Anecdote from today. I was out walking with a teenage client and her BI. We’re working on teaching her to cross the street safely– stop, look, then walk. She’s not particularly interested in learning this. She’s used to having someone else take care of it for her, and she’s generally unenthusiastic about any task that requires her visual attention.
We reach an intersection, and stop. The BI prompts her to look to one side and then the other.
“Any cars?” She asks the client.
“Yes,” the client answers, although the street is completely devoid of traffic.
Now, this may well have been sheer laziness on our client’s part. “Yes” is often her default answer, and she tends to be a bit lax about yes/no questions. I have a hunch that the reason for this careless approach is that it only ever takes two tries to get a yes/no question correct, so why bother thinking about it too much? You say”yes” and then you get told “good job” or “try again.” Big deal.
(I also suspect this client of deliberately answering wrong at times during easy tasks in order to spend more time on those tasks rather than harder ones– a metaphorical “dragging her feet” tactic. So far, I seem to be the only person who has noticed this. On the other hand, she’s tricked me a number of times into helping her with a task that I later find out she’s perfectly capable of doing on her own.)
Returning from my tangent here: there is another possible explanation for her wrong answer today, and it goes back to what I said last time about precise language. Language has a lot of subtext and context, and we process them so automatically that we don’t even consider the possibility that our assumptions may not be obvious to someone else. The BI asked the client if she saw any cars. And there were plenty of cars– parked alongside the road. Is it possible that our client simply didn’t think about the purpose of the question and so misinterpreted the connotation?
“Are there any cars coming towards us?” I clarified. The BI laughed as she realized the possible misunderstanding. Unfortunately, our client’s attention had already moved on to other things, so I didn’t get a chance to find out if my rephrasing of the question was useful.
This is one of many reasons that I really wish ABA practitioners would give their clients brief explanations of tasks and their purposes before starting each task. It doesn’t do much good to teach someone to look both ways and report on the presence or absence of cars if they don’t understand that the purpose of this activity is to decide whether or not it’s safe to cross the street.
I might as well take a moment to point out that there are valid arguments on both sides here. Reasons to explain a task briefly beforehand include:
- The client might be able to judge how important this particular activity is for them (eg., they might be more attentive if they understand that the purpose is to keep them safe);
- The client might be less frustrated with a seemingly meaningless task if they can see that it is a step towards a larger goal;
- Offering an explanation is a form of courtesy and respect, of treating the client as an intelligent human being and presuming competence. If they can’t understand the explanation, there’s really no harm done, while if they can understand it, it seems rather rude not to offer one.
Reasons against include:
- Letting the client decide how important they consider a task can backfire, as children’s priorities are not always the most sensible;
- There is the possibility that the way the explanation is phrased will create misunderstandings that interfere with learning the task;
- On a related note, having the end goal in mind from the beginning might lead to the client skipping important steps in their haste to reach the result;
- Caregivers and therapists have to be more vigilant about laying blame on a client who fails at a task despite having had it explained. It’s very hard to remember that understanding the rules/steps and following them are separate skills. Also that being able to repeat the reason for something doesn’t necessarily mean understanding that reason. (I am reminded here of an anecdote in the memoir “Following Ezra” that goes something like this: the boy steals something from a classmate. To discourage this, his father tells him that when he steals, he disappoints both his father and God. The boy memorizes this lesson… and comes home the next day to cheerfully report, “Hey Dad, guess what? Today I disappointed you and God!” He had learned the words of the lesson but not the meaning, or at least not the implication, obvious to most people, that disappointing dad and God is not a good thing. He wasn’t a malicious kid, just an oblivious one. Fortunately, his father understood this and tried explaining it a different way.)
So, this post got a lot longer than I intended, and now I can’t think of a clever way to wrap it up. I hope I’ve given you something to laugh about and something to think about.
This paragraph was originally at the end of the post, but I think I should start with it instead. The purpose of this essay isn’t to “dump on” ABA people, teachers, or anyone else who has a disabled child in their lives. I’ve made dozens of mistakes I know about, and even more that I don’t, and I suspect I will continue to make mistakes. That’s why I want to remind you all to think critically about what you do and say and how you do and say it. Think about the words you use and the messages you give without words. Try to imagine the perspective of your students or clients or children, and if you can’t imagine it, read more stuff written by adults with disabilities.
It was a minor thing that got me thinking about language. I was watching a middle-school level nutrition lesson for a profoundly autistic boy, and overall it was a good lesson. But it contained the following line: “I am lactose intolerant, so I should stay away from dairy.” Although I understand figures of speech very easily, I also often notice when the logical meaning of words is not the same as the intended meaning. So I thought, “No, he doesn’t need to ‘stay away from’ dairy, he needs to not eat it.” There’s a difference. This isn’t a food he has a contact allergy to; it’s just something that will upset his digestion.
I’m sure this strikes most people as a ridiculously small thing to fuss over. But so often, even non-autistic children misunderstand what adults tell them. Most of us can remember being unreasonably afraid of something– or hoping for something impossible — because an adult said something we misinterpreted, took too literally, or didn’t realize was a joke. Sometimes we hold these misconceptions for years. For an autistic child, who tends to take language very literally, this probably happens far more often. Even the phrase I just used — to “take language” a certain way — can be confusing, as it uses the verb “take” in a sense that only exists in idioms (I am indebted to Judy Endow’s book “Make Lemonade” for this particular example, although in her case she was confused by the phrase “take care”). Often, the context corrects the confusion, and academic misunderstandings are rarely critical. But when a child is learning about their own healthcare, the language must be as accurate and precise as possible.
I’m also not sure how I feel about lessons given in the first person. When a client or student reads a social story designed to give instructions, it makes sense to think this way, as in: “I will put on my shoes before going outside,” or “When I have a question for the teacher, I raise my hand and wait until the teacher says my name.” Non-autistic people also use these kind of internal instructions. Examples include internal “pep talks,” meditation mantras, and self-reminders during a busy day (e.g. reciting “I have to go to the bank and then buy cat food”).
But it often feels weird to me when teachers or therapists write and read these sorts of instructions. Perhaps some of my objection comes from the fact that these writings often make statements about the client/student’s feelings or thoughts in a way that an outside observer cannot possibly know. Or they try to tell the student/client how to feel.
I ran into trouble with this recently. A preteen client was having difficulty waiting in line for the slide at the playground. If other children were ahead of him, he would often shove them roughly aside, and then had to be removed from the situation. Having witnessed this several times, I developed some thoughts about why this particular circumstance was so hard for him.
First, the playground we always went to was usually quiet, so there was rarely a need to wait for the slide. He didn’t expect the waiting, so he didn’t handle it well. The other problem was a conflict with another social rule he knew: saying “excuse me” when he needed to walk past someone. This skill had been very heavily reinforced at home, where he otherwise tended to crash into people while running around the house. Generally, when he said “excuse me,” someone would step aside and let him pass. At the slide, however, he would say “excuse me” to the child in front of him, but they would not let him pass, and he would become upset. I suspect that he was angry: as far as he was concerned, he was doing the right thing, and it was the other kids who weren’t following the rules.
I brought these points up to his ABA team and suggested that he needed a social script about waiting for the slide (and then had to explain that a “social script” wasn’t necessarily a verbal script but could also mean an internal set of rules for handling a situation). I was happy to see, next time I arrived, that they had put together a little social story for him. I half-listened to them read it to him before one playground trip, and planned to read it to him myself next time. When I did, however, I discovered a few problems. The script went something like this:
“My name is Joshua. I love to go to the playground and go down the slide. The slide is my favorite thing at the playground. Sometimes I have to wait for my turn at the slide. Sometimes there are other kids waiting ahead of me, and they won’t let me pass them. That is ok. It’s important to wait for my turn even if I am excited. I will wait for my turn nicely. Here are some things I can do while I wait:
I can have quiet hands
I can count to 100
I can leave the line and come back later
When I wait nicely, my mommy and daddy will be so happy. I like making mommy and daddy happy. The other kids will be happy, and I will be happy, too! I am a big boy who knows how to wait for the slide!”
Yeesh. “Quiet hands” is the first problem, but I won’t dwell on it, as others have critiqued it far better than I can (and at least in this family I’ve only ever heard it as a response to hitting or pushing people). The counting idea is an excellent one. But when I got to the last paragraph, I couldn’t bring myself to read past the first sentence. What is this, “Brave New World”? It’s one thing to point out that waiting nicely pleases people; it’s another thing entirely to tell someone how they feel about this. And “I’m a big boy” — Seriously?? He may have a moderate-to-severe cognitive disability, but he’s still almost 13, not almost 3. This kind of language is downright insulting.
When his BI (ABA person) first read it to him, I didn’t pay much attention to the words, but was bothered by the sing-songy overly cheerful voice she used– again, appropriate only for an infant or very young child. I should mention that, on the whole, I love his ABA team. They are flexible, patient, focused largely on practical skills, and generally sensible. He adores them, adores his sessions, and is learning skills that make his life easier and more independent. They are also very fond of the term “age appropriate.” They want him to have “age appropriate” self-care skills, do “age appropriate” chores around the home, and be able to participate in “age appropriate” social activities (he is a very social person, and loves to be included in games and outings, so I’m not against this goal, although I do point out that he also has the right to play in a more “babyish” way when he wants to). They even talk about getting the rest of the family to treat him more like someone his age!
So, with all this focus on age appropriate everything, how about using age appropriate language and tone of voice with him? I use simple sentences and a limited vocabulary, and sometimes I use funny voices for his amusement, but I sure hope I never talk to him like he’s in preschool. So I go off-script and finish his social story with “When you wait nicely, we’ll all be proud of you, and you can be proud of yourself.” And I say it just like I’m talking to any other person.
I have no way of knowing whether this particular client is sensitive to these nuances of language and tone. For all I know, he may be perfectly ok with it. But I’ve heard from enough adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities to know that some disabled kids will definitely notice being talked down to. And that means it’s not ok to do it to anyone.
Some thoughts that keep floating around in my mind lately, particularly in response to conversations I see on social media:
I’ve said some positive things in the past about certain versions and applications of ABA. While I’m not retracting those statements, I feel I need to point out a few things.
1. Apparently, I have been privileged to meet some truly unusual people in the field, and some companies that are so far from anything Lovaas envisioned that I don’t think he’d recognize them as ABA at all. Yes, they are behaviorism-based programs intended to alter a person’s behavior, and I know some people are categorically against this. But, honestly, all good parenting has to include some similar method for steering a child towards better and more adult behavior: incrementally, calmly, and consistently.
2. The examples I’ve seen of ideal ABA use are almost all with children whose primary diagnosis is not autism. I am realizing more and more how important this factor is. Kids who have a global developmental delay for some other reason (such as Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, or a chromosomal disorder) are often given a secondary diagnosis of autism based primarily on language delay and a bit of stimming, and I suspect they are mostly given the diagnosis in order to qualify for getting ABA covered by their insurance. And, because a lot of these kids are not really, or at least not very, autistic, the goals of an ABA program are much more in line with a developmental trajectory that makes sense for them. Which is, in short, a lot more like a neurotypical developmental trajectory, but slower and with modifications, than it is like the developmental trajectory of most autistic people.
So, yet again, what distinguishes “good ABA” from classic ABA? It’s not the lack of aversives (what most parents call “punishment”). It’s not the fact that they no longer believe in stopping kids from stimming (although that is definitely a necessary step in the right direction!).
Here are the major factors I’ve observed.
1. Good ABA consists of sessions that are no more than 1-2 hours a day, with multiple breaks, and not every day. This is a way to guarantee that even if traumatic factors remain, they are not the entirety of that child’s world. It also gives you the chance to see whether or not sessions are making your kid feel more stressed or not.
2. Good programs focus on goals that are genuinely useful. Not eye contact and writing your name, but things like:
– the ability to communicate reliably through some method (but not insisting on a single form of communication)
– safety skills like responding to the word “stop!”
– self-care skills like hand-washing, and, for older kids, independence skills like preparing food.
This alone is not enough to make a program non-abusive, but again, it’s an important place to start. Enduring something that the kid dislikes or finds uncomfortable may be a goal at times, but only when that something is hard to avoid/accommodate any other way.
3. Not pushing past a child’s tolerance level. Good programs teach and respect the use of the word “no.” They back off when they see a child becoming frustrated with a task. They don’t use physical force against a kid (yes, there are actually companies that have a “never restrain a client” rule). In short, they allow the kid some measure of control, which is probably the most critical factor in countering the abusiveness of traditional ABA. Obviously, there is still a power dynamic involved, and kids are still asked to do things they don’t like, but that’s true of almost all interactions between kids and adults. There is a big difference between getting a kid to follow a lot of the rules that other kids have to follow and demanding total, unquestioning obedience. I’ve certainly seen “ABA” sessions that involve more input from the kid than most classroom situations.
By now, anyone who endured classic ABA (or something close to it) is probably shaking their head, rolling their eyes, and/or asking if this is even remotely possible within a behavioral therapy setting. I genuinely believe that it is. Whether it should still be called ABA is a totally different issue, and a highly contentious one at that.
I’ve certainly witnessed sessions that met all these criteria. And, fortunately, very few that failed entirely on all these counts. Most commonly, though, I see either problematic methods with sensible goals (which is a hard one for me to know what to think about), or acceptable methodology with questionable goals.
Does meeting all these criteria make “ABA” perfect? No. Is there still room for abuse? Of course. There is also significant potential for abuse (intended or not) in any parenting situation, educational setting, and interaction with other children (in fact, I think kids are pretty much guaranteed to traumatize one another– have any of us, autistic or not, truly never met a bully, had a traitorous friend, or been mocked by our peers? I’d be very surprised.)
And there are other issues, including the stigma of being in therapy at all (although many programs are now so play-based and naturalistic that younger kids probably wouldn’t even identify them as anything other than having a slightly weird babysitter…). There is the fact that ABA practitioners don’t tend to respect the intelligence of their clients even when they do respect things like their sensory needs. But that, too, is by no means limited to ABA people– I’ve seen enough teachers use that high-pitched sing-song voice and appalling phrasing with neurotypical kids (the primary difference may, in fact, be that autistic kids are likely pick up on the fact that this is insulting far earlier than NT ones do). At least the good ones practice what they preach. They wait patiently, they take turns, they say please and thank you to their clients. How many of them mean it is another matter. But at least they understand that you have to show respectful behavior in order to expect respectful behavior, even if you’re only giving lip service. I know a few parents who could stand to learn that lesson
There’s the fact that repetition is not the best way for most autistic kids to learn, especially when it comes to intellectual skills (it may be helpful for procedural memory and building good habits, though). And, while I’ve met plenty of ABA folks who are genuinely fond of their clients, it is still very rare to find anyone in the field who truly believes that being autistic is not only OK but something to be appreciated.
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.
This post continues from part 2
Let me note, before I start, that the advantages I’m talking about here are a matter of applying scientific and behaviorist principles to a situation. This doesn’t necessarily require an ABA program– it’s just that, currently, ABA is the primary program in which these methods are used. ABA programs don’t always do these things perfectly, and they often add other problematic methods, but there are some very useful tools that are laid out in the science of behavior modification. In the next section, I will talk about when these tactics should NOT be used; they are by no means adequate for everything, and they can be all too easily abused, even without the intention of doing so. But they do have their uses.
1) Data Tracking
Numbers are important. They can give us information we don’t see otherwise. Our personal observations and the conclusions we draw from them are notoriously skewed. When you track something by the numbers, you take out a lot of the subjectivity involved. This can allow you to see patterns that weren’t previously apparent, and to become aware of progress that is happening very slowly. Charting patterns in a child’s behavior and the circumstances around that behavior can help parents discover their child’s needs, meltdown triggers, and so on.
- Example: A mother reports that her child comes home from birthday parties agitated. After a party, he is prone to emotional outbursts, asthma attacks, and toilet accidents. The mother speculates that the child has a sugar sensitivity, because he gets a lot of sugar at parties. She puts her son on a restrictive diet. An ABA therapist would first use numerical data to confirm that these changes really do occur after parties, then look at individual aspects of the situation. They might find, for example, that the child doesn’t have these same problems after eating dessert at home, but does experience them after days with a lot of unexpected activities. Rather than changing the child’s diet, there is a need to limit his exposure to situations with a lot of excitement and a schedule that is different from normal. His mother (and eventually the child himself) can also start to look for earlier signs that he is getting overwhelmed and intervene at that time.
2) Focus on Facts
We do a lot of speculation about people’s behavior. When behavioral markers aren’t what we expect (for instance, when a child laughs rather than cries in times of distress), it’s easy to come to the wrong conclusions (eg– he hit his brother and then laughed– he must be a cruel and unempathetic person!). Behavior is a form of communication, but not all behavior is intended to communicate a message. Whether or not a message is intentional, we can always learn something from a person’s behavior. We often wrongly assume, however, that their behavior tells us what that person is thinking or feeling. This is not always true. Sometimes, behavior is a matter of habit, which says more about the person’s past experiences than their current state of mind. Sometimes a behavior that is problematic (even for the person doing the action) has been unintentionally reinforced, and the person needs help to learn a new and better way of accomplishing the same effect.
- Example: A child often bites others. Let’s say any child who bites someone gets removed from the play room, which is something this kid actually prefers over being in a room full of other children (although a behaviorist would leave out the concept of “preference”). Recognizing that what was intended as a punishment is actually a reward for this child allows you to 1) learn that he doesn’t like being in the play room, 2) teach him a different way of asking to leave the play room, and 3) come up with a different consequence for biting that doesn’t encourage him to use biting as a means of getting what she wants in the future.
3) Providing Consistency
Numerous studies have documented that all children, not just autistic ones, require a certain amount of consistency in their life. When the rules are always changing, children become very distressed, and that distress often manifests itself behaviorally. Children who are abused, but also those who lives are disrupted in other ways (say, by a divorce or sudden change in socioeconomic status), often show increased aggression, disrupted sleep schedules, regression of formerly acquired skills like speech and toilet use, self-injury…. is this list sounding familiar? Autistic children, already overwhelmed by sensory overload and a world full of confusing neurotypical demands, need to be able to establish patterns, schedules, routines, and habits. They need those around them to give consistent and clear feedback. The repetitive drills of ABA, while infuriating in some contexts, can be very calming in others. Having a child do something like getting dressed the same way each time, in a series of definitive steps that are shown ahead of time, can take a lot of the stress and uncertainty out of daily activities. Parents and teachers are often completely unaware that they are sending conflicting messages or interfering with what the child viewed as a set routine.
- Example: At home, a child smears food on the table and draws patterns in it. This makes her sister laugh. Dad is used to messy mealtimes and doesn’t mind. At school, the child gets in trouble for the same activity. And when grandma comes to visit at home, the child again gets scolded. Major meltdowns result, and Dad is worried that this means his daughter can’t handle criticism or correction. A therapist may instead identify the inconsistency as problematic, and ask Dad to set the same mealtime rules at home as there are at school. If Dad insists that playing with food is important (what an awesome dad!), the situation can be altered to make the distinction clearer– maybe the kids get to sit at a specially designated “messy table” at home where they are allowed to smear mashed potatoes colored brightly with food coloring, while sitting at the “grown-up table” always means that formal rules are in place.
I’d like to offer three further examples of situations where ABA would be useful.
1) Fictional Scenario: Self-Feeding
Maria prefers to feed herself, from a plate or bowl. She can use a spoon but is fairly messy with it, and a lot of her meal ends up on the floor and her clothes, etc. Her parents don’t really mind the mess (at least at home), but they worry that Maria may not be getting enough food this way, especially at school where meals are timed and only a certain amount of food is made available. Maria’s pediatrician agrees that she’s a bit underweight, but there don’t seem to be any digestive problems involved.
Data tracking is the first step here. Someone sits with Maria and counts her bites. Does she eat more at home than at school, given the same bowl of food? How many bites go into her mouth versus spilling down her shirt? Is she doing other things with her food like throwing it? Does she eat some foods more effectively than others? With this data in hand, the therapist moves on to analysis.
If Maria’s primary problem is spilling food, a different type of spoon may help, or stickier food. If she’s throwing food, there may be environmental factors– perhaps she can’t eat in a loud room without getting upset and flinging food around, or she starts throwing food at home when she wants attention from Mom. In either case, the situation in which she eats needs to be changed somehow. Maybe Mom comes over and gives her a hug every time she eats five bites without throwing the food, or she gets to eat in a separate room at school. If she only throws certain foods, those foods could be switched out for something different. If she is still unable physically to get enough food into her mouth, maybe something can be done so that she’s more willing to let someone else feed her.
Here we’re looking to identify and meet Maria’s needs. It’s pointless to classify her as a troublemaker, say that she’s “doing it for attention,” that she “doesn’t care,” that she’s “stubborn,” or even that she likes or dislikes certain things. Depending on her age, there may or may not be emotional issues involved. It’s possible that Maria is anorexic and needs counseling, but it’s a lot more likely that this issue can be addressed without that (for that matter, some aspects of anorexia can be addressed this way. Even alcoholism recovery classes teach members to identify and avoid “triggers”– things that make drinking behavior more likely to occur). Yes, a certain amount of caution is needed. Rewarding children for eating can lead to disordered eating, but it can also be supportive for a child who simply finds eating to be physically difficult or tiring and so tends to not eat quite enough. Similar tactics are applied by programs that help non-autistic people exercise more regularly or cut back on smoking.
2) True Story: Stuck on “No”
A preteen client of mine (let’s call her “E”) with various developmental delays often balks at transitions. In particular, when asked to get out of the car, she often begins yelling “no!” over and over, and will lash out physically at anyone who approaches her. This occurs even when we have arrived somewhere that she very much wants to be. Sometimes, given time, she will leave the car on her own. Sometimes her mother pulls her out by force. The situation has become a habitual struggle for everyone involved.
I can come up with innumerable ideas about why this happens. It might be a somewhat symbolic power struggle. It may be one of the few situations where E can exert some power over her family, as it takes effort to forcefully remove her from the car. She may enjoy getting her mother upset. She may want to have a bit of time alone to herself, which she doesn’t get often. She may really enjoy sitting in a non-moving car. Maybe her mother used to tempt her out of the car with treats and she’s tantrumming in hopes of getting those treats again. And so on. But whatever the reason, it’s not really a behavior that has positive results for her. It significantly cuts into her time at activities she enjoys, and often results in both her and her mother being unhappy and/or getting physically hurt.
This is also an issue without a simple solution. When I first started working with E, her sister told me “take away anything she’s playing with and just ignore her until she gets bored and comes out of the car.” I objected to this at first, feeling that it was rude, especially since E kept trying to talk to me from inside the car. So, trying to be respectful, I’d keep up conversation, but I soon realized that this actually was prolonging the time E spent in the car. If I didn’t eventually stopped responding, she’d go into what I soon realized was a litany of unreasonable requests that weren’t really anything she wanted (“I want my mom! I want ice cream! I want to go to bed! I want (some nonsense word)”). Even if offered one of the things she requested, she’d ignore it. I realized that this list of requests was simply something she does when she’s not happy with a situation. She’d yell demands for a few minutes, then calm down and come out of the car. So at that point, I assumed that she might just need a few minutes of quiet time to wind herself down and be ok with getting out of the car– which is fine, as far as I’m concerned, though frustrating if we’re in a time-crunch situation. Her mother was less satisfied.
But that method stopped working at some point. And yes, things change for people sometimes– needs, preferences, habits, and so on. For a while, E was into telling us when she was “ready” for something. So I’d tell her “I’m waiting until you’re ready to get out of the car.” If she tried to engage me in conversation, I’d just repeat that. (I did learn quickly, though, that pressing her to do something once she said “I’m ready” often sent us back to square one. I had to wait until she actually started taking an action to know that she was really ready). Being the one to say “I’m ready” handed the power to her in a lot of situations where she previously hadn’t had any control, and for a while, getting her to do anything was simply a matter of asking her to tell me when she was ready to do it. But perhaps after a while she realized we were using that to manipulate her into doing things, or the novelty and enjoyment wore off, or something. The fact of the matter was, she’d gotten back into her “no!” routine in regards to getting out of the car.
I don’t think the “no!” routine is deliberate. It may even be something E would rather not do but feels unable to control. But this line of thinking isn’t really helpful here. ABA sidesteps the speculation and interpretation and goes for the only relevant question in this case: what changes can we make in this situation in order to change what happens? Some possible answers are obviously worse than others. You could try to drive her out of the car with an airhorn, offer her candy if she leaves the car quickly, take away privileges for every 5 minutes in the car (not a very effective tactic, as most parents should know).
Here’s the most recent method that her ABA team have found effective: upon arrival, swing her leg over so that she’s facing out the doorway of the car rather than still facing forward. That simple. No idea why, but somehow, this serves to break the pattern of E fighting to stay in the car. It’s simple, it’s not harmful to her or anyone else, and it doesn’t require an explanation. This is ABA at its (rare) very best.
3) True Story: All Done and Then Some
The boy I’ll call “BB” is 7 years old with a diagnosis of classic nonverbal autism. He enjoys sensory activities, especially ones that involve mixing things like liquids, paint, glue, shaving cream, and so on. When he is done with an activity, his usual behavior is to fling the components wildly about. This behavior is extremely effective for him. It guarantees the end of the activity, and usually gives him the opportunity to scamper off and get into something new (often something he knows is forbidden) while his caregiver scrambles madly to clean up behind him. In addition to making a mess, he will also throw toys out of the window or smash things when done with them. People use terms like “willfully destructive,” and “troublemaker,” and “likes to get a reaction from people” for kids like this. I don’t like these terms, and ABA (to its credit for once) doesn’t use them.
Granted, the primary problem with this behavior is for BB’s caregivers, in terms of messes created, things broken or lost, the risk of injury from flung objects or shattered glass, etc. Since his family lives in a rental, things like paint in the carpet are a financial problem. Because of this, though, BB’s behavior leads to limits on the things he is allowed to play with, as well as the time and place of playing, which isn’t ideal for him. And stressed-out caregivers aren’t exactly good for him either. No amount of explaining, scolding, reminding, punishing after the fact, or offering bribes for not making a mess has really been effective in changing this behavior… and those things are usually all most caregivers know how to do (most don’t even try all of those methods!).
So the ABA goal here is to replace the behavior of flinging things with another method of indicating that the activity is finished, such as saying or signing “all done,” moving to put things away or clean up, etc.. This is currently being accomplished by having the ABA tech watch him closely during play, and as soon as he starts showing any sign of decreased attention to the activity, they prompt him to indicate that he is done, at which point the activity ends and they walk him through cleaning up. I think they could make this switch even more effectively if they also gave BB several minutes of unstructured play time afterwards as well, since that is one of the benefits he gets when he makes a mess or breaks something.
It is also possible, though doubtful, that he does in fact enjoy the emotional reactions that people around him have when he takes more destructive actions. If this were the case, it would be easy enough to provide this, too– perhaps by having people yell “all done” loudly and run around acting excited or upset after an activity. The idea here is that, basically, any advantage he gets by destructive actions can instead be offered to him without the destruction needing to take place, which will make it as easy as possible for him to substitute new behavior for old habits. There is no placing of blame, no claims made about BB’s intentions or personality, no arguing or explaining or debating involved. And in a case like this, I think that’s exactly what is needed.
In the future, I’ll talk more about when these methods should not be used and why not, but I feel that a lot of self-advocates who have been through ABA programs have already effectively explained many of the downsides (see reading lists from the previous two parts). I’ve mentioned this before, but I also want to add that I really wish ABA programs weren’t restricted to autistic children. Most neurotypical families and classrooms would benefit immensely from ABA interventions. In fact, anywhere that people have fallen into habits can cause problems for themselves or others, ABA can help. ABA should not be used without also talking to the client about what is being done and why, even if the client is not able to respond to those explanations.
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.