What is ABA, and is it a help or a hinderance?

Until I sat down to watch Autism: Challenging Behaviour on BBC Four, a British television channel, on Tuesday 5th November 2013, I had no idea what Applied Behaviour Analysis was.

I had no idea what it meant, I had no idea what it entailed, and I had no idea how it could be used in a variety of different ways to try and help autistic children to overcome issues they face as a result of being autistic.

Watching the documentary though was a learning curve for me as an autistic adult who has always gone through life by facing challenges which have toughened me up. It was an insight into the work that is done by Treetops School, a state school in Grays, Essex which uses ABA to deal with pupils that have severe learning disabilities, and it divided opinions on Facebook and Twitter from those who watched it.

Asking tweeters for their thoughts on ABA, and Autism: Challenging Behaviour, provoked a large response.

Asking tweeters for their thoughts on ABA, and Autism: Challenging Behaviour, provoked a large response.

Helen, a parent of a child with moderate learning disabilities who goes to school at Treetops but does not receive ABA therapy, feels that “luckily Patrick (her son) was awarded a place at Treetops and I use that word ‘awarded’ because it felt like a prize”, while television viewers were mixed in their thoughts through social media.

On her own experiences, Andrea said: “The show made me aware of using ABA with my son (who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome).”

Another mum, Ann, focussed on a negative view. She said: “I don’t agree with the method at all.

“I understand some of the reasons for the teachings but my son and others like him on the spectrum have learnt many skills and are developing at a slower pace perhaps yes, but they’re not going through the stress that many children feel using ABA. It’s far too rigid and intense.”

Displayed as a form of therapy in Autism: Challenging Behaviour, ABA is a way of understanding behaviour which can then be adapted and modified to bring on positive changes.

What transpired through the documentary however is that there is no set way of developing the intensive therapy which is part of ABA to anybody who is receiving it.

A difference in beliefs and understanding can develop drastic changes in teaching techniques.

An insight into the lives of three-year-old Jack and four-year-old Jeremiah at Treetops showed how ABA therapy can work for some children. Jack’s difficulties where he would physically retch at the thought of eating solid food were dealt with and as a result of intensive support which was combined with praise, a love for baby food began to switch to a love for the food that he previously couldn’t face.

However, an insight into the life of Richard, a 16-year-old from Sweden who received ABA therapy from Gunnar Frederiksen, an ABA consultant who works with families across Europe, revealed deeper upset as a different approach was taken to autism.

Gunnar took a different approach to delivering therapy. In his case, autism was something that could be cured instead of nurtured in somebody who is autistic.

Again, his views delivered negative comments but in this case, they came from both those who had watched the documentary and also Helen.

On his methods, she said: “He didn’t seem a pleasant guy. My son will never be ‘cured’. ASD (a form of autism) doesn’t work like that.”, with Ann feeling the same way by saying: “As for ‘curing/fixing’ people with autism, not only is that a disgusting thing to say but it’s also nonsense.”

Further tweets backed these thoughts up, with Stuart saying: “Those kids’ attempts to initiate interaction were ignored, diverted or punished – wrong kind of snow.” before he went on to say: “There were many instances when ‘the wrong kind’ of communication was halted and kids were forced to try to conform.”

Clearly, opinions were strong amongst those who watched a documentary that may have been edited to produce one belief or another, so it only seems fair to give Helen the final word on the subject of ABA which was explored through three case studies in two environments.

For Patrick, her son, Treetops is more than just a school which helps children with moderate or severe learning disabilities to achieve. It is a place that can change a life after a bad experience in a mainstream school:

“Treetops truly is a school of excellence. I always knew it, but didn’t appreciate to the full extent how much until my son started there.

“Within a week Patrick was excited to attend school, standing impatiently with his bag and coat waiting for his transport. As time has gone on, I see his confidence blossom. His happiness has positively impacted on the whole family.

“This morning he dressed himself for the first time. Yes, his buttons were wonky, and it’s because they’re making chocolate apples at school. However, when I think about the past, when I had to struggle to dress him as he was fighting me, I really can’t grumble.

“We do still have difficulties, meltdowns and upsets. Patrick is as Patrick is, that’s never going to change. We would never want it to. He’s happy now, fundamentally that’s all any parent wants for their child.”

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