Thursday, January 3, 2008


This blog is a comment I made on another blog. An autistic blogger had mentioned speaking out against ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) to which a concerned parent wondered what was wrong with ABA. This is my response.

First off my official dxes are chronic major depression & severe ADHD-I ('I' stands for inattentive, meaning the 'H' is inside the head that sits atop the body of a slug) "with autistic traits." Second, this is MY take on it only. Seize what you can use is all.

On the surface of it I have heard (from someone crazy enthusiastic for ABA) that ABA requires hours & hours & relentless hours of concerted effort by both parent & child. As someone on the spectrum with a son who is likewise I can't imagine either of us surviving this process. Even when the parent is a full tilt extravert with an inordinately high affiliation need, the autistic kid is apt to need time out & maybe safe space in the home to rock, spin, toe-walk, avoid eye contact--whatever self-soothing is necessary to recover from such rigorous training.

ABA appears also to be woefully de-contextualized. "This is how you must act" as opposed to "you need to know how act this way in social (i.e., public) situations in (e.g.) the USA of 2008," the assumption being that there's a distinction between the impression you may need to make at times & who you are. This is heady stuff but it's worth some thought. And besides something like Carol Gray's social stories does exactly that (though maybe not with my cynical take ;-)).

The concept behind this is that we—no matter particular dxes—lack real life templates for just about everything. I’m going on 59 years of age & still have big problems perceiving things in a pattern. My motto is always “[shrug] people must have their reasons,” reasons I have little capacity to grasp or make sense of. Any educational resource that elucidates the templates is from my POV superior to resources of behavior mod.

The idea is to show the pattern, reveal the scenario. I teach English Composition full time & I work very hard to encourage students to size up writing situations (via the rhetorical model) so that they are not only able to dish out a passable so-called academic <--?? essay but make reasonable conjectures about how to approach the much, much wider variety of writing situations they will encounter in life.

I hope this analogy is informative: equating "good writing" with a fluency of limited application is misleading. Likewise equating, say, "hugging mom" as an absolute value means what ABA doing is training rather than education. It's not true development because development does not take place in a vacuum.

Perhaps if one could pick & chose from ABA what may TO THAT PARENT make sense, such a scenario may not apply but, having sat in that dreadful room listening to every which expert tell us how deficient our son was I'm inclined to think that many parents feel so devastated by this grim outlook they sacrifice their own instincts & core values & sometimes the amusement or awe they feel about certain of their child's ways in order to achieve for their child a relinquishment they see necessary to the child’s future prospects. The word used by ABA in its goals is that your child be “indistinguishable” from other [read: popular] children. To this odd duck this is scary talk. Indistinguishable? (Ouch!)

It’s alluring with such psychiatric negativism to sign on to such a promise. Truth is in the big picture things unfold in fits & starts & the child’s individual nature will take that unfolding in directions you won’t see at this point--& in the long run these may put you & your child in a surprisingly good place. You didn’t ask for advice but if you had my advice would be “Relax. Be confident you’ll do right by your child & your child will thrive no matter how dire your present circumstances may be. ”

Of course,I don’t know you, your child, or your circumstances but I have a feeling your post shows you’re doing a good thing, devoting thought to options.

I will finally say a couple of things. First, I know people who have worked with autistic kids who do NOT see my thinking as unrealistic & wrongheaded. This past summer I met someone who used to use tones (hums, actually) to relate to autistic kids assigned to her care. An autistic child would tone back with the same or another tone & in time, through this relating on the child’s social terms, she would have a real relationship with the child & the child would be thriving & willing & able to reciprocate according to the teacher’s social needs . Beginning from the POV that the child has something to offer to his/her developmental process as well as the adult/teacher/therapist/parent appears to have a powerful advantage.

Also, my experience with my son as well as my own developmental trajectory have taught me that acceptance & the genuine esteem of important others are fabulously powerful. We were in our son’s cheering section—even if that meant letting him off the hook from all those play dates we were being commanded to arrange & our son had no use for—& through that he has seemed to flourish.

When parents are so affiliation-oriented they see nothing whatsoever interesting/funny/compelling about their child & everything to compel social acceptability, ABA is to me a dubious, even dangerous strategy. When parents love their child as-is they are in a place to venture into growth & development & transformation. And if they find ABA attractive & choose to participate in it, it’s almost certain to be ABA on their own wholesome terms, which means devoid of the doctrine of indistinguishability & modulated into a humane, user friendly :-) process.

I do hope you can glean something of use from this. All the best to you & your child.

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