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A Word on ABA (from 55 Essential Skills)
As many folks in the autistic community are aware, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has increasingly come under fire.
Long considered the “gold standard” in autism therapy, there is increasing anecdotal evidence of some long-term negative effects resulting from ABA therapy training.
My own experience with ABA is anecdotal at best. I had actually never heard of ABA when one of my early students on spectrum was experiencing considerable anxiety.
It was clear that his anxiety was directly related to specific situations. And while his behavior seemed completely appropriate to the situation, it was concerning to me because his anxiety in these situations was negatively effecting him academically.
Taking a page out of PTSD therapy, I used a technique akin to regression therapy to remove or disconnect the behavior, enabling the student to respond to the situation according to this sensory perception.
Almost immediately, his anxiety decreased significantly. It was as if he had been given permission to be himself—to express himself.
It was not until later that I was made aware that the specific behavior had been trained or programmed into him by an ABA therapist.
Again, at that point in my life I was not yet aware of my own place on the autism spectrum. I was working primarily with dyslexic and ADHD students. I had never heard of ABA but the experience left a deep impression on me.
It wasn’t long before I’d had several other students on spectrum who were experiencing significant anxiety in one or more areas of their lives.
In every single case, when the installed ABA behaviors were removed and replaced them with sensory processing strategies the anxiety went away. There were reductions is tantrums, meltdowns, and resistance/disobedience.
In this relatively small sample, the type of training seemed to be irrelevant to the ultimate outcome. When students were trained to behavior in a way that conflicted with their natural perception of the world, an internalized conflict and the commensurate associated anxiety seemed to be the result 100% of the time.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve had at least a dozen students who were specifically trained using Applied Behavior Analysis. 100% of the time, when the students were ‘deprogrammed’ of these behaviors and the internalized conflicts removed, the associated anxiety disappeared.
In addition to observing lower anxiety, I also observed higher self-esteem, increased self-confidence, improved memory, and decision-making. Some students became more social and more empathetic. All students improved academically.
To date as of this writing, I have seen no long-term academic studies on the negative effects of ABA. All of the ‘evidence’ of which I’m aware is anecdotal.
Question: Is ABA effective at changing behavior?
I would have to say, yes. ABA can change a child’s behavior. But my question is at what cost?
Is the short-term gain of training a child to act in a way that goes directly against his sensory perception of the world worth the long-term negative effects?
In my experience the results are 100% without exception. When you train a child to behave in a manner that is inconsistent with their perception of the circumstances you automatically induce an inner conflict.
Over time this anxiety appears to result in lower self-esteem, loss of confidence, and poor decision making.
In contrast, when the underlying sensory issues are addressed and the new behaviors are correlated to the child’s subjective experience of his world, there has never been induced anxiety that I have seen.
My opinion of ABA is based on looking at children and adults from two sides of the issue.
1) Anxiety, loss of confidence, and lower academic performance seemingly induced by ABA training:
2) The anxiety released when the person is “deprogrammed“ of their ABA behaviors.
3) The lack of anxiety when new behaviors are correlated to how the subjective experience of the individual, i.e., how that person perceives and processes sensory information.
While academic performance is the primary reason parents consult with myself and others at the Neuro-linguistic Learning Center, our philosophy is that driving every behavior is a positive intention and every person deserves to achieve their goals as a fully self-expressed human being.