Autism Self Advocates For ABA

Most behaviour analysts do not use testimonials.  In part, this is because our ethical code prohibits the solicitation of testimonials from clients, but largely it is because behaviour analysts believe that decisions about the selection of interventions should be based on experimental evidence rather than testimonials or anecdotes.

While an anecdote about a clinical outcome might encourage a behaviour analyst to research a particular method,  he or she will not rely on this information alone to make a decision about the appropriateness of a proposed intervention. Ultimately, a behaviour analyst’s decision must be based on the empirical record. if you ask a service provider to provide evidence for their claims and all they can offer you are testimonials and anecdotes, then their claims are probably pseudoscientific.

Unfortunately,  one of the side effects of behaviour analysts’ commitment to making evidence based decisions is that we sometimes underestimate the power of testimonials to influence people.  Allegations of unethical conduct by behaviour analysts can take on a life of their own when published online.   Misrepresentations of ABA treatments for children with autism are shared and repeated and unfortunately there are pockets of the autism self advocacy community  where it is believed that :

ABA teaches that the use of adversives, compliance training, and the devastation of self-determination are all means worth the end achievement

Sometimes, the above view is presented as the consensus view within the autism self advocacy community.  For the parent of a young child with autism or a person with autism who was considering using behaviour analytic services, this might seem like a good reason to avoid ABA. Fortunately, there are a growing number of examples of individuals with autism who champion ABA.   Five of these individuals’ videos are shared below.

Temple Grandin is one of the world’s most famous individuals with autism.  She has a positive view of ABA – especially  what she terms the more “flexible” forms of ABA. Temple feels that the techniques she experienced as a child were similar to ABA and notes that the ABA intervention you use with a child who has severe autism should not be the same as the interventions that are appropriate for more able learners and vice versa.

The young man in the above video is Alex Lowry. He has autism and as part of a review of the BBC documentary Challenging Behaviour, he offers his views of ABA based on the interventions he received as a child.  He reveals that he thinks that many people online are “bashing” without knowing anything about ABA.  He says that he feels that he is better off for having received ABA and that his therapists used his interests and fun things to help him learn.  He believes that ABA is not “getting rid” of autism and that he still has an autistic mind but that he has learned a lot of skills.

Kayla is a 12 year old girl with autism.  When describing her experiences of ABA she says “Over time, I learned to play with toys, do puzzles, play with dolls and have fun at the park climbing and swinging”.  She recalls learning to ask for music using a card with a music symbol by practicing “over and over again” and learning to tolerate having her hair brushed.   Kayla also shares experience of having meltdowns and the ways in which she has learned to become more independent.

At the five minute mark in the above video, we are introduced to Cillian who is a 13 year old young man with autism.   Cillian tells us that when he was 3,  experts told his parents that he would not learn to “talk properly” or go to an “ordinary school”.  By learning through ABA, he has proven them wrong and has been attending mainstream school since he was 4. He tells us about how his parents were told that ABA does not work and that it was cruel.  He points out that, unlike him,  the experts providing that advice did not have  first hand experience of ABA.  He found is ABA programmes to be “fun” and enjoyed learning new things.  He believes that ABA helped him to realise that it is “okay to be different”.

Eli is a 20 year old man with autism who started ABA when he was three.  He is now studying to become a behaviour analyst. Eli says that ABA was the only intervention that helped him to learn the skills he was lacking.  He also remembers having “fun” as part of his ABA programmes. He emphasises the importance of individualisation and building rapport.  Later, he cautions against the use of discrete trial training on its own as he believes that it is important to also have sessions where the learner leads and the therapist uses natural environment teaching.

Eli would recommend ABA to any parent of a child with autism because he has seen what it can do.  He believes that withou ABA he would not talk and would be living in a home.

It is important to remember that every person who has a diagnosis of autism is an individual and no single viewpoint can be said to represent all members of the autism self advocacy community.  While it is hoped that readers will enjoy the above videos,  it is important to remember that anecdotes and testimonials – even those supportive of ABA – are no substitute for empircal evidence.  For all of the latest research on the subject of autism and autism interventions, an excellent resource is the Association for Autism Treatment’s website.

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