Is ABA abusive?

I’m going to get right to it : I suspect that like any system of education or behaviour management, the answer to this question depends almost entirely on the person implementing the system.

ABA might be ultimately self-limiting, and a more rounded, varied method of instruction may well be required in the course of time, but ABA can certainly provide a predictable framework within which an autistic child can begin to learn.

Time for a brief explanation:

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a precise, systematic and measurable method for teaching children with developmental disabilities to learn. It is based on sound behavioural principles and evidence-based research and practice …. including positive reinforcement, graduated prompting, repetition and teaching tasks in very small (discrete) steps.

(Thanks to The Institute of Child Education & Psychology )

I did ABA with Ian. There, I’ve said it.

I did the endless trials and the copious note-taking, and my one thought on the entire system is this: It works.

BUT it has to be done gently and with humour, and as for the endless notes and graphs, well, how else are you going to know where you started from, and how you are progressing, week in and week out, without clear written evidence?

It’s too easy to forget from day to day what progress is being made, and it’s too easy to fudge it and convince yourself progress is being made where it isn’t, AND it’s also too easy to persist unnecessarily with one methodology. My notes very quickly showed me where I needed to be more creative in how I presented a trial, and where – and when – I needed to change direction.

So I kept the notes, and I drew up the graphs. Not for everything; more by way of experiment to see how it felt; but I did it. Some of them were beautiful

for blog - ABA - graph

And some of them weren’t.

But what they showed me was where I was doing things right and where I was going wrong. I am not a qualified ABA therapist; I’m a mother. I read everything I could find, and where necessary, I applied common sense – and perhaps most importantly, I knew my son very well, and could read the subtlest changes in his mood or behaviour.

I was the only one in the therapy team in South Africa who did ABA with Ian, and it formed a strong foundation, a solid base, for all the work which came afterwards.

Let’s be practical about this :

Is it abusive to insist that your child goes to school day after day, whether he wants to or not?

Is it abusive for teachers to insist that the children in their class sit up, and pay attention?

Is it abusive to ask a child to learn the same subjects, day in and day out?

Is it abusive to expect a child to learn manners or behave in a way which is considered socially acceptable?

If you answered “no” to all of those questions, why would you answer “yes” if those questions were asked about a child with special needs? In other words, why is so much allowance made for special needs?

A child with autism is different – of course he is! – but I believe there is a line between acknowledging the difference and catering to it, and treating that child like he’s from an entirely different species.

Through ABA, Ian learned to sit and pay attention, he learned to listen, and he learned to respond. The very simplicity of the tasks and the clarity with which it was possible to present them to him made it a predictable (essential for any autistic child) framework within which he could learn.

BUT it was always only ever done with love and gentleness, quiet patience, and a true understanding of Ian’s limits.

If these qualities can be brought to the therapy room, ABA can be a very useful teaching tool for an autistic child.


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