Applied Behavioral Analysis

ABA is rooted in the principles of behaviorism that were originally developed by B.F, Skinner in the 1930’s. It largely involves using the principle of positive reinforcement to strengthen behaviors along with techniques to extinguish undesirable behaviors. Since the early 1960's, behavior analysts have used positive reinforcement and other principles to build communication, play, social, academic, self-care, work, and community living skills and to reduce problem behaviors in learners with autism of all ages. Some ABA techniques involve instruction that is directed by adults in highly structured fashions, while others make use of the learner¹s natural interests and follow his or her initiations. Still others teach skills in the context of ongoing activities. All skills are broken down into small steps or components, and learners are provided many repeated opportunities to learn and practice skills in a variety of settings, with abundant positive reinforcement. The goals of intervention as well as the specific types of instructions and reinforcers used are customized to the strengths and needs of the individual learner. Performance is measured continuously by direct observation, and intervention is modified if the data show that the learner is not making satisfactory progress.

ABA, which is based upon a rewards system, is widely accepted by parents and doctors largely because it is the most researched treatment option and is supported by numerous anecdotal success stories. ABA is considered especially beneficial for children with more severe symptoms. ABA calls for one-on-one interaction between a teacher and a child for up to 40 hours a week. In the highly structured program, toddlers receive positive reinforcement for initially learning simple actions like identifying colors and then gradually working up to more advanced activities that target deficits in learning, language, play-interaction and attention.

Under my model, it is not surprising that ABA tends to be effective in reducing symptoms. Essentially, ABA teaches children rules for engaging in the world that their altered sensory processing channels cause them not to pick up experientially. They have to be taught rules that other children just learn through life and observation. And, the teaching needs to be done in a way that allows them to be successful, in small groups, with a lot of attention, with strong reinforcement. When autistic children begin to adjust their behaviors, their stress levels start to be reduced. Their sense of frustration likely decreases. Their sense of control and predictability increases. All of this leads to less neurological arousal, and less stress.

I do have some concerns with ABA. For instance, in some ABA programs, the instructors demand regular eye contact with the children as a way of ensuring they have attention. My problem originates from the fact that I, an autotypal person who is not disordered, hate to make eye contact, particularly when someone else is demanding it. Eye contact causes neural arousal; it increases electrical excitation in certain areas of the brain. In most people, this is a good thing. It is a source of stimulation that draws attention. However, in an autistic person, eye contact causes increased excitation, which is the last thing they need. It may be good for the instructor, but I really doubt it is good for the child. As discussed above, I am not an expert whatsoever in the treatment of autism, but I think the ABA model needs to be audited, taking into account the tenets of my theory and what that means for the impact of ABA treatment on autistic children.


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