Why do children with autism deserve ABA?
Mary Beth Walsh is an advocate of applied behavior analysis (ABA.) Walsh, whose son Ben has autism, delivered a presentation at the 2011 Innovations in Autism Treatment and Applied Behavior Analysis conference. In it, she argued that sometimes science isn’t the best way to persuade parents that ABA helps children with autism.
Using the experiences of herself and her son Ben, Walsh outlines the top ten reasons kids with autism deserve ABA:
10. There is more scientific evidence showing ABA “works” than there is for any other available intervention or treatment.
Behavior Analysts are happy to cite the thousands of studies to support ABA but parents may prefer to reference the book “Let Me Hear Your Voice” by Catherine Maurice. Maurice is a mother of two boys diagnosed with autism and her book tells the story of how behavioural intervention led to both boys losing their original diagnoses. This does not happen in all cases but ABA can “work” in other ways, such as teaching children skills, independence, speech, toileting, sleeping through the night and vocational skills. Walsh encourages more parents to speak out about how ABA-based intervention has made a difference in their children’s lives.
9. Children with autism are people too.
In her presentation, Walsh discusses views of autism, reflected in early popular media that are dangerously inhumane. She discusses how some individuals with autism are described as either sub-human or super-human, positing that both of these views deny the reality that people with autism are actually human. Every description of children with autism as being “other” does them a disservice, Walsh argues. They are part of the “human spectrum,” and Walsh says that by denying “the humanity of individuals with autism, we risk denying that they can learn.”
8. ABA helps parents be the best parents they can.
Walsh explains it thusly: “Parenting your child with autism is simply an extreme version of parenting. All parents know that they have an impact on their children’s lives, but few have the potential to have the impact that we do. We parents of children with autism have to work harder to assure that our children learn all they can, reach their potential, and when we rely on ABA to measure progress and guide teaching, we know we are making all the difference we can.”
7. ABA can help children with autism learn to do the things many of us take for granted.
Walsh cites the example of potty-training her son Ben. She notes that this skill required “deep, ongoing parental involvement in teaching.” By tracking Ben’s bowel movements and urination, Walsh and her husband were able to predict when he was most likely to have an accident, or to spontaneously indicate that he wanted to use the bathroom. They could then prevent accidents from happening – thereby preventing bad habits from becoming ingrained – and reward the good habits. The more data they had, the more able they were to help Ben learn.
6. ABA is the best defense against the tyranny of low expectations.
When parents cannot cope with the behaviors of their children with autism, some are at risk of using ineffective or even harmful methods to modify those behaviors, Walsh says. But this perpetuates low expectations of individuals with autism. “Accepting a person does not mean accepting the proposition that they cannot learn,” Walsh says. “In fact, I would argue just the opposite – truly accepting a person means embracing the proposition that however disabled they might seem, they can learn. And through ABA, they can learn well.”
5. ABA can teach kids with autism the skills necessary to make friends.
“For children with autism who have good language skills, behavioural intervention can be used to teach and support learning the social skills necessary to successfully interact with their peers,” Walsh notes. But for other kids, other skills (in the case of Walsh’s son Ben, ball skills) can also facilitate peer connections. “As [Ben’s ball skills have] generalized, it has become the pathway to social engagement with kids who do not have autism.”
4. ABA enables parents and teachers to capitalize on the strengths and preferences of children with autism.
“A large part of effectively teaching [a child with autism] is first figuring out how to motivate them,” Walsh says. “You can find opportunities to turn deficits into strengths when you put your ABA glasses on and think ‘How can I use this preference? How can I take advantage of this behavior?'”
3. ABA can teach parents how to respond in the moment.
“The more often [kids with autism] make a mistake, the more likely they will be to repeat it,” Walsh says. It is important to find effective ways to interrupt mistakes so that they don’t become ingrained behaviors. Parents who are ABA-aware are better able to think on their feet and change behaviors.
“It was as though a little bell went off in my head when I realized that no matter how many “hours of ABA” we get for Ben, to best help him, I have to do this work as well,” Walsh says. “In the world of our children with autism, time equals power, and the people who spend the most time with your children have enormous influence over them; and generally speaking the people who spend the most hours with your child is YOU.”
2. Children with autism deserve ABA because someday their parents are going to die.
Walsh says: “We must make sure our kids learn the skills they need to be as independent as possible as adults and as connected to their families and communities in healthy ways as possible.”
1. ABA can prepare kids with autism to be their own best advocates.
“Self-advocacy is not only for those with fluid language skills. Rather, competence begets self-advocacy, and behavioral intervention is the path to that competence,” Walsh says. But, she argues, the most important reason for using ABA is that:
“Every child deserves this chance to show others all that he or she is capable of; every child deserves to learn all he can learn; every child with autism deserves effective, behavioral intervention, and it is up to us parents to make sure our children with autism get what they deserve.”