I have mentioned in this blog many times that ABA therapy (Applied Behavior Analysis) is the only formal therapy that we do for both of our autistic children. My husband and I whole-heartedly believe that the only reason that SB is able to function in a mainstream classroom at age 8 is because he has been receiving intense ABA therapy since age 2. After my last post, Stopping the Panic! Terror! Meltdowns!, I was really feeling like I just wanted to shout it to the world how positive ABA has been for our family! Yet I still read criticism of ABA on a somewhat regular basis, and occasionally meet parents who will not do it for their child for one reason or another. Here are just a few of the criticisms I’ve come across recently either in person, online, or in print, and my attempts to dispel these myths:
1) ABA makes the child robotic in their speech and/or actions.
Yes, maybe SB’s language is a little more rigid and less fluid or natural than his peers. But HE’S TALKING TO ME! Isn’t that much better than NOT talking to me? He did not even begin to speak until after he started therapy, and I believe that if he had never had ABA, he might still be nonverbal today. And believe me, life got a whole hell of a lot better for ALL of us once he learned to communicate. Can you imagine how frustrating life would be if you could not tell anyone what you wanted or needed?
2) ABA is brainwashing by reprogramming the child with appropriate responses.
“Brainwashing” is a big scary, word. Yes, ABA therapy is essentially reprogramming a child to respond differently in certain situations. But so is giving your child dessert when they finish their meal, letting your child watch TV after they finish their homework, taking away their iTouch when they don’t clean their room like you asked, not to mention giving your employees a paycheck for showing up to work and doing their jobs. The main principle of ABA is to demand a small, manageable task from the child, and then give them a reward for doing it to increase the likelihood that they will do it again. Exactly like getting dessert for finishing your vegetables. Except that the small, manageable task is usually a skill that you would never need to reward a typical child for, such as to say the word “ball” or to put a block into a shape sorter.
3) The therapists use physical violence, such as hitting, slapping, or shocking the child.
If your ABA therapist does this, find a new ABA therapist. Fast. Physical violence may have been considered a normal practice in the 1960’s, but it is NOT in 2013.
4) It is a money-making scam for ABA therapists.
There is much scientific evidence that proves that ABA therapy is effective in helping people with autism. It is not a money-making scam. There ARE a lot of money-making scams out there that claim to treat autism. ABA is most absolutely not one of them. Here are a few links you should check out if you are looking for more information about what ABA is and the evidence that it is effective in the treatment of people with autism.
My favorite line from this link is, “Effective ABA intervention for autism is not a “one size fits all” approach and should never be viewed as a “canned” set of programs or drills. On the contrary, a skilled therapist customizes the intervention to each learner’s skills, needs, interests, preferences and family situation.” This individualization of each child’s program is one of the most important aspects of ABA.
My second favorite line is, “Competently delivered ABA intervention can help learners with autism make meaningful changes in many areas. However, changes do not typically occur quickly. Rather, most learners require intensive and ongoing instruction that builds on their step-by-step progress.” Yes. It is slow, tedious, and sometimes you don’t even notice the progress for months. But you just can’t give up.
Most important line from this link: “ABA is the only treatment for autism whose benefits have been consistently validated by independent scientific research. In fact, ABA has been endorsed as an effective intervention for autism by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the United States Surgeon General.”
This link for the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis is for those of you who want to read actual scholarly, peer-reviewed articles containing real scientific studies.
This is a link to the book Educating Children With Autism. I have not read this book, but our ABA therapist recommends it if you want more in-depth information about behavior analysis.
5) ABA therapy teaches the child lots of unnecessary skills.
This one someone actually said to me in a Facebook comment. I thought I would list just some of the things my children are working on right now in their ABA programs, and let you decide if you think these skills are “unnecessary.”
– To learn how to keep an acceptable amount of space between themselves and other people, because walking up to people and placing your hands all over their bodies and in their hair makes them feel uncomfortable.
– To learn how to label the emotions on the facial expressions of others. This is done using pictures, videos, and in person.
– To learn how to manage their school time efficiently, by being rewarded for staying on task and staying in their seat during work time.
– To learn to imitate peer movements during group activities (such as circle time at school) without adult prompts.
– To learn how to have a conversation with others by taking turns, asking questions, making comments, not talking about the same thing for too long, and staying on topic.
– To learn how to use the appropriate volume when having a conversation with others by matching the volume others are using. (SB has a natural tendency to talk MUCH louder than most situations require.)
– To learn how to play with peers by practicing things like turn-taking and the language used during play in play dates. (What do you want to play? I’m all done with this for now. Can I play with you? Etc.) Also, to learn to be flexible with peers during play dates, because you can’t ALWAYS play only what you want to play. (We have weekly play dates at our house with typical peers for both of our children as part of their ABA sessions.)
– To learn how to read a story, and then retell in their own words what happened in the story, either verbally or in writing.
I have to admit that early on, when he was only 2 or 3, some of SB’s therapy goals did seem a little strange to me. For example, his therapists used a lot of picture cards, laying a group of cards down in front of him and requiring him to match the identical pictures with each other. Later, when he had mastered that, he had to match similar pictures with each other (such as a big, brown dog with a small, white dog.) So I asked, “Why is he doing this?” His therapist explained to me that these matching skills are prerequisites to speech and language. Since speech doesn’t come naturally to many kids with autism, you have to teach it to them by starting with the developmental skills that come before the talking even starts, such as matching. Not surprisingly, matching skills don’t come naturally to some of these kids, either, so those skills have to be taught as well. It turns out that behavior therapists and speech therapists have been studying speech development for years, and know a lot more about it than I do. So if you don’t understand why your child is learning something in therapy, just ASK!
Of course, there are good ABA therapists and bad ABA therapists out there, just like there are good and bad doctors, teachers, lawyers, and plumbers. If you find yourself in a situation where you are unhappy with your child’s therapy, please don’t give up! Find another therapist that makes you and your child feel comfortable. I am so happy with how SB’s behavior has improved in stressful situations, and it’s because of ABA. And I just want to tell the world how beneficial ABA can be to autistic children, because I want to see ALL children be the best that they can be.