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.
[This post continues a series started here]
One major way in which schools of ABA can differ is in their primary goal, their understanding of how ABA methods should be used.
1) Traditional Approach: Fighting Against Autism
Traditional ABA practitioners believe that it is inherently good for autistic children to appear, act, and communicate as “normally” (neurotypically) as possible. The gold standard here is the phrase “indistinguishable from one’s peers,” the idea that no one even has to know that this person is autistic. Many people even misunderstand this to mean that the person who attains indistinguishability has been “cured” of being autistic. That claim makes about as much sense as the notion that a person who wears a realistic wig has been cured of being bald. Sure, they may get fewer stares, but nothing about them has actually changed. And that wig might be uncomfortable enough that the person would rather not wear it.
There are innumerable studies on how to make autistic kids seem less autistic, and few (if any) on what advantages (and disadvantages!) seeming “normal” actually offers the autistic person. I won’t claim that there are no advantages– certainly, seeming normal is going to open a lot of doors in our society in terms of education, job opportunities, and social advantages. But at what cost? According to many people who have been through this therapy, the costs can outweigh the benefits by a lot (see sources list 2).
This is an area where the science is simply missing. The concept of autism as a disease or condition that needs to be cured has been so widely accepted that few researchers or other professionals have thought to challenge that fundamental assumption.
But if we look at the history of other disability rights movements, we start to see grounds for challenging the “medical model.” While many wheelchair users would like full body mobility, many others, particularly those born with their physical impairments, are very content with their life and ask only that the world be wheelchair-accessible so that they can have the same opportunities as anyone able-bodied. The majority of people born Deaf prefer to remain Deaf and use sign languages (which are complete languages, as complex and real as any spoken language, with their own culture, dialects, poetry, and so on) rather than risk partial (and painful) hearing restoration via cochlear implant (a wonderful example of what the world sounds like via implant may help non-Deaf people understand this preference).
And plenty of people make choices that others would find terribly limiting– not teaching their children multiple language, not having children at all, working in a career that is emotionally rewarding but not financially so, or the reverse, codes of dress or diet restrictions imposed by religious belief. What right, then, do we have to criticize someone’s preference for the comfort of repetitive activities? Why do we pathologize these people but not the thrill-seekers who perform dangerous stunts and participate in extreme sports?
The medical model assumes a basic “normal” state for the human body and mind, from which deviations are problematic. Closer observation of human history makes this viewpoint implausible. Genius and madness often run hand-in-hand (see Dr. Kay Jamison’s book “Touched With Fire”). People with reduced empathy are often the most successful financially (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/05/29/business/psychopath-andy-mcnab/index.html). Plenty of artistic and scientific geniuses struggled in other areas of their life, from socializing to mental health to financial management (Van Gogh and Mozart died in poverty, Einstein’s socks didn’t match, Emily Dickinson was a hermit, Ben Franklin was a womanizer… who’s “normal,” anyway?).
There are physical tradeoffs we rarely consider. Being extremely tall gives social advantages but increases the risk of heart problems. The pale skin so socially prized in many cultures around the world is an invitation to skin cancer. Sometimes we even make these choices deliberately, as when ballet dancers or boxers push their bodies to the absolute limits of human endurance, despite risking major health issues later on. We celebrate these people, but we’d also be pretty badly off if everyone in our society were an athlete or a distracted genius or a ruthless CEO. We need diversity of personality, diversity of interests, diversity of approaches to the world.
Sure, you say, but there are limits. It’s not like we actually want serial killers and people with PTSD all over the place. How do we tell when diversity is positive and when it is disruptive or undesirable? We have to look at some level of cost-benefit analysis, and I think the main relevant points to analyze regarding any condition are: Is it hurting others? and Is it making the person miserable?
Parents and professionals see autistic children struggling and assume that autism needs to be cured to alleviate that suffering. But this is often misinterpreting the actual problem, which is the mismatch between the needs of autistic people and the environments they live in. A wheelchair user isn’t going to be happy in a city full of stairs. You don’t take a bird for walks on a leash. You don’t feed dog food to a hamster. Someone with asthma might be perfectly well so long as they aren’t exposed to heavy air pollution. You don’t cure prejudice by telling the victims to stop being gay or Black or Catholic… or autistic.
But that’s exactly what traditional ABA is trying to do. Its faulty logic is: neurotypical behavior = neurotypical neurology. Standing out is bad and fitting in is good. Autistic people won’t be happy unless they learn to do the things that non-autistic people enjoy doing (such as socializing with groups of people or communicating verbally or shopping at the mall).This is the error I talked about parents making in the previous post. They want their children to be happy, of course– but they assume that the autistic person’s criteria for happiness are the same as their own.
When you start from this fundamentally flawed assumption, you are doing damage, 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.
2) Improvements on the Traditional Model: Autism is not the Enemy
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 needs to be re-examined.
Another example: a reasonable educational goal is set for the child, like being able to do arithmetic. But the therapist assumes that wrong answers result from a failure to understand, not from dyspraxia that leads the child to point at the wrong answer unintentionally. There are many self-reports from autistic people explaining that this is a common occurrence for them, but researchers have failed to take this into account when developing treatment protocols. The result is a lot of time wasted attempting to “teach” a child information they already know, a lot of frustration and anxiety on the part of the child, and a serious underestimation of the child’s intelligence or academic potential.
Too often, ABA practitioners in this category 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.
3) Getting It Right: Supporting the Autistic Experience
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 — not to make them less autistic, but to help them to function better as an autistic person. They want the child to feel empowered and competent. 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. They also focus a lot on adapting the behavior of other family members to be more supportive toward the autistic child.
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 needs or is trying to accomplish, and then seek to teach the child an effective and reliable way of reaching that goal (a way, additionally, that doesn’t involve anyone– including the child– getting hurt or being made miserable). 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. The point is, he’s learned something useful.”
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.
It can, of course, be difficult to define the line between helping a person grow and changing who they are. When are you helping a child by having high expectations for them versus pushing them to do something they truly can’t manage? How do you balance respecting a child’s needs and preferences with teaching them the necessary amount of patience, self-control, ability to face disappointment, and so on? These questions are much harder to answer empirically, and honestly, we’ll probably never have the perfect answer, especially since it’s bound to be different for every individual. But we do know that a child has to feel safe before they can focus on learning. That a child who is in pain (physical or emotional) is unable to perform at their best. And that every person, regardless of ability, needs to feel respected and heard.
Source list 2 (in no particular order):
– “The major false premise, common to much autism research, is that autism is a “disorder” rather than a difference. When a researcher starts from that premise, they will be looking for “causes” of the “defect” rather than for an understanding of the source, function, and consequences of the difference.” – This article also notes some other specific flaws in most autism research. http://www.mfw.us/blog/2014/03/09/cart-before-the-horse-research-multisensory-integration-in-autism/#sthash.DHlX7js7.dpuf
– “I was treated with mostly kindness, but the therapists could not see beyond their training. I learn quickly, but am not able to reply with words that sound right to another.
Worry becomes everyone’s focus.
Real learning happens when no one notices.
The goals waste away.
Tender feelings do not hurt, but are not helpful because they cannot soothe wounds of being constantly underestimated.” – 12-year-old Emma Zurcher-Long, on her experience of ABA therapy at ages 2 & 3. http://emmashopebook.com/2014/02/07/no-aba/
– “A small but growing number of multidisciplinary researchers are challenging the autistic stereotype and finding, in many cases, that our knowledge of autism has been built upon unsupportable ideas about normality, intelligence, sociality, eye contact, empathy, language development, child development, and communication.” Excellent reading here, with a lot of scientific references. Thoroughly debunks several common assumptions, including the idea that eye contact equals attention, even in neurotypicals. http://karlamclaren.com/research-based-approaches-to-autistic-ways-of-learning/
– “Taking away things like hand flapping or spinning is not done to help the child. It is done because the people around the child are uncomfortable with or embarrassed by those behaviors. But those are coping behaviors for the child. It is very important to question why a child engages in the behaviors they do. It is very wrong to seek to train away those behaviors without understanding that they are the child’s means of self-regulation. When considering whether you have made a wise choice in what therapy you are providing your child or not, you want to always remember a few cardinal rules: behavior is communication and/or a means of self-regulation. Communication is more important than speech. Human connection is more important than forced eye contact. Trust is easy to shatter and painfully difficult to re-build. It is more important for a child to be comfortable and functional than to “look normal.”
Work on things like anxiety and sensory issues first. Work on getting better sleep (both you and your child). Things like eye contact can come later, much later, and only if your child is comfortable with them. There are work-arounds. Lots of people fake eye contact. Lots of people have good lives with minimal or no eye contact. But forcing a child to do something that is deeply painful and distressing for no reason other than to make them look more normal is not just unnecessary, it is cruel.” This source was also quoted in a previous section. https://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/aba/
– “Being declared indistinguishable from peers does not do any favors to the child, except maybe ending the hours and hours of discrete trial training. Being academically “on track” does not magically confer socialization or executive function abilities….
This also essentially punishes Autistics for learning coping skills. They might get you through the lower grades, maybe even into high school or young adulthood if circumstances line up, but there will come a time when scripts and constant vigilance are not enough. There is always too much to process, too much to juggle, more and more things to do and ever increasing demands. Putting a veneer of “indistinguishability” on top of that is just setting us up for burnout. “ – This is part of a wonderful series of posts about the downsides of “indistinguishability.” http://timetolisten.blogspot.com/2013/09/indistinguishable-from-peers.html
– “...even when people know eye contact can be painful and that we will not pick up much social information, we are STILL expected to perform the feat for the social comfort of others.” – Also quoted earlier. http://ollibean.com/2014/10/28/autism-and-eye-contact/#sthash.iSXIsfKU.dpuf”
– “The case I want to make against “quiet hands” is that in addition to being emotionally damaging, it’s cognitively counterproductive. Think back to the experiment where the people who were told to resist eating chocolate gave up more easily on solving puzzles. Substitute stimming for chocolate and learning long division for solving puzzles. Add in the fact that autistic people have impaired executive function to begin with, making inhibition of actions more challenging, and you can see why asking a child to resist stimming is counterproductive if you’d also like them to learn a new skill.” Excellent and clear explanation, with references. http://musingsofanaspie.com/2013/06/18/a-cognitive-defense-of-stimming-or-why-quiet-hands-makes-math-harder/
– “I think “compliance” is a lazy shortcut term for something more important or more measurable or more relevant. “He was compliant today.” What does that mean? That he did what he was told to do because his spirit was broken and he went through the motions? That she did what she was asked to do because she understood why she needed to do something? That he was guided toward possible options and that staff and support folks helped him reach decent decisions about what to do or not to do?” http://blog.dadsofdisability.com/compliance/#.U2qlX_ldWX9
– “I need to silence my most reliable way of gathering, processing, and expressing information, I need to put more effort into controlling and deadening and reducing and removing myself second-by-second than you could ever even conceive, I need to have quiet hands, because until I move 97% of the way in your direction you can’t even see that’s there’s a 3% for you to move towards me.” Quoted many times before. http://juststimming.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/quiet-hands/
– ““It frustrates me to look back at how my ABA teachers drilled me endlessly in basic skills only to say it wasn’t mastered because I had inaccurate pointing. I knew everything so easily. I was bored to tears but my apraxic hands would go to the wrong card so they thought I didn’t know “book” or “tree”. I did it over and over. It was the worst. The assumption that people don’t understand if they reply incorrectly is a huge misconception. ABA is built on this erroneous premise.”” – Ido Kedar, quoted at http://emmashopebook.com/2013/11/05/more-on-aba/
[Read the Introduction here]
SOMETHING IMPORTANT IS MISSING
ABA-based therapies are currently considered the only scientifically validated “treatment” for autism in the United States. Let me defer, for the moment, discussing what is meant by “treatment” and whether or not that is an appropriate word to use.
Any medical or therapeutic treatment, particularly one used on children, should be subject to rigorous safety testing by independent researchers. To the best of my knowledge, no such research has been done. By this, I mean research that actively looks for any downsides to ABA, and follows clients up in a long-term study with a control group.
I have come across many possible side-effects to ABA (and related therapies/teaching methods), mostly reported by autistic adults and autism parents, and occasionally by professionals. Some may be evident immediately, but others are only noted many years later (perhaps the client is aware of them earlier but is unable to report until much later due to delayed language skills or the difficulty many autistic people have in recognizing and reporting emotional experiences. Also, sometimes the client has to reverse habits learned in ABA therapy before realizing how detrimental they were.)
Here is an incomplete list:
acute emotional distress; decreased self-esteem, self-hatred; depression; anxiety (particularly when being observed by others); suicidal ideation; post-traumatic stress disorder; loss of trust in others, including primary caregivers; increased aggression; reduction in or loss of “savant” skills; inability to respond appropriately to sexual assault, pressure, or predation (attributed to compliance training); difficulty judging or expressing one’s own preferences; and reduced independence. (See sources list 1).
Additionally, any treatment should be held to a set of ethical standards, established by a central organization and required by all practitioners. As autism mother and professional writer Ariane Zurcher notes, people don’t usually have reason to question whether established medical treatments (she uses the example of chemotherapy for cancer) are ethical or not. But most autistic communities have serious concerns about the ethics of ABA.
ABA practices are not standardized, are not regulated, and are open to a large amount of parental influence. This is a problem because most parents of autistic children, while in many ways the ultimate experts on their own children, are not experts on autism in certain crucial ways and make certain assumptions from their own neurotypical perspective that may seem like common sense but ultimately not be what their child needs (currently, most ABA folks also make those incorrect assumptions, but I will address that point later).
To draw a parallel, we expect a doctor to listen to a mother’s description of her child’s symptoms, but we hope that the doctor wouldn’t prescribe an inappropriate medication or dangerous procedure simply because the parents want it. And while parents may have to intervene at times in their child’s education, we don’t expect that a father should be allowed to rewrite exams or insist that the teacher add new material to the curriculum! But most ABA programs are largely centered around the parents’ goals for the child, and those goals, which are usually based on expectations for a typically developing child, are not always healthy or safe for an autistic child. There needs to be some oversight here, based (again) on thorough research.
So this is my first concern about ABA therapies: the methods are not safety-tested, and practitioners are not held to established ethical standards. Would you give your child any other “treatment” that didn’t fit those criteria?
Sources list 1 (very incomplete, in no particular order, and NOT EASY TO READ, i.e. lots of trigger warnings):
– Oliver Sacks, in “The Man Who Mistook his Wife For a Hat,” recounts an instance of profoundly autistic adult brothers who were mathematical savants until undergoing intensive speech therapy.
– “You’ve heard that eye contact is about sharing and social referencing and subtle messages and cues being sent among communicative partners. That’s not what this is at all! This is the sledgehammer. This is the safeword, if you will, the “this stops now it has to it has to it has to make it stop nownownownownow no matter what”.
“Where did I get this idea? Therapy. That’s where… My brain knows that for most people a straight in the eyes stare is not the signal for “something needs to stop right. now.” but it isn’t that easy. One of the deepest conditioned things I have is “eye contact is giving in. If you do that, the bad will stop.” This is irrational and untrue and the world doesn’t work that way. It’s deep, though, as the first and most consistent of the wrestling matches I had with adults as a small child.” – http://timetolisten.blogspot.com/2014/03/conditioned-eye-contact.html
– “Her internal model of friends is “I do what they tell me to do”. No one has to be nice to her, or put up with her, so she has to do what they ask. “No” isn’t an option… People ask, and she does. And when people don’t ask? She doesn’t know what to do. The guessing is impossible. Not knowing what they want is oh so anxiety provoking that she cannot breathe for hyperventilation. They can tell her they don’t want anything, but that’s never true. People always want something and the guessing game is not a thing she can do anymore.
People say they don’t want anything. They always want something. Stand up, sit down, touch nose, good girl. Do my homework for me. Social media crisis this. Can you cover another shift at work? These, she understands. “Just be my friend” doesn’t mean anything.” – http://timetolisten.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-cost-of-indistinguishability-is.html
– “…what looks like progress is happening at the expense of the child’s sense of self, comfort, feelings of safety, ability to love who they are, stress levels, and more. The outward appearance is of improvement, but with classic ABA therapy, that outward improvement is married to a dramatic increase in internal anxiety and suffering.” – https://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/aba/
– “Children like yours — children like I was — are taught to be compliant. That’s what 90% of autism therapy looks like to me: compliance training. They become hungry for those words of praise, those “good girls,” the M&Ms or stickers or other tokens you use to reward them. They learn quickly that when they do what you want them to do, they are a “good girl” and when they try to do what they want, they are a “bad girl.” I was not allowed to refuse to hug the man who sexually molested me for a decade of my childhood because I might “hurt his feelings.” That’s pretty major, but there were millions of minor experiences along the way, chipping off my understanding of myself as something owned by myself and not something owed to the world around me.” – http://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/no-you-dont/
– “People worry a lot about their “violent” Autistic children as they get bigger and stronger and harder to control. But far too often, the “violence” is stirred up by years of very frustrating therapy…. There’s only so long that a person can take being pushed into sobbing meltdowns of frustration before they are willing to do whatever it takes to get the torment to stop. It is not only heart-breakingly cruel to treat a child this way, it is grossly irresponsible. Therapy like this creates problems. The best it will produce is a child trained to do things that make no sense in order to avoid distress and get rewards. The worst it will produce is a child that bites, kicks, hits . . . and gets bigger and stronger along with becoming less and less controllable. This therapy is not designed to raise a child who feels safe and comfortable with who they are, who feels safe to express their individuality, who is mentored in growing and developing into the best person they can be, expressing their true nature in ways others can come to connect with. ” – http://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/what-does-helpful-vs-harmful-therapy-look-like/
[This post continues in part 2]
[This post is being re-written and expanded into a series. The introduction portion is not heavily edited from the original, but the rest is.]
So here I’m going to talk, again, about ABA, about the disconnects and disagreements that I see whenever ABA is discussed online in autism-related communities, and about my own thoughts on ABA as a scientist.
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” is very distressing.
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 I want to write about what I think is going on here.
Note: I’m not going spend much time on the origins of ABA therapy, because that’s a bit like judging modern psychotherapy by only discussing Freud. While there are still plenty of places that practice pure Lovaas-style ABA (or worse), those aren’t usually the people who participate in these discussions.
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.
[This post continues in here]
I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion online lately about ABA-based therapies.*
Can these therapies ever be done right? How can you tell when a therapy is damaging even though it is play-based, uses no aversives, and doesn’t seem unpleasant for the child undergoing it? Are stressful therapies ok in small doses?
Most people, including most of the ABA therapists I’ve met, agree that one of the most important things for any person to learn is how to say “No,” verbally or not. I’d like to describe two different ways I’ve seen an ABA technician work on this with an autistic client. On paper, the two ABA programs sound about the same (Note: (the people who perform the “therapy” sessions with the kids are trained by private companies and not licensed as healthcare providers or educators in any other way, to the best of my knowledge. Program supervisors generally require some form of degree in psychology). Similar stated goals and methods. But observing the techs in action reveals important differences.
The client is 11, minimally verbal (uses single words spontaneously and short sentences with prompting). Therapy consists of 2-hour sessions twice a week after school.
The tech treats the lesson plan casually. She and I and the client lounge on the floor of the living room, or go about the house working on various skills, most of them skills that are often taught by an OT or PT (dressing, using the toilet, preparing to go for a walk, eating a meal). At one point, the tech leans over and tickles the client lightly. The client pulls away a little, and the tech immediately prompts, in a friendly tone of voice as though giving advice to a friend, “You know, you can say ‘I don’t like that,” or ‘please stop,” or…”
“Stop, please,” says the client. The tech immediately stops, and smiles at the client,
“Thank you for telling me,” she answers.
This kind of exchange happens maybe once or twice a week.
The client is 7, mostly nonverbal, and has 2 hour sessions several times per week. The client is required to sit at a desk for most of the session, although some activities are done while sitting on the floor instead.
The client is engaging in a favorite activity at the table, mixing colors of play-doh together. The tech reaches over into the activity space, deliberately interrupting. The client pushes her hand away, and she ignores this, putting her hand back in the way so the client can’t continue playing. “nuh,” the child says quietly, sounding annoyed, not looking up, still intent on the activity.
“Stop,” the tech corrects, prompting him to use the specific word that has been pre-determined in his program as a “goal.”
“Stah,” mimics the client. The tech withdraws her hand, nods as if in satisfaction, and makes marks on her tally sheet, obviously grading the child’s performance. This process is repeated multiple times per session.
Case 1 isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a good shot at managing a necessary evil in a relatively decent way (the necessary evil being that, in order to make sure a kid knows how to object to things reliably, you pretty much have to provide or at least allow something they dislike for them to object to). The tech didn’t push, didn’t insist on a specific response, didn’t judge… just offered an alternative. The client was treated as a human being.
Case 2 makes me feel sick to my stomach. There’s no camaraderie, no politeness, no explanation, and not even a pretense of respect for the client’s wishes. Just training, and frustration. This is more “pure” ABA– no distractions, no additional variables, no unplanned interaction between client and therapist. But what upset me most was that the tech seemed to care only about reaching the objective, having the client perform to a pre-set standard, and not about whether or not the client was experiencing and understanding the power and value of being able to make a request and have it respected. There seemed to be no acknowledgement of the fact that the goal of the work (and the only possible acceptable reason or excuse for these therapies at all) is to provide the client with a skill that is, at least to some degree, useful to them. Communication that will be understood by others, no matter the format, is one such goal, and I think worth even some pain, though of course it should be the minimum of pain possible.
Missing from both is another crucial marker of respect: apologizing to the client for doing something they disliked. And, in a larger critique, it is very problematic that, in this world, someone saying “please stop” is more likely to have their needs respected than someone who simply pulls away, and someone who pushes someone else away is more likely to be labeled as “aggressive” than “self-advocating.” That needs to change. In the meantime, there are better and worse ways to teach someone how to lodge a verbal protest. I got to see both.
* Note: there’s a lot of confusion about terminology, especially in America, where anything that can plausibly, or even implausibly, be labeled “ABA” gets the title so as to be covered by insurance companies. The briefest overview I can provide is that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a particular subdiscipline of behavioral psychology, has given rise to a wide range of “interventions” and “therapies.” The classic ABA therapy is an aggressive and rigorous program of DTT, based on the work of Lovaas, who wanted to make autistic people become, or at least appear, “normal”… and cure men who acted in any way effeminate or homosexual. Most autistic people consider this to be despicable at best and outright psychological torture at worst. More modern approaches such as PRT now apply behavioral principles in ways that are gentler, more flexible, more naturalistic, and more enjoyable for the client… but their goals are often (though not always) still based on the premise that becoming more “normal” in various ways is a reasonable goal for autistic children. Most autistic self-advocates and their supporters are deeply uncomfortable with this notion, too.
[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.
Disclaimer: I’m not a licensed ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapist. I have a BS in psychology and have taken classes on behavior modification, of which ABA is one form. I have not worked much with autistic children, but I spend a lot of time communicating with autistic adults. I do work closely with a child who receives ABA therapy, but his disabilities are very different from classic autism.
[EDIT: I should also add that ABA is far from the only behaviorism-based intervention therapy. Many different practices have been developed based on the simple principles of behaviorism first laid out long ago by Pavlov and Skinner, designed to do everything from teaching sports to helping people quit smoking… and some of the suggestions I make below may work much better with one of them. The best teachers and parents use behavioral principles instinctively – rewarding good behavior and associating positive acts with positive results. Most, unfortunately, get it wrong and wind up training their kids into bad habits like tantruming and whining. I wish every parent in the world would take a basic class in behaviorism.]
As I’m sure most people in autism circles know, there is a lot of tension out there between the Autistic Self-Advocacy community, many of whom have been bullied, abused, and otherwise treated horribly for who they are, and the community of parents of autistic children, who are often overwhelmed, bewildered, scared for their children’s safety and futures, and frustrated that, in addition to all the stress of being parents, they have to be parents to children who are nothing like what the parents expected.
I come down, on the whole, firmly on the side of the self-advocates; I think it is critical to listen carefully to what any marginalized community says about their own experiences. At the same time, I think they sometimes forget that many parents do not have the tools or the ability to build a fully autism-friendly life for their children, and that some compromises simply have to be made (as much as I hate them) at this point, in order for an autistic child to be integrated into our terribly narrow-minded society.
All of which brings me to the point of this post: based on what I know… when would I use or not use ABA [or rather, any behavioral intervention therapy, of which ABA is currently the most common and popular] with an autistic child?
I would NOT use it to:
- Stop them from stimming
- Try to teach them to look or act “normal” (neurotypical)
- Make them use eye contact, hand shaking, and other neurotypical social behaviors that may be incredibly stressful for them
- Teach them language (?). This one I’m not sure about. Some communication skills, I think, can be taught via behavioral therapy, though something like PRT (pivotal response training) works much better for this than discrete trial training, which is the method used by most ABA therapists.
I WOULD consider using ABA to:
- Stop children from continuing behaviors that are dangerous to themselves or others. Note: much self-injurious behavior (hand-biting, head-slapping) is not actually dangerous, and should not be interfered with– it may serve as a very important coping skill, and taking it away could cause your child psychological harm.
- Train motor skills like shoe-tying or hand-writing (to be honest, I’d have to look into this one a little more, too. There are some aspects of typical ABA that may need to be modified or avoided. For instance, often an ABA therapist will guide a child’s hand with their own during a new task, which would be harmful to a child with sensory sensitivities that make them averse to being touched)
- Introduce new things into the life of a child who is easily upset by change. One of the good things about ABA is that it is very routine-based. If used correctly, this consistency could actually work well with an autistic child’s preference for the predictable.
I would also be very cautious about using ABA with children older than kindergarten-age, because at that point they have enough self-awareness to figure out that someone is trying to change (or worse, “fix”) them, and this can be very emotionally damaging. It is also critical to find a therapist who is willing to question norms, to believe in letting children “be themselves” as much as possible, and look at the real root of behaviors that are labeled “problematic.”
Hypothetical Situation #1:
Your child insists on eating exactly the same thing every day, and has a very limited range of foods zie [gender-neutral pronoun replacing he/she, pronounced “zee”] is willing to eat, to the point where you are concerned about zir health.
Use ABA to train the child to eat a given quantity in order to get a reward, or before zie is allowed to leave the table. It may work, but will be a traumatic process for both you and your child, and increases the risk that zie will develop an eating disorder later.
1: Make sure your problem is actually a problem. Talk to a nutritionist. A limited diet isn’t necessarily an unhealthy one, and if zie is getting all of zir food groups, there’s honestly nothing wrong with zir eating the exact same thing every day. Yes, it may be stressful when eating out and you may have to stand up for your child and yourself when others criticize, but that alone is not enough reason to make your child miserable at mealtimes. Your child’s health must come first, and that includes not having zie traumatized by having to force zirself to eat foods that make zir feel ill.
2: If your child is not getting everything zie needs, try supplementing with vitamins or fortified foods.
3: Consider the reasons behind your child’s pickiness. An insistence on sameness can be a sign that zie is stressed and cannot cope with any additional uncertainty. See if you can do things to make mealtimes calmer, or let your child take zir plate into a quiet room to eat alone once zie is old enough to feed zirself. Another issue might be sensitivity to certain flavors, textures, or combinations of textures. Let your child try plain, unmixed foods. Look for things with similar textures to foods zie already likes.
4: ABA might be helpful in teaching your child to try new foods. It can even become part of your child’s routine– a single bite of something new at the beginning of every dinner. I would start getting the child used to this by first having zir try “new” foods that aren’t really new– a favorite food colored with food coloring or cut into a new shape, and reward zir for eating it. Then, once your child has gotten used to eating zir “new bite” every night, introduce variations. Once the idea of tasting something is not, itself, a struggle, it will be easier for you to tell what foods zie genuinely cannot tolerate. Do not force your child to continue eating anything that makes zir retch, gag, cringe or spit.
Hypothetical Situation #2:
Your child has an opportunity to so something that zie would really like or that would be helpful for zir– joining a mainstream classroom, attending concerts or museums– except that zie has a stim/habit that isn’t compatible with that situation, like making loud noises during classical concerts or being unable to stay in zir seat at school.
Sadly, the “standard” solution here is to use forceful ABA to train your child that zir behavior is bad and must be stopped/controlled. Just don’t; you’ll end up with a traumatized child. (Read one person’s experience here: http://juststimming.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/quiet-hands/)
Ideally, the world would be more tolerant of your child’s differences. But you can’t always find places and people who comply. Can you find a balance? Yes.
1: Seek out options that work for your child first– can your arrange with zir teacher for zie to be given regular breaks at school to run around, or sit on a modified chair that is more comfortable for zir? (Often, children are restless because they need sensory feedback. Sitting on a chair that bounces, or wearing a weighted vest, can make it easier for them to sit still.) Can you attend concerts that are child-friendly and used to interrupting noises? Do your child’s noise outbursts indicate that something is distressing zir that needs to be addressed?
2: Consider behavior modification only after looking for other solutions. Also ask yourself if the benefits of behavior modification will be worth the struggle– to your child. If zie adores classical music, it may well be worth zir while to learn to sit quietly for an hour. If zie just hates being at concerts, it’s possible that no amount of intervention is going to stop zir from fussing.
3: Talk to a therapist about using ABA to reward the behavior you want rather than get rid of the behavior you don’t want. A therapist can, for instance, help train your child to sit still/quietly for increasingly long periods of time– starting with just a minute or two, if needed. It should be made clear to your child that there are only certain times when zie is expected to be quiet/still, of specified duration, after which zie will be allowed to relax and behave naturally.
4: Remember that, just like tying laces or learning math, staying quiet is hard work for your child. Understand, too, that like math skills, not all children have the same inherent ability to do this work, and getting angry at them for their failures will not help them do better. Instead, encourage and reward any improvement in their behavior, no matter how small, so they can learn one step at a time. An ABA therapist can help you learn the most effective methods of doing this.
Problem-solving is a complex process of having everyone’s needs met as much as possible. To work well, it has to involve patience, compassion, and thinking outside the box. When caring for a child on the spectrum, neurotypical adults will have to step out of their comfort zones, empathize with experiences that are completely unfamiliar to them, and accept that their most basic “common sense” assumptions don’t always apply. I would encourage parents of autistic children not to rely entirely on professionals, but instead to also consult adults on the spectrum to help them understand their children’s behavior and the reasons behind it.