Applied Behavior Analysis aka ABA is a scientifically validated approach to understanding behavior and how it is affected by the environment. Once it is understood how the environment may be impacting a certain individual and their behavior then an ABA therapist uses methods of learning catered to that specific individual while using specific motivators to ensure said individuals learn. These motivators are typically reinforcers that will help a individual want to learn more, even if said individual may not think they are learning. To put this in simpler terms, when an individual with Autism is learning a skill such as brushing teeth, they may get Ipad time when the task is completed. An example for a neurotypical may be something like getting straight A's on their report card and getting to go eat at their favorite restaurant.
So in a status update I posted on my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/throughtheseautisticeyes) I stated that this is a somewhat controversial topic within the Autism Community. This is due to some misconceptions about ABA and some truths about some rare cases within the field.
A misconception is that ABA tries to cure/change your child to society norms. This can be farther from the truth. No matter what someone tells you, you can not cure Autism. You can help a person deal with the issues that may arise due to miscommunication. But what about changing stimulating behavior. From my standpoint, and now I can not speak for the entire field but I was taught any stim is acceptable unless when it is necessary to take away the stimulating behavior that it does not cause problematic behavior. So say a kid with Autism is in a special needs classroom and starts to rock back and forth as a stimulating behavior, but there are kids in that class that have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and can not focus on what they are suppose to do because they can not take their eyes off of the kid that is rocking back and forth. What would be easier: to teach the kid with ADHD to pay attention or to teach the kid with Autism to stim in another way? In my experience, it is way easier to teach the kid with Autism another coping behavior that will cause less issues in the classroom. I recently read a story of a very intelligent mother, who did not want ABA for her kids on the Spectrum, because of this notion that the therapists will change her kids. The thing she did not want to change about her kids was their sensory need to strip naked in random places, even at a park, or not wear long socks (let alone any socks) in the winter. She somehow thought these things should be accepted of her children. However, in our world if a kid is butt naked in a public place it is highly likely that said kid will draw some unnecessary attention from some bad people and possibly get the kid kidnapped. The not having socks on is not as big of a deal, except that as a parent you are responsible for your kids welfare and if said kid gets hurt or frost bite, because you thought it be okay. Are you more worried about the kids welfare at that point or just fearful of the aftermath of making your kid do something that will protect them?
Before I get to my personal thoughts about ABA, I want to talk about a little rough subject. That subject is the abuse of people with special needs within ABA. I have heard that due to ABA therapy some people on the Spectrum were abused under the supervision of someone who thought they were practicing ABA or found to have had PTSD due to this therapy. This is not the outcome of ABA in general. This is the outcome of uneducated, underpaid individuals who are not properly trained how to deal with people with special needs on a daily basis and for long hours everyday. This by no means, is trying to justify some of the horrors individuals with special needs can go through with any type of therapy. Just felt the need to say that ABA by no means is intentionally or unintentionally set up to abuse individuals with special needs.
Being a part of a particular population, one gets to see everybody else that is in that populations thoughts about certain topics. ABA comes up pretty frequently in the groups I am a part of on Facebook. One stance for against ABA, is that it is demeaning to those on the Spectrum. This stance comes from the progression of tasks that ABA uses to teach. However, more times than not these are individuals who are higher IQ but fail to see that everyone on the Spectrum is not the same as them. They also fail to see that every single person learns in progression of any certain task and that some individuals may have barriers that prevent them from learning a required skill all at once that someone else might not need so many progressions. These individuals have the best interest at heart but have closed themselves off to completely understanding how different people are and how different others learn at a fundamental level.
Now on to my thoughts of ABA. I will try to keep this as general as possible. ABA can work wonders for those on the Spectrum, the amount of progress I have been able to witness, not just my clients but others as well, in the year I worked is beyond amazing. However ABA is based off of soft science. What does that mean? It means that since not everyone thinks and learns the same way because our minds are different, that there is no one true methodology. This is that even using science backed methods, that there are so many that in the time a child is with a therapist, the correct method may never be found before a new therapist comes in and the process starts all over. Another issue I faced is that some therapists often see a maladaptive behavior and if they cannot find the environmental issue right away then they can tend to just write it off as an individual as maladaptive and almost a lost cause, when in fact the issue was simpler than they thought. I initially thought this with one of my clients after first working with this individual but after a couple months with said client, I cleared my mind and did the behavior until I realized what the root of the issue was. Another issue that I fortunately did not see thanks to working for such a great company, is the whole working for only the paycheck and going through the motions without much care that their client is in fact a breathing human being that is just that and not something to be studied all the time. This fact is why there are people out there with bad experiences with ABA. It truly takes special people to be able to work with in this field and have their heart in it completely and I completely love them for that.
Lastly, I believe ABA may not be for everyone on the Spectrum since you are not going to get a great therapist for every child and that some individuals just will not need it. Now you know a little bit about ABA and my thoughts, what thoughts of ABA do you all have?
Mark Fleming- Person on the Autism Spectrum