An Analysis of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy, By Guest Blogger
Jenn Dirks, Author of Emelie’s Voice
There is a lot of discussion out there about ABA Therapy. I often get asked my views on it and whether or not we used it with Emelie. Both of those questions lead to some complicated answers. So, I thought, I’d address it and spend more time on it.
For those who are new to term ABA Therapy and what it means, that’s where I’ll start.
ABA Therapy stands for Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy. There are various types of implementation of ABA but it centers on the core philosophy of observing a client and then helping them with various techniques to better assimilate and cope in life.
Mind you, that’s a rough definition. Essentially it comes down to behavior modification. Before we go further I want to answer the biggest questions that come at me, do I think ABA Therapy works and am I for it or against it as the case may be. I think ABA is like any other therapy out there; it may or may not work for each person that attempts to use it. I am for most concepts with ABA and if it allows a client to grow and benefit from it, then by all means. It’s one of those things that I land in a grey area.
I worked with ABA Therapy briefly. I’ve seen how it can change the lives of some and make no difference in other situations. ABA is tailored for each person, using principals that will work for them. It’s a long process. Often families leave the programs they are starting as the first few weeks are tough. Everyone is getting to know each other and the client will often challenge that change.
It’s emotionally draining. It’s physically draining. It’s mentally draining. It’s psychologically draining. On everyone involved. There will be tantrums. There will be meltdowns. There will be crashes. There will be screaming. There may even be some pretty hard core stimming. It’s change and it’s daunting.
For families who observe the staff doing the therapy programs, it can often seem that they are pushing the client hard and fast. Other families listen and only get a piece of the information. It can be gut wrenching. Those who are implementing the therapy are caught in a conundrum. Show kindness and love and yet seem indifferent. Be professional and not let their emotions show. It’s a fine line and balancing act for them.
I once worked in ABA Therapy. The hardest part for me was keeping all my emotions in check all the time. I didn’t do it long. I wanted to cry when the clients suffered setbacks. I wanted to cry when there were situations beyond our control with the families and there was no way to help. I wanted to share opinions that may have crossed professional lines so I kept them to myself. In the end, I learned a lot. I also realized that it was not the job for me.
Which brings us to the part of the conversation where I answer the tricky question of did Emelie ever receive ABA Therapy. The simple answer is no. The more in depth answer is we’d be doing ABA techniques with her since she was two. The thing that surprised me most was how natural and common sense prevailed in some of the techniques.
We ignored negative behavior when we could. If necessary we would correct the behavior and move forward. We used a lot of positive reinforcement. From rewards and praise to treats. We made her earn goals to get bigger “treats”. We worked on dialog and conversation.
Example of that is, “Emelie.” Wait until she would look at us. “If I say Good Morning what do you say?” Wait a second until she responds. “Good Morning” and move on to the next question in that dialog. If she were to say nothing or ignore the statement or say something like “I like hot dogs” (which is how she did answer once) we’d repeat the whole process 1 or 2 times.
I was shocked to learn that that is an ABA technique. So we were doing what worked for Emelie. I’m not one for redirecting stims. Yet I do know that in some circumstances offering an alternative or an appropriate outlet can help them when they are older. Kids who don’t understand can be cruel and tease those that seem different.
Em’s stims are veiled stims. She is very cautious about being seen spinning and jumping as she gets older. She saves those for when she is ready to burst out of her skin and can’t release any other way. She tries to keep it for home or with close family/friends. Her stims are very subtle. So unless the stims are going to hurt her (like picking at her scalp/skin) we don’t redirect. The redirection we offer her is safe but still all hers.
Not every ABA Therapy program works for everyone. More importantly, not all ABA Therapy programs work the same way. If you are fortunate to live in an area that is serviced by more than one, if one doesn’t work the other one may. For the record, not all ABA Therapy programs redirect stims either. Some will. Some won’t. And some will take the approach we do with Em.
I’ll end with this. There is no right or wrong answer for is ABA Therapy good or bad for people on the spectrum. In my opinion, there are a lot that will benefit from ABA. Just like there is a lot that it will not benefit at all. Parents and doctors should talk and discuss the benefits and drawbacks to an ABA program before deciding whether to try it or not. If a parent really wants to try it, do the research and ask LOTS of questions. Understand what is going on. Be involved. That’s the best way to know if it’s a good idea.
For those who do choose ABA, stay involved. Ask lots of questions. Leave the therapy staff do their job and make notes of questions. Ask them afterwards. And most of all, know it isn’t always tears or screams. There is laughter and joy that can happen too. The therapy staff will rejoice with milestones met and challenges overcome right with you.