Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), one of the first things mentioned when your child receives a diagnosis of Autism.
The paediatrician may recommend it and you are sure to read glowing reports about it.
The ultimate goal of ABA? To make your child indistinguishable from their peers. To stop all self stimulating behaviour and enforce eye contact whether it be uncomfortable or not.
Children complying and a therapist fully in control of the child’s every action, even down to where they look. Try searching ABA harm or tantrums. You will see a very different view then, children screaming and forced to do the same thing repeatedly till the therapist is satisfied that her commands have been followed. Restraining while in meltdown for no other reason then an intense desire to make the child obey, comply.
The Autistic community’s view is predominantly against and after researching I found its not only Autistics but also other professionals and parents who have a dim view of it.
I have spoken to Jane Johnstone who is an Integrative Psychotherapist for her opinion both as a professional and as a mother of two sons Evan and Daniel who are both on the Autistic spectrum.
On asking Jane how she first came to hear of ABA:
“I first heard of ABA when a home tuition grant was sanctioned when my eldest son was diagnosed. Other parents of Autistic children spoke very highly of it and it seemed the answer to our prayers. Evan was just three years old at the time and we wanted to optimise his potential. We heard many pros at the time, we heard stories of non verbal children learning to talk under an ABA programme. ABA at the time offered us hope. Evan was non verbal and we were desperate to chat to our little boy. At the time it was the only firm of communication we knew and we couldn’t foresee how he could progress through life in absence of speech. Little did we know!”
“My son remains non verbal but communicates through an iPad app. Evan did have some ABA tutoring in the early years but it was too difficult for him and was clearly not the right approach for him. We moved him to another school which suited him better and he was much happier. My training in Psychotherapy is based on a humanistic model, working with a holistic approach to the human condition of the mind, body and soul.
“ABA is cognitive based and considers only the science if the mind to the exclusion of the individuals body and soul or essence. One part of our human condition does not operate as a lone ranger, each part of us-body, mind and soul impact on each other whether negatively or positively but to work exclusively with just one part of our humanness can only ultimately harness damage to our other parts. “I completely understand when parents first learn their children have Autism their first instinct is to “fix” them, I’ve been there myself and it is often down to how the diagnosis is delivered by a practitioner in diagnosis which leaves parents feeling as though their child are in someway flawed or broken. “Of course what they need to hear is more of the positive and less of the negative and be encouraged to accept their child’s Autism”. After speaking to fellow Aspergien Frank L. Ludwig and reading his article “Why Applied Behaviour Analysis Harms Your Autistic Child” I am including this quote with permission:
“You will find that the majority of parents who subjected their Autistic children to ABA swear by it while the majority of Autistic individuals absolutely abhor it.
“The reason for this is perfectly simple: while ABA makes life easier for parents and caregivers (at least for the time being) by getting rid of undesirable behaviours and enabling them to pass their child off as ‘ more normal ‘, the child is put under unbearable pressure to conform, perform and obey without any consideration for their feelings, needs, desires, abilities and emotional safety.”
I also was lucky enough to speak to Em Scott, a woman with Autism who gave me an introduction of herself , her experience of ABA and the effects it has had on her.
“My name is Em, I am 31 and transgender. I am also on the severe end of the spectrum of Autism and up until being sectioned in a learning disability hospital I was very low functioning. I live in a group home for people with complex needs, require two to one support staffing and have a mobility car because my Autism and learning disability greatly affect my mobility and getting around.
“I also happen to get padded helmets prescribed on the NHS because I am what you would call typical head banger out of frustration when I can’t communicate something in a communicable language. I am an adult that gets spoken for time and time again when I am able to do so myself in different ways including echolalic speech, PECS and MaKaTon.
“I don’t need treating like I’m invisible and my support staff spoken to instead, I need someone to recognise my voice and stop assuming I can’t communicate because I behave in a stereotypical way. When I was in infant school I had what I now know was a form of ABA. The people who did it were brutes and I am still affected by their behaviour every day as it comes up in my memory. They had me forcibly held into a chair with one staff on each arm and another staff staring into my eyes shouting at me to repeat after them. I had no understanding of what they were saying and was extremely shocked and upset by the eye contact which was ultimately painful and burnt through my soul.
“I bit and and hit staff which made their behaviour harder and faster. I never learnt any speech and until early high school and in fact I’m sure it stopped my speech from developing properly. I only have echolalic speech.
“Another time I experienced ABA was in the disability hospital I got sectioned in due to being bullied online I had such challenging behaviour that three psychiatrists said I needed to go to a specialised hospital for people with learning disability.
“I was kept there for four months and during that time I experienced a brutal form of ABA.
“I was in agony every day at the treatment I suffered. I was thrown to the floor and pinned so many times that I now suffer from sciatica.
“Yes ABA and its extreme variants helped me function in a world I was unable to function in but at what cost? I have regular flashbacks throughout the day back to the hospital and my treatment there. No one knows, it’s hidden away in my brain. It only comes out when I type like this”.
After hearing Em’s account of ABA I decided to go on Google and have a look for clinics practicing ABA here in the UK. I came upon Blooming Tree ABA Clinic for Autism and Related a Developmental Disorders. On going into their website I clicked on About Autism then into ABA Autism Treatment. There I found this information, under the heading
“ABA involves the breakdown of all skills into small, discrete tasks, taught in a highly structured and hierarchical manner … In an ABA program, lessons to be taught are broken down into their simplest elements. ABA focuses on teaching small, measurable units of behaviour systematically.
“At first, the child may be rewarded for doing something close to the desired response. Over time, as the child masters the lesson expectations are raised and primary reinforcers (like bits of food) are replaced with social reinforcers ( hugs, praise, etc.)”
One could be forgiven for thinking they were reading about dog training.
The fact that if the child does what is asked be it placing a puzzle piece, building block or the possibly uncomfortable if not painful task of making forced eye contact to be rewarded by food or physical contact is questionable.
Does that train the child to believe that if an adult commands them to do something no matter how nonsensical to them or uncomfortable they must obey believing they will be rewarded by titbits and pleasurable psychical contact?
Lastly under the heading ‘Is ABA effective?’
“It should be noted, however, that intensive behavioural is by no means a “ cure “ for Autism. No amount of behavioural therapy can cure the underlying and so far unknown etiology of Autism. Intensive behavioural interaction is effective in re mediating many symptoms of autism thereby recovering children in that their behaviour may become “ indistinguishable from their peers.”
Indistinguishable from their peers.
No longer distinguishable.
To close I leave you with the fully accepting parental view of Jane Johnstone.
“In my view once you embrace and accept your children as they are, the journey becomes life changing for everyone. My late husband and I always said that we would be very different people if the boys weren’t Autistic and we honestly believed that they made us better people. Our boys, like other human’s consist of a mind, body and soul. To change or work with just one element just simply cannot be consistent with accepting and respecting the Autistic person as a whole.”