When Autism: Challenging Behaviour was first broadcast on BBC Four on Tuesday 5th November 2013, it opened up the idea of using Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) as a therapy which could help autistic children to improve their developmental skills through intensive support and praise.
By focussing on the work that is done at Treetops School, a state school in Grays, Essex which is run as a day special school for children and young people with moderate to severe learning difficulties, and also on the work of Gunnar Frederiksen, an ABA consultant in Sweden, the documentary showed how ABA can help or hinder an autistic person through focussing on three case studies.
The results on screen for three-year-old Jack and four-year-old Jeremiah were positive to see from their care at Treetops, though 16-year-old Richard seemed profoundly affected by the therapy he received as a child from Gunnar. This provoked a positive and negative response, even though views were not shared at the time of writing What is ABA, and is it a help or a hinderance? by anybody directly linked with ABA at Treetops or with Gunnar himself.
To now offer a truly impartial view on how ABA therapy can benefit children at Treetops, and also a view on why the BBC were welcomed to film at Treetops, I have had the pleasure of speaking to Jennifer Hubbard, the head of the verbal behaviour department at the school that delivers it.
Here are her views on such a strong subject:
Phil: As the first state school in Great Britain to actively use ABA for its pupils with a severe learning disability, why did Treetops decide to implement it?
Jennifer: “Around 11 years ago, the parents of a young girl at Treetops approached the class teacher at the time and introduced the idea of ABA. They felt it was a programme that might have some benefit for their daughter who was on the autistic spectrum.
“The class teacher at the time had been looking into alternative therapies for the pupils with ASD and had been on a number of courses for other programmes. She was delighted when the opportunity arose to have contact with consultants and implement ABA in her class.
“After trialling ABA with a few pupils in the class, the teacher was amazed at the results and the benefits that it seemed to have for the pupils. The school decided to set up a nursery which would cater for the needs of pupils with ASD and run specific ABA VB programmes. At the time there were five places.
“I joined the school at the beginning of the programmes being set up and it has been a privilege to be part of something which has developed and grown into what it is today.”
Have you had more cases where ABA has been positive rather than negative, and how did it help the pupils who received it?
“I think that ABA is a great successful programme because of how it is so individualised for the pupil.
“Individual assessments help us to shape and devise a programme that is specific and functional to the learner. This is why I believe that the success rate of working with pupils in our school is so good. We are realistic that every pupil learns at a different rate and therefore there are pupils who make huge leaps in progress and others who master at a slower pace.
“Having said that, even the pupils who make a slower rate of progress are still reaching their full potential and learning skills which they definitely wouldn’t be acquiring without some intensive teaching.
“I think ABA helps the pupils to learn functional skills in a fun and supporting environment. Each pupil’s progress is carefully tracked and recorded and teaching procedures are adapted to suit the learner.”
Why did you decide to give the BBC access to Treetops to showcase what you do?
“The deputy head (of Treetops) at the time was approached about making a documentary and as I’m sure you can imagine, it was a big decision for the school to make.
“However, the feeling was that we need people to see the benefits of ABA. Our school is currently at full capacity and yet we still have families moving into the area to try and access the provision. ABA just isn’t available enough for the demand that it has.
“The hope with the documentary was to highlight how needed programmes like this are and how it should be offered in other local authorities and other areas.”
What has the response been from viewers who watched Autism: Challenging Behaviour?
“The response from the documentary has been phenomenal.
“The week after it went live we were literally inundated with emails and phone calls from parents, teachers, groups and organisations requesting to come and see the school or just asking for advice.
“Nearly everyone has been very complimentary on the work that the school does. We have people coming from far and wide to visit. All of which is excellent, however it is disappointing for families as we are unable to take on any more pupils.”
Would you encourage other state schools in Britain to use ABA therapy?
“I would massively encourage other schools to look into ABA.
“I think the difficulty is that there is still so much controversy surrounding ABA that often people have concerns about it and are reluctant to implement it.
“However, I would encourage anyone to look into it further and visit provisions that are running programmes. ABA has changed so much over the years and I think pre-conceived ideas can often put people off.
“However this is something that lots of parents are crying out for. I would love to see ABA appearing in more schools!”