When the words “Your child has Autism” are spoken, most parents begin searching for ways to help their child. The psychologist offers advice, doctors suggest medication and therapy, friends refer to characters in movies or geniuses, other Autism parents recommend solutions that worked for their child. But one of the most common therapies you’ll hear about is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
Autism parents invest tens of thousands of dollars per year on ABA, and many children spend thirty to forty hours per week in this intense therapy.
When I learned what true ABA is, I wasn’t a fan. Many therapists sit children down in a chair across the table and work intensely with the child. They will also focus on one skill such as putting a shirt on dozens of times in one session. This may work for some kids, but what about the ones who are constantly on the move, e.g. my son, Jeremiah? Jeremiah has learned to sit for longer periods of time, using fidgets* and routine, but working on something he’s not interested in (there aren’t many things at this time) would prove futile.
Some therapists use a reward system to get the child to perform, they may say, “After you put the puzzle together you may play with bubbles.” Jeremiah wouldn’t have been able to follow a similar direction until very recently. Even at this time he’s not quite there. Directions that are part of his daily routine are more at his ability level right now.
For example, because we’re working on “First/Then”* concepts at home and at school, he’s grasping what it means. I can take his doodle pad (which he loves and always has with him), and say, “Eat your snack first, then you can have your doodle pad.” But, to have him engage in an activity he doesn’t like, most anything besides puzzles, work boxes, peg boards, or coloring, you would have a meltdown with a crying, screaming child.
Frankly, I don’t want my child crying and screaming because someone wants him to learn his colors, look through a book, or get himself dressed. We push through on certain hygienic rituals like brushing teeth and taking a shower whether he’s crying or not, some things have to be done. The world can thank us later.
But, him crying and screaming because someone is making him learn to put his pants on or be involved in a group activity is not what I want for my child. I agree with constantly working with a child (with plenty of uninterrupted free play in between), we do this. We could work on education more, such as talking about colors and the like, however, we work on letters, shapes, and numbers on his doodle pad that he always has in hand.
Every time we get him dressed we walk through with words what he needs to do (in the beginning we used a lot of hand over hand teaching and less words), “Shirt over your head, arms in,” “Put your pants on, lift your leg, put your leg in.” It’s taken a while, but he is now helping to pull his pants on and has been taking them off for quite some time. 🙂
This is Jeremiah’s childhood and I want him to enjoy it like any other kid. I don’t want him miserable, working on the same skills over and over, hour after hour. Many ABA therapists will repeat the same skill over fifteen times in one session and I believe I’m being conservative with that number.
A family member recently asked me if ABA can work for some and not for others. Sure. ABA can produce skills, but in our case it hasn’t. We’ve used a modified form of ABA, but more on that in a bit. The true, follow the guidelines ABA has actually caused our son to lose skills. I’m sure many parents who stand behind ABA are shocked to hear this. You could say it was because of regression that he stopped using these skills, but he lost two, and they’ve never resurfaced.
When Jeremiah entered preschool he was using the sign language for “more” and saying, “maw” in the correct context. We shared this with his teachers, aides, and therapists, and most of them fostered his skill in the right way.
However, the speech pathologist did not.
Every time she worked with him, which was one day per week, she would do so at snack time. She would withhold his gold-fish crackers from him, and require him to use the sign for “more” and hand him ONE fish if he did. She would repeat this twenty or more times every time she worked with him. Because gold-fish crackers were highly motivating for him, that’s all she focused on.
Do you know what her tenacity resulted in? Jeremiah stopped signing and saying the word “more.” Completely stopped.
As for the modified ABA I mentioned, our amazing Behavior Specialist is the one who’s helped us with the adaptation. She’s not a fan of ABA in it’s true form either, but she will modify it for a child.
Here’s an example of modified ABA in a natural setting. We worked on something that Jeremiah was doing that we wanted stopped; he was hitting the t.v. during movies (sometimes because of excitement, other times seemingly just because). Lia* suggested we pause the movie each time Jeremiah got too close to the t.v. At first we pushed “pause,” walked up to him and gently moved him back the distance we wanted him from the t.v., and calmly said, “Scoot back,” as we moved him. Once he was a certain distance from the television, we pushed “play” and praised him, “Thank you for scooting back.”
As he learned what pausing the movie meant, we didn’t need to say anything (only praised when he did what was expected) because he moved back on his own. Lia also reiterated how important it is to…
focus more on his positive behaviors
…like praising when he does move away from the t.v. [ABA isn’t wrong, but I do think it’s taken too far], and when done in such a way, it’s taking childhood away from so many children.
The article, Would You Accept This Behavior Towards a Non-Autistic Child takes a look at how we treat those on the Spectrum. I highly suggest reading it and taking a look at how your child is treated at school, in your home, and in therapy. Ask yourself that question:
Would you accept this behavior towards a non-autistic child?
Next week I’ll be sharing some professionals thoughts on ABA as well as perspectives from adults on the spectrum and a mom who’s had a magnitude of success with her son (he’s fifteen, in college, and on track for a Nobel Prize) and hundreds of other kids with Autism whom she’s helped share their voice. Here is that article: more perspectives on Applied Behavior Analysis
*Jeremiah is 4 1/2 and nonverbal.
*Fidgets – sensory type tools used to calm a person. http://www.developmental-delay.com defines fidgets as tools that have
-Interesting tactile composition such as squeezable or spiky massagers
-Heaviness or pliability of the product
-Movement opportunities it provides our hands (can the child squeeze it?)
-Does Not make any noise, so it not a distraction to others
-Several different ones that are small enough to put in pockets”
*First/Then is simply having the child do an activity, and afterwards they get to do something they want to do. It can also be used to notify a child of an upcoming event. “First we are getting our pajamas on, then we will read a book.” Or if your child needs to leave an activity to do something they dislike, you can say, “First we’re going to wash hands, then you can play with the iPad.” Once learned, this phrase makes transitions easier, and works best if used in all their environments.
*Names changed to protect privacy.