Last night, I fell asleep with a mild fever. My life chased me into my dreams.
In my dream, my client breaks something while I struggle to help his mother in the kitchen. His ABA team makes him stay up all night cleaning, and in the morning a troop of therapists convenes to discuss how he needs even more ABA. I’ve met many of them before, but I’m having trouble telling them apart, and can’t decide which of them might be sympathetic to my objections.
I argue passionately for less ABA, more communication training. A supervisor sneeringly asks if I mean that faked “facilitated communication” nonsense. The scientists in the room shake their heads sadly. I respond that RPM leads to completely independent typing– look it up! I also point out that a lot of different things fall under the category of “facilitated communication,” mentioning a video I’ve seen in which the only “facilitation” necessary is a gentle hand on the back of the person typing. You can’t control what someone types that way, I insist– just try it! I volunteer to type while a scientist tries to control my typing with a hand on my shoulder. She cheats abominably, but still can’t force me to type what she wants.
The room grows fuller, as adults with physical disabilities arrive to make the point that being a disabled adult is not a horrible sentence. Almost every hand in the room is raised with points to make, and I have more to say but despair of being called on any time in the next hour…
Yesterday, in my real life, an ABA tech mentioned children who were getting 40 hours a week, plus other therapies.
I asked if she didn’t find that tragically sad– the idea of small children having to work more than 40 hours a week. She said she’d rather they had to do 40 hours a week now, and grow up to be functional members of society. (There was a time when I would have agreed with her. The ABA industry mixes up some strong Kool-Aid.)
I didn’t have a way to put my disagreements into words then– there were so many of them crowding my brain. I think I can do so now, though,
1) False dichotomy. There is plenty of evidence (some of it even in ABA studies) that ABA is neither necessary or sufficient for independent adulthood. In less technical terms: Some kids get lots of ABA and grow up to be independent adults. Some kids get lots of ABA and do not grow up to be independent adults. Some kids get no ABA and do grow up to be independent adults.
2) If you’re going to argue that ABA at least gives a better chance that the kid will grow up to be an independent adult, you’ll have to show me some darn good math. You’ll also have to take into account that scientific studies on autistic kids who grow up without ABA barely exist at all, and you can’t make a logical argument that one condition is better than another when you’ve only researched one of the two.
3) I’m also going to lay down some serious objections to the idea that a person needs to be a “functional member of society” in order to have a valuable and meaningful life. There are many people in my life who have inspired me, made my life better, or loved me, or who I have loved. None of those things has ever hinged on whether or not the person could earn a living, speak verbally, live independently, or pass as “normal.”
4) Even if I accepted the premise that ABA=independent adulthood, I would still object. Because, “functionality” at what price? The price of a childhood? An individual’s personality? Their self-esteem? Their happiness? I would not sacrifice any one of those things, and I have known and read about autistic adults who believe that ABA stole those things from them. That alone should give anyone pause– and I do think that if most parents and therapists and ABA techs were truly aware that this was the potential trade-off, they’d hesitate, too.
There’s more to becoming a well-rounded adult human being than learning to sit still or tie one’s own shoes or participate in social niceties. There’s emotional development, and I believe that childhood– an unfettered, exploratory, play-filled childhood– is an integral and irreplaceable part of that development. For counterexamples, look at the emotional damage done to children who lost their childhoods too early– to abuse, to war, to parental drug abuse, to any of the things that make children grow up too fast. There are an uncanny number of similarities between adults from abusive childhoods and adult autistics– and all too often, those are one and the same. And frequently, that abuse has, at least in part, taken the form of a relentless battle on the part of adults to turn the autistic child into something they are not and can never be– a non-autistic adult.
So, if those are my options, I will happily volunteer to change an autistic person’s diaper every day for the rest of my life, or cook their meals, do their shopping, help them cross the street, or whatever other “functional adult” tasks they can’t do alone. Because I love the children I work with, exactly the way they are. And while I do want to help them acquire as many skills as possible, I wouldn’t do it at the price of changing who they are, losing their sense of fun and humor, or making them feel that they aren’t good enough, or teaching them that behavioral control is more important than their comfort, their safety, their right to communicate naturally, and their happiness.
Please note: This post is a work in progress.
Behaviors targeted for modification or extinction must meet the following criteria:
- The behavior creates a physical safety risk for the client or other people, or causes significant damage to the surroundings. Behaviors may not be targeted for elimination/modification on the grounds of being atypical, embarrassing, annoying, or socially unexpected. Behaviors that involve social appropriateness may qualify if they involve the client physically interacting with strangers (eg, inappropriate touch, attempting to remove someone’s clothing, grabbing other people’s belongings, etc.)
- All reasonable accommodations have been implemented to alter the antecedents before any attempts are made to modify consequences. In normal language, this means that you address the triggers for the behavior (such as stress, situational factors, and the behaviors of other people) before using tactics to discourage the client from doing the unwanted behavior.
- The client is given a clear verbal and/or visual explanation of what behavior is unwanted and why. The rules given must be clear, explicit, and consistent. If the behavior has an identifiable communicative component, the communication must be acknowledged and the client must be offered an alternative means of communicating the same message and having it respected (eg, if you teach a child not to hit others when touched, you must also provide them with another method of clearly stating “don’t touch me.”)
Behaviors targeted for acquisition must meet the following criteria:
- They aim to improve the client’s independence skills, self-care and ADL skills, or effective communication (preferably in whichever modality the client acquires most easily). Other behavioral goals can be established if and only if: they will improve or expand the client’s opportunity to gain an education or participate in activities of the client’s choosing, AND the same opportunities cannot be provided by reasonable accommodations.
- The behavior or skill being acquired is one that can be reasonably learned by rote. No studies exist showing a more effective way for the client to gain the skill. Dyspraxia and other physical difficulties must be acknowledged as possible barriers to skill acquisition. If practice appears to cause significant distress to the client, the program should be re-evaluated.
- The goals and reasons for them are clearly stated to the client verbally/visually. If the client is capable of providing input on goals, their input should be taken into account as much as it is with a neurotypical who is being trained in a skill.
- The client must be allowed the maximum possible participation in session planning.
- Parents and clinicians shall not speak about the client in their hearing as though they are not present.
- The term “noncompliant” should be replaced by something more neutral.
There’s one ABA team I work with who are, on the whole, pretty awesome. I’d like to give a few examples of things that make me happy about them:
– They acknowledge, in front of the client, that they know she understands a lot more than she is capable of expressing to us. They say things like “she’s having a hard time answering these questions” instead of “she doesn’t know the answer.” They are courteous.
– When she gets frustrated with a task, they don’t push or insist. When the client first says “all done,” they encourage “try again,” but if the client then says “no” or “you do it,” they respect her choice. As a result, she’s much more willing to actually try something again if she feels it is difficult but possible for her (or she wants to learn it).
– They not only allow the client to make activity choices, they also do a certain amount of power balancing, letting her direct them around and instruct them to do things. They also do a lot of the activities along with her. If she’s doing sit-ups, for example, her technician (or I) will do them as well. It’s not just an adult giving orders and a child being expected to follow them.
Here’s a story from last week that made me smile. It was an exciting day for the client– she had me, her ABA supervisor, and a new ABA tech all working with her. This is a very social pre-teen with multiple disabilities. She prefers communicating verbally, but has a fairly severe speech impediment. At best, her family understands maybe half of what she says– and less just recently, because she’s started using a lot more words and full sentences, which is very awesome but harder for us listeners to decipher.
We’re trying a relatively new activity– playing a matching game with cards, taking turns around the table. The client is obviously unenthusiastic at the sight of the cards. She gets the idea of putting them together in pairs, but doesn’t quite seem to understand the matching criteria. We each take two turns, and she has on her frustrated expression by the second one.
“I’m not sure this activity is going to work for her,” the therapist admits. We briefly talk about what might be wrong– perhaps the symbols on the card are too similar for her to distinguish easily, or too close together for her to count (she has some difficulty with visual tracking). Maybe “Go Fish” would be worth trying instead. In the meantime, we ease back to simply taking turns placing the cards on top of one another, which the client might find a little boring but at least not frustrating.
Near the end of the pile, the client says what sounds like “EEEnud.” “Did you say peanut?” we ask, baffled (there’s a lot of guessing involved when she speaks, and she’s generally very patient with us about it. Even better, she’s learning to sometimes rephrase or give other clues when we can’t figure out what she’s saying).
She tries again, and it sounds more like “eedhub.” “Eat up?” I guess, wondering if she’s hungry.
This time, she starts carefully chanting “Eenub, eenub, ebbuh-buvy…” at which point we all catch on at once and start singing with her “Clean up! Clean up! Everybody, everywhere…” (a short song that many therapists use at the end of an activity when it’s time to put away all the pieces). She’s prompting us to call it quits on this activity, so we do. And we’re all smiles, including the client.
That, my friends, is how you work WITH a child. Listen, respect feedback (verbal or behavioral), be flexible, take turns.
So here I’m going to talk, again, about ABA, and about the disconnects and disagreements that I see whenever ABA is discussed online in autism-related communities.
I am going to ask that commenters be sensitive to the fact that many autistic people have been deeply traumatized by undergoing an experience that was called “ABA therapy.” Whether or not that was “correct” or “real” ABA, whether or not ABA has changed since then, whether or not you’ve ever witnessed the methods that were used on these people, please be respectful of that fact that for many people, the term “ABA” alone is enough to trigger deep fear and even symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I see an often-repeated pattern in online discussions about ABA. It goes something like this:
- Someone mentions ABA.
- Autistic self-advocates and some parents jump in to say that ABA is terrifying, problematic, unethical, and so on. Terms are used like “child abuse” and “psychological torture” and “deeply traumatizing.” Most of these people speak from personal experience.
- Many other parents and professionals jump in to defend ABA. They also speak from experience. They point out how much ABA has changed since the early days, or document the incredible progress they’ve seen in their children and clients. Many are deeply offended by the idea that what they are doing to their children could possibly be hurtful.
So let me talk a little bit about what I think is going on here.
Note: I’m not going to go into the origins of ABA therapy, because that’s a bit like judging modern psychotherapy by only reading Freud. While there are still plenty of places that practice pure Lovaas-style ABA (or worse), those aren’t the people who participate in these discussions. The people I described above are talking about modernized ABA, which doesn’t involve deliberate aversives and has often addressed many other major criticisms as well.
I’m also not going to try to define ABA. I assume the reader has a working knowledge of at least some form of therapy that falls under the ABA category (though I will ask readers to remember that many different practices currently go by the name “ABA”). What I am going to do is talk about individual aspects of many of those therapies, and try to tease part the good from the bad.
One major way in which schools of ABA can differ is in their primary goal.
Traditional ABA practitioners believe that it is inherently good for autistic children to appear, act, and communicate as “normally” (neurotypically) as possible. When you start from this fundamentally flawed assumption, no real good can come of it, no matter how gentle or naturalistic your methods. This school of ABA teaches “quiet hands” and “sit still” and “make eye contact.” It teaches autistic children to hide their pain and their needs, to obey without question, and to suppress their most natural ways of interacting with the world. By extension, it teaches autistic people to hate themselves. The self-hate may not surface until later, but it is an inevitable result of being taught that the way you do things naturally is always wrong.
Some more modern schools have moved beyond this, at least in part. They understand the basics of sensory needs. They argue for kids to get accommodations, allow them to stim, accept multiple forms of communication, and don’t focus primarily on suppressing autistic behavior. They do still, however, tend to set goals through a neurotypical lens, which often involves a lot of incorrect assumptions about how the autistic mind works. Ultimately, much of their work is counter-productive, although a lot less unpleasant for the child than the previous version.
An example of this is when a therapist sets the goal of having a child look up and orient towards the speaker when her name is called, so that she will attend to safety instructions like being called back before she runs into the street. The underlying goal isn’t a bad one– get the child attend to stimuli that are likely to be important for their safety– but the notion that an autistic child can reliably indicate attention by looking at the speaker may need to be re-examined. Too often, these practitioners work at getting kids to do the wrong things for the right reasons, taking time and energy away from more important learning. Unfortunately, the vast majority of research into autism “interventions” and “treatments” is based on assumptions like these, if not the even worse traditional beliefs mentioned above.
The rare wonderful ABA folks have a philosophy more like that of most occupational therapists. They believe that their primary job is to give the child a set of tools that are useful to that child. They use the methods of ABA to teach communication skills, self-care skills, and skills that increase a child’s independence rather than stifling it.
A therapist in one such program said to me that the philosophy behind their sessions is “form follows function.” This means that they use, in my opinion, the appropriate interpretation of the “Analysis” part of ABA — they try to figure out what the child is trying to accomplish, and then seek to teach the child an effective and reliable way of reaching that goal. This same therapist told me that the very first thing they teach any child is how to ask for a break– “and then, if the kid wants to take a break 200 times in a 2 hour session, that’s fine, we let him take all those breaks. We’ll work on the rest later.” I’m not saying that these people are flawless– they do fall prey to some of the same erroneous assumptions about what it means for an autistic child to show progress– but most of what they do helps more than it hurts. Sadly, they are in the minority.
ABA is based on the principles of operant conditioning, which makes more sense for teaching some things than others. Breaking a task down into little steps and rewarding increasingly good approximations of the goal is a fine way to teach someone to get dressed or even acquire basic table manners. It’s probably not a good way to teach someone to speak, and it’s definitely not a good way to teach someone to make friends.
Good ABA programs don’t assume that everything should be done via ABA.
One thing that’s missing from a lot of ABA programs is the presumption of competence. Again, there are the rare exceptions, like the therapist who tells the family “assume that your child can understand everything you say within their hearing.” But one fundamental drawback to the method is that ability is indicated by action. Because it’s a data-driven method, practitioners have to fill that page with marks and numbers indicating what skills the child has demonstrated.
Again, for some things, that makes sense. You prove you can tie your shoes by tying your shoes. You may prove you’ve learned a social skill by tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention rather than punching them in the face. But when you assume someone doesn’t understand a word because they don’t repeat it, or can’t do math because they don’t point to the right answer, you run into problems, especially in autism, where dyspraxias and other mind-body disconnects are common.
ABA and its data-tracking can have good uses. The sensitive technician knows that when a child starts giving fewer correct answers, he’s getting bored with this game and it’s time to move on to a new activity. Paying attention to numbers can reveal important information– if your kid can do math in the living room better than in the classroom, there’s an important environmental factor to uncover. If he points to the right answer but says the wrong one, this might indicate a difficulty with intentional speech and a reason to move away from verbal communication.
This post is a lot clumsier and more preliminary than I had hoped, but I’m going to post it now and perhaps try to rewrite it later. I hope it at least gives some insight into why I 1) am not entirely against ABA as a potentially useful methodology and 2) object strongly certain ABA practices even when they are done in a gentle and pleasant manner.
http://emmashopebook.com/2014/02/07/no-aba/ (comments included)
If you have not done so, please read the introduction to this letter series before continuing: https://restlesshands42.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/an-open-letter-to-aba-folks-intro/
Overview of this letter:
Section 1: About the word “no” and why it is important
Section 2: Observed ABA practices in teaching “no” and why they are problematic
Section 3: Brief recap of section 2
Section 4: Practical suggestions for addressing these issues in ABA sessions
Section 1: About the word “no” and why it is important
“NO.” It’s one of our most powerful words. It’s one of the first words children learn that isn’t a noun. The “No!” phase, also known as the “Terrible Two’s,” is a critical part of human psychological development. In learning to voice a refusal, toddlers learn a huge amount about the world and themselves. They learn that they are individuals, with desires and preferences that are not always the same as those of their caregivers. They learn that they are able to express this difference of opinion in a way that others understand. And most critically they learn that, by voicing this opinion, they sometimes have the ability to change what happens to them. Anyone who’s ever had a toddler knows that sometimes they just say “no” to everything, out of sheer joy at having the power to refuse.
A major feature of autism is a difference in the way autistic and non-autistic people learn to communicate. Autistic children often take much longer than their non-autistic peers to develop speech or other formal communication methods (such as sign-language, PECS, or an electronic device).
Autism therapy often focuses on developing the ability to indicate the word “no,” for good reasons. Children who can’t use some recognizable form of “no” are a lot less happy than those who can tell their caregivers when they dislike something (a food, a place, an activity, etc.). Also, given no other means to express “no,” most children will eventually resort to tantrums or violence as a means of indicating displeasure. This can be physically and emotionally dangerous for both caregiver and child.
Section 2: Observed ABA practices in teaching “no” and why they are problematic
Ok, I assume you didn’t really need any convincing on those points. Now, let’s talk about how ABA teaches “no.” I’d like you to imagine a scenario for me. The vast majority of ABA folks are neurotypical (non-autistic), so I assume none of you have any difficulties with imagining.
Let’s say you’ve moved to another country, one whose language is particularly difficult for you to learn and use. Perhaps it has very different speech sounds than your native language, or another mode of communication entirely (humming through your nose, for example, or doing complicated dance steps).
So someone, or a group of people, is assigned to teach you the basic phrases and words you need to know in this language. The way they decide to teach you “No” (or maybe “stop”) is the following:
You’re stuck in a room with them, and they do things to you that you hate. They pinch you, or drag their nails down a chalkboard, or grab your personal belongings away from you, and they keep doing this until you say “no” to their satisfaction. Even if it’s perfectly clear what you’re trying to say, if you pronounce it just a little bit wrong, or stumble on one of those dance steps, they ignore you until you get it right. Sometimes, you did get it right, but they’re busy making notes or talking to someone else, and you have to do it again.
When you do get it right, they pat you on the head, say “good job,” and let you do something pleasant for a few minutes. Then they start up again. If you put your hands over your ears to block that horrible screeching noise, they hold your hands down. If you try to object in your own language, your objection is ignored. If you get fed up and scream or burst into tears or punch someone (and who wouldn’t, after enough of this?), or even just sit down on the floor and refuse to participate any longer, you get marked down for misbehaving. Maybe, if they’re nice and sensible, they start giving you longer breaks or do something that you don’t hate quite as much. Not much of a consolation, is it?
So maybe, yes, you will learn to say “no” in this new language. Maybe you’ll even learn it faster, in self-defense, than you would have otherwise. But what will you think about the people teaching you? Will you respect them, or just fear them? More importantly, will you believe that they respect you?
In addition, imagine that you’re a child, with little experience of the world. Your own beloved parents tell you that these teachers are here to help you, that you should obey them and try to please them. They call you their “friend,” and unless someone has already explained otherwise, you probably get it into your head that friends are people who are allowed to push you around like this.
(How many of you had a friend or sibling who took advantage of your trust or your admiration when you were little? They made you do something you hated, or got you in trouble for something they did, or tormented you in some other way… Do you remember how much it hurt? I do.)
You might even start thinking there’s something wrong with you. After all, these people are trying to help you, right? They like you and care about you and are experts. So maybe there’s something wrong with YOU for hating the lessons so much. You wonder if you’re too sensitive, too slow a learner, or just a bad person who isn’t worthy of more respect and kindness.
(I’m sure you remember feeling that way sometimes, too).
Or you start thinking it’s ok to make other people miserable, and treat your own friends this way. And then you probably get labeled “aggressive” or “antisocial” and get taken our of you classroom to go have more therapy.
Section 3: Brief recap of section 2
If all that made your head spin, let’s simplify it.
Can ABA therapy teach a kid how to say “no”? Sure.
Is it the fastest way? Maybe.
Is it worth the emotional frustration, destruction of trust, mixed messages about what “teaching” and “helping” and “caring” mean, and possible long-term hostility that can result? You tell me.
Section 4: Practical suggestions for addressing these issues in ABA sessions
OK, criticism only goes so far. I’m not here to make you feel bad; I’m here to help your jobs better. The following are my suggestions for teaching “no” or “stop” via ABA with minimal trauma.
1) Don’t do too much in one day. 1-3 trials per session, no more. Seriously. It may take longer, but it’s worth the wait. You can tell parents they are much less likely to see tantrums, aggression, and meltdowns after sessions if this is done slowly. (Technical note: whatever stimulus you use to elicit a “no” behavior is also going to be perceived as a punishment for whatever the child’s antecedent behavior was. Less technically, if you keep doing something a child hates, they’re going to wonder what they did first to make you do that to them. This can mess up other aspects of the session.)
2) Don’t give praise or additional reinforcement (rewards). The best, in fact the ONLY valid reinforcement for saying “no” is to have the other person respect that request. Don’t say “good job,” because expressing your needs isn’t a job or a task, it’s an essential human activity. Don’t make it less meaningful by assigning it the same status as answering an informational question correctly. I DO encourage you to (sincerely!) apologize to the child for doing something they disliked, or say something like “thank you for letting me know that you want me to stop” (especially if the word is replacing violent behavior!)
3) As soon as the child has a response that is recognizable as “no,” respect it. Respect it whenever possible. If it can’t be respected in a given instance, verbally acknowledge it (“I understand that you don’t like ____” — this also helps clarify the referent of the “no”) and explain why you are not going to stop just yet, or why they have to do the thing they don’t want to despite protesting (you’d do this with a typical child, right? Stop thinking of your clients as that different. They have plenty of typical thoughts and feelings– they just don’t express them the same way others do). You can use “no” as an opportunity for further engagement– offer alternatives for the child to pick (“Would you rather we did ___?”), or bargain with them (e.g. “We can stop in five minutes if you keep working with me right now”). Encourage the family to do this too, especially respecting the use of “no” as much as possible. This is crucial to maintenance. “No” will only become a true part of a child’s functional vocabulary if it is generally effective in eliciting negative reinforcement (i.e., it gets the child the result they are requesting).
4) If you need to shape the physical pronunciation of “no,” “stop,” and similar terms, do that later, separately, and via DTT that is reinforced by something utterly neutral to the situation. Don’t make correct pronunciation a high-stakes task. Again, less technically: if the child needs to say “no,” more clearly, have them practice mimicking your speech (with a bunch of words, ideally), in a game-like setting where they win stickers or candy or tokens for better pronunciation. That lets them practice saying the word more clearly without having to worry that their objections will be ignored if they aren’t performed perfectly.
Dear ABA therapists and technicians,
I’ve met a good number of you over the years. The majority of you love the kids you work with, and want to do well by them. So, for the sake of those children, please listen to some critiques of your methods. Before I start:
1) I do not categorically stand against the study of ABA, or its therapeutic application. I merely have a lot of specific concerns– concerns that come both from my own observations and from listening to dozens of autistic* teens and adults who have experienced these therapies first hand. I’m happy to give you a list of references (a good place to start is: http://jack-not-jacque.tumblr.com/post/48645978990/so-you-want-to-work-with-autistic-kids-primer).
2) I have a degree in Psychology from one of America’s top research institutions, and enough research experience to really understand how much we know– and don’t know!– about ABA and autism, given the studies that have been done. While my undergraduate focus and research were in neuropsychology, I did take classes in behaviorism as well. However, I try to avoid using too much jargon, in part to make these essays accessible to the wider public, and in part because not all programs use the terms exactly the same way.
3) If your response to anything I write is “Well, I/my program would never do THAT,” you are missing the point. Everything I discuss is being done somewhere, by someone, to autistic children and teens. If you agree that ANY of it is problematic, don’t waste your energy worrying what people think of you — worry about the suffering of all the kids who aren’t your clients. If you truly are one of the good ones, get back out there and fight against the rest. Stand up for the rights of those who have less power than you do. Talk to your supervisors and co-workers. Write articles. Bring up these issues whenever you meet autism researchers. Educate your clients’ parents. Send letters to your local editors. Talk to the teachers and counselors and psychiatrists and medical doctors who work with your clients. Help them understand just how badly some of these kids have been traumatized, and what they can do to minimize further damage.
Thank you. Together, we can do what I believe we all want to do: make a significant positive difference in the lives of autistic people.
* While some disability groups prefer person-first language (e.g. “person with autism”), the majority of people I have met who are actually on the spectrum prefer to term “autistic.” The term also encompasses those who have been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome and PDD-NOS. In general, whenever speaking to/about an individual, please use the terminology they prefer.
[Quick amendment: the term “ABA therapy” actually refers to a fairly broad category of therapies based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis, a branch of Behavioral Psychology. Because so many different approaches and programs are referred to as ABA, there is a good deal of confusion about the term within both the autistic community and the clinical practice. Generally, the ABA-based programs designed for use with autistic children seek to gradually alter specific behaviors (including actions that we ordinarily call other things, such as speech or eating), relying heavily on externally provided reinforcements, which are things that make a person more likely to repeat an action. A very simplified example: if you give a chocolate-loving child an M&M every time they say “hello,” the action of saying “hello” is likely to become a lot more frequent!]
[Second edit: Unfortunately, programs listed as “ABA” consist of everything from abusively rigorous training that teaches autistic children to suppress being themselves (classic/Lovaas-style ABA)… to play-based activities (such as Floortime and PRT) that focus primarily on the child being able to communicate their needs to their caregivers. Most “ABA”, even more unfortunately, falls somewhere between those two extremes, and it can be very difficult to untangle which methods are most problematic, and how, at first glance.]
I was talking with an ABA supervisor the other day, and she said something along the lines of “We know ABA works, and it works for just about everyone. We know because we’ve seen it.” And yes, ABA is a way to teach autistic children (or anyone else) certain skills. We’ve not only seen it, we’ve measured it and charted it and pinned it to the walls of innumerable institutions. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Because here’s the thing about science, and I say this as someone who loves science and has worked in research: In general, you’re only going to find what you’re looking for. And the ideas that are easily tested and easily measured, with results that can be easily quantified, are a lot easier to support than some broader, deeper, more complex ideas– the kind that are often critical to humanity. There’s a reason why most physics or biology books generally agree with one another, while most books on ethics or childrearing or religion do not.
Some things you can demonstrate fairly clearly with lab equipment and numbers. Others you can’t. This puts the quantifiable ones at a significant advantage in our culture. But does that mean they are better ideas?
ABA is the “standard” therapy for autistic children, because it provides results that are quick and quantifiable. Any observer, even an untrained one, can see the “progress.” The child learns to sit quietly for 3 minutes, learns to use a spoon, learns to ennunciate the word “cat” when presented with an image or the written word, learns to give a “high-5,” learns to request foods or other desired items by pointing to pictures, learns to say “I need a break” instead of tantruming, learns to say “nice to meet you” when introduced to strangers, learns to match a picture of a bed to a picture of a bedroom rather than a car.
Many of these are useful skills, yes. Many of them can be learned this way, yes. I do not object entirely to ABA as a concept (note that I am talking modern ABA– there are programs that use no aversives, include naturalistic settings, and do not rely entirely on DTT– not classic Lovaas-style ABA). ABA has its place. But that’s not the whole story.
[Another Edit: When I say that ABA “has its place,” 1) I am not necessarily recommending it for all autistic children. If anything, I think it should be more often offered to non-autistic children… and adults. And anyone who is thinking about adding it to their autistic kid’s schedule should speak to autistic adults who have had ABA therapy and learn what things absolutely need to be avoided in a therapist/program. 2) I’m talking about a few hours a week, maximum– the same amount of time you’d put your kids through any other stressful learning program like music lessons, advanced subject tutoring, or a very competitve sports program.]
By contrast, I would like to offer here the bane of many hard scientists: the anecdotal, subjective story (if it makes you feel better, you can call it a case-study). The author writes:
I knew how to read long before I could speak. There were no responses I made that would have given anyone any indications that I was reading. I even tore the pages and ate them because I wanted to keep the words. There was no way that anyone could tell that I was reading or not. I did not react or respond appropriately because I could not…
…Once I suffered Guillain Barre syndrome after an allergic reaction to a flu shot, and was paralyzed for a time. I couldn’t bat a fly on my face. My mom insisted on a homebound teacher, although I couldn’t even breath on my own and was unresponsive. The teacher came by and gave me an education that would have been the same as any other student my age. I could not respond. Did not respond. He could have been instructing the wall paper for all the indicative responses I gave. I was given tests even. He read them out and read out the multiple choice answers as well, going on to the next question without ever receiving any sort of reply.
Eventually he was gone. Never knowing he ever made a difference, perhaps wondering if it was just two hours a day of talking to himself. Actually he did some of this. Talking absently as if to no one was listening. Going through history and science and literature. But my mind drew pictures taking me to places he described. Discovering sciences. Such subjects that were never before wasted on me.
It was the best education I received. Without the teacher ever knowing that it meant anything at all. Like giving an education to someone in a coma never knowing if the other person is receiving the intended message….
…It was years later when I could express the remembered lessons.
Please reread that final sentence. Read it several times. Because it’s really important. And it’s not an isolated case, either. Time and again, autistic people report that, as children, they absorbed vast quantities of information that they could not express until much later. This is an important story. For the more data-driven among you, I refer you to the following scholarly articles: http://www.traininautism.com/Mottron/2007%20Dawson%20psychological%20science.pdf and http://www.epubbud.com/read.php?g=ET5HW22S&p=1.
My point is: just because we can prove that ABA “works” does not mean that it is the optimal or ideal strategy. It is, however, much easier to test and demonstrate the effectiveness of than, for example, lecturing a child on subjects to which they show no response or give incorrect answers for years before they are finally able to demonstrate their mastery.
A more important question than “is ABA optimal?” may be “what do we risk losing by using it as the primary method of teaching autistic children?” One obvious failing is that it takes up a lot of time– time (as well as effort and energy on the child’s part) that autistic students could use studying material more appropriate to their actual intelligence. Another consequence we can postulate is that such students may come to dislike studying or school environments, or may stop believing in their own intelligence (see self-fulfilling prophecy/Expectancy Effect). It is also, I suspect, common for ABA therapists, who rely on the ABA methods to assess skills and learning, to underestimate the intelligence and competence of their clients. The resulting inappropriate evaluations of children’s potentials may then lead to these children not being given the opportunities, responsibilities, freedoms, and academic access they need and deserve to move forward in life towards independent adulthood.
Are you worried yet?
ABA also fails to take into account that autistic children often show intelligence in quirky ways, and find creative workarounds for areas where they struggle. An ABA evaluation of language competence would likely be unimpressed by the child who barely ever speaks, but uses the word “spoon” to ask to go to Wendy’s for his favorite treat– eating a chocolate “frosty” (example adapted from a true story). The language is functional in that his family understand it, but is ultimately considered incorrect and won’t do him much good with strangers.
Perhaps you agree that it’s better for him to use the proper word, and perhaps it is. It certainly will make his life easier in certain ways if his language usage is limited to what the majority of his listeners can understand easily. But if we focus narrowly on teaching him to say only what others understand, would we stifle the incredibly creative and poetic language usage so many nonspeaking autistics develop? Emma’s term “motorcycle bubbles” (meaning fireworks) comes to mind, as does Tito Mukhopadhyay’s breathtaking metaphoric explanation for some of his unruly actions– “Thinking of apples and doing bananas” (quoted in the problematic memoir “Strange Son” by Portia Iversen). The step before that might have been answering “apples and bananas” to the question “why did you throw that?”… a response which any ABA therapist would correct to something like “I was upset,” which in no way supports and encourages the child who is trying to make an important point.
Human beings are complex, chaotic systems, with a lot of interconnected bits that we don’t understand very well. Sure, you can look at the short-term and most obvious effects of something like a specific teaching strategy, but the more global, wholistic impact is harder to assess. A certain method of teaching history might produce high SAT scores, but ultimately result in a student who hates studying history, or becomes worse at critical thinking, or becomes obsessed with politics, or becomes embittered about humanity.
Perhaps this sounds a little absurd, but I’m really not reaching here. You can teach a child to be very obedient, which looks like a good thing when they eat their vegetables and do their homework, but then perhaps they become a rebellious teen and engage in dangerous behaviors, or get into an abusive relationship because they have lost the ability to say No. Yes, I’ve seen these things happen many times. Can I prove a causal link? No. Have I seen enough cases to make me worry about the most well-behaved children, the ones who never protest? Yes. You pull one string and find it connected to an entire spiderweb, a constellation of thoughts and traits and feelings.
Let me leave you with one last attempt to change your mind. I’ve used this metaphor before, because I feel it is apt.
There was a time, not that terribly long ago, when Deaf children in the United States were taught lip-reading and speech, and the usage of any kind of sign language was discouraged at best and heavily punished at worst. The prevailing notion was that this was for the children’s own good: sign language would make them stand out, wouldn’t be comprehensible to most other people, and would therefore prevent them from ever being able to fit into society. I suspect a lot of earnest research went into the best ways to teach lip-reading and speech to the Deaf– and it was a laborious, difficult process for both student and teacher which rarely if ever produced perfect results. Some of the best students, of course, succeeded marvelously and went far in life, and most learned at least something, both of which must have seemed to justify the continued practice… as well as reinforcing a lower opinion of those who did not succeed as well.
I’m sure it took a major shift in the thinking of authorities to finally realize that Deaf people who were permitted to use their own languages could do and think and express and learn so very much more. It would have been nice if they had started out by listening to Helen Keller (yes, amazingly, she did learn to speak, but only after she had learned tactile ASL), or an island community where almost everyone was bilingual in spoken and signed language. Maybe then they could have envisioned a future which included a Gallaudet University that graduates thousands of students, the beauty of Deaf-Jam poetry, and the realization that infants can sign long before they can talk.
I’m glad we got to that future. I hope the autism authorities will start listening more seriously to the autistic community, so that autistic children can look forward to a brighter future of their own.