To ABA or Not To ABA, That Is The Question

I am specifically trained in early intervention/early childhood special education targeting autism. I have over 30 years of experience on the ground – in homes, in classrooms, with families, with mild to severe symptoms of autism, and with all ages. My focus is and has always been on helping the person with autism be seen, heard, and guided to meet new challenges with confidence and regulation.

Before the ABA boards were formed and had certification, I was using Applied Behavior Analysis in family’s homes, group homes, and later, my own specialized behavior based classroom. I loved it. I was successful with these kids. I was “getting” them to behave and receiving rave reviews of how compliant my kids became under my care. I had them using schedules as they walked in, following discrete trial programs, following scripted play routines, and on the side, we did a little FloorTime/DIR to complement their day. The students seemed happy in the classroom. They knew what to expect and when to expect it. When we had a new student join us, it would rock everyone’s world for a day or two but things would settle into a groove again sooner than later.

I very specifically remember the day when I excitedly shared the results of one of the assessments across ALL of my students with my supervisors. It showed little to NO progress in social engagement for any of my students. Why was I “excited,” you ask? Well, because I thought it was an opportunity for me to help my students grow in that area. I was a special education teacher and was taught to address a student’s areas of need and bolster them to help balance out a child’s development. The not-so-surprising-in-hindsight response by my supervisors was to simply continue teaching to strengths and not worry about a child’s social-emotional development. To put it mildly, I was not satisfied with that response.

I started bringing this area of need up to all of my parents in our educational planning meetings – to find a way to collaborate to support their child’s social-emotional development (which includes regulation and resiliency). Meeting after meeting, parents were hungry for this focus. They already knew from their own early experiences with their children that the social-reciprocity between parent and child was in dire need of support and understanding. They already knew their children struggled with regulation, connection, and flexibility. And they were desperate for help at home.

I approached school district administrators about starting an afternoon parent support and training program. I was willing to lead it and organize it. I was very excited and knew it was the right direction for all of my students then and in the future. The administrators thought differently. They heard me say that I could reduce my class time to only mornings and instead of adding parent support and training in the afternoons, they gave me another full set of students for continued ABA training for the students – I was “so successful,” afterall, with gaining compliance and basically teaching them to show me what they knew already (eyeroll).

I really did give this a “go.” I worked hard. I was one of the most dedicated teachers you could ever find. I loved my work. I loved my students and co-workers. And I loved the parents. I just didn’t feel that I was targeting the right things. Then a parent shared with me something called Relationship Development Intervention. It was new on the scene and was rocking the autism world stating it was addressing the missing link in autism – connecting a student’s relationship skills to long term quality of life. These parents were amazing and urged me to go to one of their 2 day workshops. I did. It was just what I was looking for to support my students in social-emotional development. I became certified, despite my administrators’ dismay, in 2005, and had to leave the school system to utilize my new found knowledge with families.

Fast forward to 2019. We now have ABA covered by insurance, infused in our school programs, and parents are being told to do ABA as early as possible for the best outcomes. NO SPECIFIC SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL PROGRAMS ARE BEING PRESCRIBED STILL. Yet, we know that autism is a developmental disability specifically defined by – at best- awkwardness in social engagements, regulation, and resiliency.

As much as I still love RDI, even it has not seemed to be able to combat the avalanche of ABA. FloorTime/DIR and SonRise have certainly stood the test of time in being on some people’s radar but only as fringe interventions rather than central. We must find a better way. ABA is only part of the solution to ensuring quality of life for our community members with autism.

ABA has its place.. When done well, ABA speaks the language of many people with autism. It is organized, blunt, specific, uncluttered, and most often scripted. These are all very helpful not only for people with autism but anyone trying to learn a new skill and develop new habits. However, life is not organized, blunt, specific, uncluttered, and most often scripted. Sigh. So unless you have a therapist who is truly attuned to your child (aka targeting social-emotional connection without realizing it) – even “ABA” will fall flat. You will wonder why your child is not making progress. You will wonder why your child makes progress with some therapists and not others. The targets will be the same concrete skills. But the engagement with each therapist will be different. That is because we all click (attune and relate) with some people and not others. Your child is no different!

So why don’t we truly look at what it takes to connect and attune with kids so that ABA or any type of intervention can be successful? If we are relationship based and ensure that connection, we support that child (or person of any age) in gaining crucial practice in social-emotional development AND specific skill acquisition. Let me be a little more specific…. If we spotlight the relationship, the social-emotional connection and competency, we may not even have to work so hard on the skill acquisition. We may, just may, help a child develop their own trust and drive to learn naturally.

All of this to answer the question: To ABA or not to ABA?  Focus on trust, regulation, and sensory safety first then add in ABA slowly and for the essential pieces only. Do not try to cram all skill acquisition into a child but focus on how to learn. Target larger, underlying social-emotional foundations like a child taking active participation in a shared activity with you, his most trusted guides. Help him become not only comfortable following your lead but be seeking it for new learning. And if you do not feel that you can be the one to do this, consider surrounding your child with people who see the child and the relationship with him first and foremost – specific skill learning is secondary. ANY activity can be both founded in relationship building while also targeting skills without having them have the limelight. Helping a child wash his hands can be a shared activity with you where you are teaching the art of sharing control to learn something new – anything! If your child can learn to learn, your child can learn almost anything.

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