Hey I liked the post you did for parents of children with autism. I'm talking about the one where you say that there's always a reason for something they do. I have a question for you. What are your thoughts on ABA therapy? And how do you feel about Behaviorism in general? I'm just wondering. I have some opinions myself but wonder what your thoughts are. have a wonderful Saturday
I think the reason ABA exists is because people who practice it and support it simply don’t see autistic individuals as human beings with their own thoughts, consciousness and personality.
So ABA or applied behavioral analyses is a technique that uses rewards and punishments to encourage desirable behavior and eliminate unwanted behavior. Typically it requires the child (or teenager, or adult) to pay close attention to what the practitioner is doing and do it for several hours at the time, but obviously there are exceptions.
The basic premise is that if the child does something you don’t want them to do, you punish them (by taking away stickers or reducing their playtime or in bad cases by hitting their hands or spraying water on them). And if they do something you want them to do, you reward them (with stickers, or toys, or more playtime, or in bad cases just with breaks or food).
Does this remind you of anything? Yeah, exactly, it’s dog training. You attract the dogs attention, you reward it for doing what you want it to do and punish it for doing what you don’t want it to do. And I mean, it’s pretty effective, right? I don’t think it’s not effective. Basic neurobiology says it is effective, it forms new reflexes and achieves the goal of reducing “bad” behaviors and inducing “good” behaviors. And research shows that parents see a positive difference because on the outside it looks like their child is improving.
And I’m not saying we don’t use reward/punishment techniques on allistic children. We do, and I’m not saying we should eliminate behavioral therapy entirely. I just think we should remember about the underlying reasons we use it. We train dogs because dogs don’t have a consciousness or episodic memory and it’s impossible to just explain to a dog that it shouldn’t eat things off the ground or run across the road when it’s red light.
Sometimes children are too young to understand why they shouldn’t have a diet entirely made out of candies or why they should go to bed now, so we use punishments and rewards to achieve the goal. However we should remember that human children from the age of 18-24 months already have a consciousness, some episodic memory and ability to decide for themselves. So that kind of training gets less and less effective as they age, and we need to reason with them and explain why eating candies only is bad for them and why they need to do this thing.
We recognize that (allistic) children are humans with all these qualities and we don’t expect them to obey like dogs because children also have feelings and thoughts and they might have a more complex reason to do a bad thing. Maybe they don’t want to go to bed because they think there’s a monster under their bed. Maybe they don’t want to eat their meal because it makes their tummy hurt. In that case parents usually communicate with their child, discover the underlying cause and modify their response to it. Now instead of saying “if you won’t go to bed now, no cartoons for you tomorrow!” the parent might say “let’s put special monster traps under your bed to catch all the monsters!” and that’s what wonderful about humans. We think, we feel, we are self-aware.
ABA comes from a premise that autistic children aren’t fully human. And before you go “not all ABA therapists!”, let me remind you that Ivar Lovaas, the inventor of ABA, said that exact thing in his book. He thought that autistic children don’t have a personality or a conscious mind and therefore you can’t reason with them. So you just need to sort of “carve” a real human out of them by suppressing their autistic behavior and training them into doing allistic things, like hugging or making eye contact. He associated those things with humanity and in his opinion if you don’t do them, you simply aren’t human.
ABA does exactly that. It assumes that autistic behaviors are inherently bad and harmful, and in order to make the child whole you need to train them into doing allistic behaviors. An ABA therapist won’t look into why a child bites their fingers, they will simply train it out of them with punishments. An ABA therapist won’t figure out why the child doesn’t like hugs, they will train them into doing it with rewards. They just don’t consider a possibility of reasoning or communicating with the child like they are a real human being. They do their job, they train the child into pretending to be allistic, which from the outside looks almost like the child has been “cured”.
Does it work? Well yeah, sorta. After hours and weeks and months of ABA, your child will learn to suppress stimming, look people in the eyes, sit still when you tell them to, and hug you and say “I love you” on request. Will it “cure” them of their autism? Nope. Autism is still there, it’s a fundamental part of their brain and you can’t train it out of them. The reason why they used to stim or avoid hugs is still there, it didn’t go anywhere, it’s just now the child won’t ever show it. They will go to bed despite being afraid of that monster, every night, and cry, clutching their pillow. They will eat that meal and try to show that they aren’t in pain by biting their lip and saying “thank you for the yummy meal” because that’s what they were trained to do.
ABA comes from the belief that autistic people don’t have thoughts, feelings and consciousness. ABA thinks that those autistic behaviors like stimming serve no purpose and need to be eliminated. ABA thinks that the only way to stop a child from screaming or banging their head on the wall (which they most definitely do for a reason, probably because they feel bad) is to take away their reward stickers for doing that. It just doesn’t occur to them that perhaps the child bangs their head on the wall because they are constantly overwhelmed and stressed and need to let out their frustration. It doesn’t occur to them that perhaps the child doesn’t like hugs because it’s too much touching and feels awful, and that they’d rather flap their hands when seeing their parent to show affection. They think that the *only* way to get desirable behaviors out of the child is good old basic reward-punishment training.
I won’t even tell you about the effects of ABA on children, about the rates of PTSD in those children, about the self-hate, depression and complete lack of self-esteem they acquire, about the rates of abuse and molestation for those children (because they are trained to always obey adults and do what they are told). I think you can guess it’s Not Good.
So yeah, these are my thought on ABA. I’m sorry it got long, but I had a lot to say.