ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) has become a highly controversial topic. Many ASD people and also professionals consider it a form of cruelty and dehumanisation. Yet it is still widely practised with many reporting varying degrees of success. Usually, this therapy is for children on the spectrum and less frequently we hear of adults on the spectrum undergoing ABA treatment.
Eileen Lamb, founder of The Autism Cafe, and also on the spectrum herself, wrote:
“You’re torturing your child with ABA therapy”
Just like society at large, the autism community is not unified in their beliefs about autism. The first time I mentioned ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy on my blog, it only took a few minutes before someone said to me, “you’re torturing your child with ABA therapy.” This didn’t come as a surprise. Before Charlie was even diagnosed with autism I had searched the web for therapy options and found that ABA wasn’t liked by everyone. ABA is the number one therapy recommended by medical experts for children on the autism spectrum, however many autistics reject that conclusion. As an autistic adult, I see both sides of the argument but overall I’m in favour of ABA therapy.
ABA therapy now and then
I think a bit of context is necessary here. ABA therapy has evolved tremendously over the years. It’s not the same as it was 60 years ago when Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas designed the first implementations of ABA to help autistic people. He did so based on principles developed by famed psychologist B.F. Skinner, found in his book, published in 1938, The Behavior of Organisms. Back then they used robotic repetition of learning trials held in sterile rooms and administered punishment to help autistic people learn new and appropriate skills. In early behaviourism, rewards and punishments were used equally. Later, it became clear that rewards worked better than punishment, and punishment, while it might have encouraged learning for some, also produced fear. The methods used to help people with autism today have changed so much since Lovaas’ initial experiments – it’s unfair that they even bear the same name.
Henny Kupferstein, M.A., who teaches music, advocates for teaching children without resorting to ABA. He said that “Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) for autistics is based on Pavlov’s operant conditioning for dogs. In this video, you can see the lone dog waiting for permission to have fun. Watching this clip, I can almost hear the ABA kid saying, “Miss Ashley–what am I working for? After I swim for 5 minutes, can I have 15 minutes of iPad time?”
Kupferstein went on to say:
“Any of my autistic piano students are ABA survivors. They have been led to believe that they have no original thoughts, intentions, or free will. Everything they do is scripted, and everything they don’t do is conditioned. It takes us weeks to begin undoing the damage. In the worst cases, it takes months or years, depending on their age and the length of the ABA-induced trauma.
To investigate child development, 19th-century behaviourist Ivan Pavlov experimented on dogs. Back in the days before ethics banned such experiments, he assumed that dogs will comply with the training because they are motivated by food. Operant conditioning is a way to manipulate (condition) the environment (operation) to produce an outcome. If the behaviour is rewarded with a good consequence, more of that good behaviour will keep coming. Likewise, if a behaviour is negatively reinforced, the behaviour will dissolve.
ABA (applied behaviour analysis) is considered an ‘evidence-based treatment’ for autism, only because the evidence is based on Pavlov’s dogs. When applied to humans, the parent who prefers a favourable outcome will be delighted that their child finally learned to go potty. The problem extends into the ethics of those in a position of power who determine the goals. The therapist and parent get to decide on a list of behaviours to enforce, and a list of behaviors to diminish. This can include much-needed self-regulatory stimming (Also read: Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View). As in child sexual abuse, the victim will lifelessly comply if they are groomed with compliments and treats. Just like Pavlov speculated, we are more likely to repeat a behaviour once we learn that it produces positive consequences.”
In spite of all the above, The Applied Behaviour Analysis Programs Guide published the following (the author is unknown):
Applied behavioural analysts help adults and children with autism and their families. In this career, you’ll work 1-on-1 or in a small group to model appropriate behaviours, discourage anti-social actions and help people with autism integrate into the neurotypical world. You’ll use evidence-based strategies that you learn through formal education or vocational training. If you want to apply behavioural modification techniques to adult patients, you’ll need specialized, population-specific training.
What Is Applied Behavioral Analysis?
People with autism don’t always understand how they should behave in community settings. They may get in trouble or struggle to make friends and not know how to change their behaviour. Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, uses proven psychological techniques like positive reinforcement to help people with autism modify their reactions to the world. Therapists usually work intensely with patients and provide conABA – Applied behaviour Analysissistent feedback to help create appropriate actions. You might roleplay classroom scenarios, tell stories about fictional characters responding to events or recruit neurotypical peers to model behaviour to your patient.
What Qualifications Do Applied Behavioral Analysts Need?
To start working as an applied behavioural analyst, you need a passion for helping others, a strong sense of patience and a high level of emotional intelligence. There is such a high demand for behavioural analysts that many agencies will provide on-the-job training to anyone willing to work with them. A bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work or human services can help you advance quickly and have a deeper understanding of the techniques you need. You can work as applied behavioural analysts helping adults or children while you’re in school; some agencies even offer tuition assistance to their staff.
Do Applied Behavioral Analysts Work with Adults?
Although the majority of ABA is done with young children, analysts are starting to work with adults with autism as well. Researchers have found that ABA can help adults learn specific skills, like how to dine in a restaurant, shop for clothing or use public transportation. Helping adults learn new behaviours can be rewarding if the person with autism is invested in changing themselves. It can also be challenging to overcome years of conditioning. If you want to be an applied behavioural therapist who works with adults with autism, you’ll need to be extremely patient.
What Are Some Applied Behavioral Techniques Used for Adult Patients
Not every technique used with children will work well with adults. You need to modify your therapy to address the unique mental and psychosocial needs of older patients. That means meeting with the adult patient to learn what behaviours they are interested in improving, creating engaging lesson plans with age-appropriate stories and providing ways to express frustrations in a healthy and mature manner. You can pursue specialized training too in lifespan development, cognitive psychology and adult pedagogy to learn how to be a good applied behavioural analyst for adults.