Friday, October 12, 2018

WYR: Applied Behavioral Analysis

I worked as a secretary ("administrative assistant") for a time at an autism clinic.  The fact that I was at the front desk, not in the teaching areas specifically, meant my experience was limited to brief flashes of the therapy, rather than seeing a whole session overall.  As such, I can only offer limited examples from my own life... because I was in my 20s before I'd even heard of using Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) to "treat" autism. 

I will say that nothing the author says here is contradicted by what I saw.  Essentially, what ABA focuses on is developing skills to make autistic people seem more normal.  That is, it trains people to respond to questions, teaches eye contact, movement (like how you walk), and social cues. 

Some of this is good.  Being able to communicate with neurotypical people in a fashion they understand, and being able to recognize social cues when they're given, are both good things.  Training a child to walk a certain way, or to make a certain amount of eye contact, or punishing a child when they flap their hands?  Not so good. 

If the difference isn't obvious to you, I'll explain.  Autistic people flap their hands or do other behaviors ("stimming") that look unusual because they are expressions of something.  That might be joy, or feeling overwhelmed, or even a side-effect of their laser focus on something.  Stepping in and stomping down on those behaviors because "they're not normal" is ableism.  Training a child to act perfectly neurotypical, going against their personal quirks, is basically insisting that they are invalid and the only correct way to be human is to be neurotypical. 

Eye contact is painful and/or overwhelming to some autistic people (hi there!), which is why many of us don't make appropriate eye contact when interacting with people.  Demanding we make eye contact in the name of normalcy means we're at a massive disadvantage in a conversation.  Instead of being able to focus on the subject matter, we're forced to juggle sensory overload and try to manage the conversation. 

The author talks about a particular little boy that she enjoyed in this school, with his inventive uses of language.  These things that made him unique, they were all stepped on, quashed, in the name of normalcy.  That's ableism.  That's what ABA preaches. 

Personally?  I had an uneasy truce with the ABA program I worked in proximity with.  I watched a child who could've been me get frustrated with being stuck in a room with the lights off.  In frustration, he first asked repeatedly for the lights to be turned on, then pleaded and cried, and finally attacked his teacher, who was trained to simply curb his attacks and continue directing his focus to the lesson at hand.  The teacher was bigger and much stronger.  You can guess who got their way. 

Good behavior was rewarded with pieces of candy, other food treats, and verbal praise.  So, basically the same way you train a horse or a dog.  At this school, the teachers did seem to genuinely like their kids, and there was actual playtime involved, not simply teaching time.  The kids did seem to have fun when they were out and about.  And the teachers did try to teach social skills, which I do think is important. 

But yeah.  ABA is not what I'd suggest for helping autistic people.  Even if it doesn't involve cattle prods.

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