies expand upon more traditional behavior therapies like cognitive-behavior therapy and focus on contextual and experiential change strategies, mindfulness, and the acceptance of private experiences (Kowalkowski, 2012).

Hexaflex - Core Characteristics of ACT

ACT includes six primary processes that are visualized in a tool known as the hexaflex.

ACT involves acceptance, mindfulness, commitment, and behavior change.

The main goal of ACT is to develop greater psychological flexibility.

Psychological flexibility is defined as: “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being, and to either change or persist when doing so serves valued ends” (Hayes, et al., 2004, p.5 as cited in: Kowalkowski, 2012).

The six core processes of ACT include:

  • acceptance - which is the alternative to experiential avoidance and a willingness to be with what cannot change (such as unpleasant emotions)

  • cognitive defusion - stepping back from your own thoughts

  • self as context - seeing one’s self as both a holding space for thoughts and experiences as well as the self that is connected to personal history, thoughts, and emotions

  • contact with the present moment - being in the here and now

  • values - identifying what matters most in life

  • committed action - acting in ways that are connected with one’s values

Relevance of ACT to ABA Parent Training

Acceptance and commitment therapy is becoming more well-known as a potential beneficial addition to traditional applied behavior analysis services. However, there is still much to learn and much to expand upon in regards to integrating ACT with ABA.

One area that ACT can be helpful within the context of ABA services is through the application of ABA parent training for children with autism spectrum disorder as well as other disabilities. ACT in general can help support all parents through the years of raising children.

Challenges of Being a Parent of a Child with ASD

Although parenting in general can have its difficulties, parent a child with autism seems to have additional challenges as compared to parenting a child with other diagnoses or no diagnoses at all.

For instance, parents who have a child with autism often experience more psychosocial difficulties including depression and anxiety, more financial stress, experience an overall more demanding lifestyle, more marital stress, more maladaptive coping strategies, and reduced perception of social support compared to parents of non-ASD kids (Kowalkowski, 2012).

Research on ACT with Parents of Kids with ASD

One study, completed by Blackledge and Hayes (2005), found that a brief two-day ACT workshop provided to parents of children with autism spectrum disorder was helpful for improving parents symptoms of depression and psychological distress.

Two of the core processes of ACT that suggest psychological inflexibility including experiential avoidance and cognitive fusion were also improved in the ACT study (Blackledge & Hayes, 2005).

ACT intervention can help parents of children with ASD to improve their quality of life and help them address the challenges that may come with raising a child with autism.

Helping Parents with the Future

Traditional parent training has focused on teaching parents to address current behavioral concerns that their child may be exhibiting.

However, it is equally important, if not more important, to approach parent training in a way that helps the parent to have the tools that will help them to manage future behavioral concerns, changes that arise within the family structure, and to navigate family life and their child’s development as time goes on (Kowalkowski, 2012).

ACT is an intervention that can help parents gain skills that can help them navigate future experiences.

Why is ACT Helpful for Parents of Kids with ASD?

ACT is not only useful for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder, ACT can also be helpful as an intervention strategy to be used when working with parents of youth with ASD.

Within the context of ABA parent training services, ACT can be used to increase psychological flexibility which is useful for every human being to develop across their lifetime.

ACT can also help parents to be more attentive in the present moment, to be in the here and now through the core process in ACT known as ‘contact with the present moment.’

ACT can also be very meaningful for parents in its attempts to help people identify their personal values and then to act in ways that support these values.

Overall, ACT can help parents to reduce their stress levels and increase psychological flexibility. ACT can also help reduce symptoms of psychological distress such as depression or anxiety in parents of children with ASD.

Parents who receive ACT-based intervention may also experience greater joy in parenting.

Recommended Reading Related to ACT

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Consider checking out the ‘One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum’ if you’re looking for a structured parent training manual.

References for:

‘Using ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) in ABA Parent Training’

Blackledge, J. T. & Hayes, S. C. (2006) Using Acceptance and Commitment Training in the Support of Parents of Children Diagnosed with Autism, Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 28:1, 1-18, DOI: 10.1300/J019v28n01_01

Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes,Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44 (1), Pages 1-25, ISSN 0005-7967, (

Kowalkowski, Jennifer D., "The impact of a group-based acceptance and commitment therapy intervention on parents of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder" (2012). Master's Theses and Doctoral Dissertations. 512.

Sairanen, E., Lappalainen, R., Lappalainen, P., Kaipainen, K., Carlstedt, F., Anclair, M., & Hiltunen, A. 2019. Effectiveness of a web-based Acceptance and Commitment Therapy intervention for wellbeing of parents whose children have chronic conditions: A randomized controlled trial, Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 13, Pages 94-102, ISSN 2212-1447, (

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