Why is ABA a Controversial Autism Treatment Option?


When it comes to treatment of autism, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a well-known treatment option. Many people have reported that the treatment has been quite effective and beneficial for the treatment of their children affected with ASD. There are several special schools that have adopted ABA as a way to teach autistic kids.

However, ABA is also surrounded by some controversies, and many special schools are against using this approach for teaching children with autism. Let’s first get an idea of what is ABA and how this approach works, before moving on to the controversies associated with this option.

ABA Therapy
ABA Therapy

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What is Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)?

Applied Behavioural Analysis is a process in which interventions are applied systematically, on the basis of learning theory principles, for improving socially significant behaviours to some extent. The approach of ABA is aimed at teaching verbal, motor and social behaviours, and reasoning skills. The treatment is particularly beneficial for teaching different behaviours to autistic kids, who may not learn them on their own otherwise, unlike other children. The approach can be employed by a certified behaviour analyst, counsellor or parents.

The approach involves careful observation of behaviour, and uses prompting or positive reinforcement for teaching every step of behaviours. The behaviour of a kid is reinforced using a reward, when the kid carries out every step rightly. Behaviours interfering with social and learning skills, or undesirable behaviours, are observed closely. The goal is finding out what happens that triggers a behaviour, and what occurs after the behaviour, that reinforces it. The idea is removing these reinforces and triggers from the environment of the kid. The child is then taught different behaviours, for responding to the same triggers, by employing new reinforces.

As stated by HelpGuide.com, ABA has successfully improved non-verbal as well as verbal communication, taught children how they should interact with others, and eliminated problem behaviors.

Controversies Surrounding ABA:

The ABA approach was developed first in the 1960s, in California. ABA use on kids with autism, was pioneered by a psychologist named Ole Ivar Lovaas. He employed “aversives”, like giving kids mild electric shock or striking them, when the children didn’t comply. Early practice of ABA also involved the application of aversive techniques like restraining children or yelling at them. Most practitioners of ABA don’t use aversive techniques any longer. The ABA approach used currently doesn’t involve the use of any type of aversive techniques, but is equally effective.

Although aversive punishments are no longer a part of this approach, critics still warn that the approach is extremely demanding, with some programs involving a contact time of 40 hours per week. They also state that the approach is quite like “dog training”.

Another aspect of the approach that’s criticized, is removing or changing autistic behavior from the children with autism. Dr. Liz Pellicano, the head of “Centre for Research in Autism and Education”, at Institute of Education in University of London, states regarding this aspect, “This is a really contested issue in the autism community,”

She says, “Some people hate their autism because it prevents them from doing the things other people do. But others celebrate it, and feel it offers not only challenges but also opportunities.”

“Although therapists wouldn’t say that they’re trying to normalise children with autism, that is the underlying ideology of ABA – to make them indistinguishable from their peers.”

Such a thing is ethically questionable, as well as harmful, says she. She adds, “Being told there’s something wrong with you is going to potentially make you more anxious and more depressed, which is already highly prevalent in people with autism.”

Jennifer Hubbard, a teacher of ABA at Treetops (a state special school in UK), says that it would be horrifying for her staff to think that ABA is aimed at taking away autism from a child. She adds, “We know they will have autism as a lifelong diagnosis. The only behaviour we are stopping is that which is causing them harm or stopping their learning.”

So, why are not more and more state schools adopting ABA as a treatment and teaching option? Perhaps because of the controversies surrounding the approach. For some autistic children, ABA is beneficial. However, it would be best if other types of teaching approaches and treatment options are employed. As every child with autism is different, you can’t find any one-size-fits-all solution. Evidence shows that a combination of various approaches, works best for autistic children.

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