Furthur nuances of ABA-based therapies

I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion online lately about ABA-based therapies.*

Can these therapies ever be done right? How can you tell when a therapy is damaging even though it is play-based, uses no aversives, and doesn’t seem unpleasant for the child undergoing it? Are stressful therapies ok in small doses?

Most people, including most of the ABA therapists I’ve met, agree that one of the most important things for any person to learn is how to say “No,” verbally or not. I’d like to describe two different ways I’ve seen an ABA technician work on this with an autistic client. On paper, the two ABA programs sound about the same (Note: (the people who perform the “therapy” sessions with the kids are trained by private companies and not licensed as healthcare providers or educators in any other way. Program supervisors generally require some form of degree in psychology). Similar stated goals and methods. But observing the techs in action reveals important differences.

Case 1:

The client is 11, minimally verbal (uses single words spontaneously and short sentences with prompting). Therapy consists of 2-hour sessions twice a week after school.

The tech treats the lesson plan casually. She and I and the client lounge on the floor of the living room, or go about the house working on various skills, most of them skills that are often taught by an OT or PT (dressing, using the toilet, preparing to go for a walk, eating a meal). At one point, the tech leans over and tickles the client lightly. The client pulls away a little, and the tech immediately prompts, in a friendly tone of voice as though giving advice to a friend, “You know, you can say ‘I don’t like that,” or ‘please stop,” or…”
“Stop, please,” says the client. The tech immediately stops, and smiles at the client,
“Thank you for tellin me,” she answers.
This kind of exchange happens maybe once or twice a week.

Case 2:

The client is 7, mostly nonverbal, and has 2 hour sessions several times per week. The client is required to sit at a desk for most of the session.

The client is engaging in a favorite activity at the table, mixing colors of play-doh together. The tech reaches over into the activity space, deliberately interrupting. The client pushes her hand away, and she ignores this, putting her hand back in the way so the client can’t continue playing. “No,” the child says quietly, sounding annoyed, not looking up, still intent on the activity.
“No, stop,” the tech prompts (I ask later and find out that she is trying to get the kid to distinguish between “no,” for not wanting to do something, and “stop,” for getting someone else to stop doing something. Seems pretty unreasonable for a kid who uses only a handful of spoken words!).
“Nuh, stah,” mimics the client (the pronunciation is poor but the cadence is imitated perfectly, which makes me grin). The tech withdraws her hand, nods as if in satisfaction, and makes marks on her tally sheet, obviously grading the child’s performance. This process is repeated multiple times per session.

Case 1 isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a good shot at managing a necessary evil in a relatively decent way (the necessary evil being that, in order to make sure a kid knows how to object to things reliably, you pretty much have to provide or at least allow something they dislike for them to object to). The tech didn’t push, didn’t insist on a specific response, didn’t judge… just offered an alternative. The client was treated as a human being.

Case 2 makes me feel sick to my stomach. There’s no camraderie, no politeness, no explanation, and not even a pretense of respect for the client’s wishes. Just training, and frustration. This is more “pure” ABA– no distractions, no additional variables, no unplanned interaction between client and therapist. But what upset me most was that the tech seemed to care only about reaching the objective, having the client perform to a pre-set standard, and not about whether or not the client was experiencing and understanding the power and value of being able to make a request and have it respected. There seemed to be no acknowledgement of the fact that the goal of the work (and the only possible acceptable reason or excuse for these therapies at all) is to provide the client with a skill that is, at least to some degree, /useful to them/. Communication that will be understood by others, no matter the format, is one such goal, and I think worth even some pain, though of course it should be the minimum of pain possible.

Missing from both is another crucial marker of respect: apologizing to the client for doing something they disliked. And, in a larger critique, it is very problematic that, in this world, someone saying “please stop” is more likely to have their needs respected than someone who simply pulls away, and someone who pushes someone else away is more likely to be labeled as “aggressive” than “self-advocating.” That needs to change. In the meantime, there are better and worse ways to teach someone how to lodge a verbal protest. I got to see both.

* Note: there’s a lot of confusion about terminology, especially in America, where anything that can plausibly, or even implausibly, be labeled “ABA” gets the title so as to be covered by insurance companies. The briefest overview I can provide is that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a particular subdiscipline of behavioral psychology, has given rise to a wide range of “interventions” and “therapies.” The classic ABA therapy is an aggressive and rigorous program of DTT, based on the work of Lovaas, who wanted to make autistic people become, or at least appear, “normal”… and cure men who acted in any way effeminate or homosexual. Most autistic people consider this to be despiccable at best and outright torture at worst. More modern approaches such as PRT now apply behavioral principles in ways that are gentler, more flexible, more naturalistic, and more enjoyable for the client… but their goals are often (though not always) still based on the premise that becoming more “normal” in various ways is a reasonable goal for autistic children. Most autistic self-advocates and their supporters are deeply uncomfortable with this notion, too.

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