Myths and Misconceptions about ABA

ABA is an experimental treatment and not scientifically demonstrated to be effective.

This about as far from the truth as you can get. Of all the forms of therapy and education that are available for children with autism, ABA is the program that has the most scientific positive data and support for its principles, techniques and overall effectiveness. There are at least a dozen professional journals that are dedicated to the science of ABA, Autism intervention and intellectual disabilities that have published thousands of individual research findings and large group studies. In fact, ABA is currently the only autism therapy recommended for long-term benefit by the United States Surgeon General. As a treatment for autism, Chapter Three of the Surgeon General’s report on Mental Health, 1999, states, “Thirty years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning, and appropriate social behavior.”

ABA does not teach a child HOW or WHY to do something; it only trains them to behave in a certain way.

This deals with the mistaken idea that in ABA programs, children are not being taught to be independent thinkers but merely trained to react to stimuli. All learning has some aspect of rote memorization and practiced routine, whether you are in an ABA program, regular school classroom, or simply learning from your parents at home. There are always going to be things that a child is expected to do, “Just because Mom / Dad / Teacher said so.” Additionally, there will always be a behavior we choose without thinking. When discussing “training,” one is generally talking about creating habits of behavior – things we do without thinking about them. However, this fact has nothing to do with ABA but rather how all people learn. Many of our behavior choices in life are reactions and habits. When it is time to brush your teeth you do not think about each of the behaviors used to make that happen (wetting the toothbrush, squeezing the toothpaste, raising your hand to your mouth etc.). These habits have all formed the way they have because guided practice has led to success. Success then leads to repetition. It is true that ABA is very successful in breaking down seemingly simple tasks such as brushing teeth and teaching them in small steps to help a child find success where they might not otherwise. However, the premise that ABA is limited to only teaching this sort of memorized or habitual task is absolutely false.

Just like any form of teaching, a good ABA program needs to be designed to teach to all the needs of the individual. This includes concepts such as complex language, social interaction, problem solving, flexible thinking, and theory of mind (such as understanding things from other people’s perspectives). Although these skills are much more complex in nature, they are not immune to the same behavioral principles that guide all of our learning. The issue then becomes, “how creative and experienced is the person running the ABA program at addressing this sort of learning?” In the early days of ABA, there was  less experience addressing these more complex learning processes. Thus, some early ABA programs may have been deficient. However, that was a result of the professional’s inexperience applying the principles and not problems with the principles themselves. The benefit of ABA is that it is a science and therefore progress made anywhere in the world is made available to all through the studies published in scientific journals. Over the past 40 years there have been an uncountable number of breakthroughs and experience gained addressing even the most complex human issues with the principles of ABA. It is important to remember that ABA is the science of what works.

ABA is just animal training adapted for use with people.

Applied Behavior Analysis is a comprehensive understanding of why people tend to make the choices that they do. It is the application of that understanding that allows ABA consultants to help people make choices that are more effective and support happier and more successful living. The fact that some behaviorists use this understanding to help adults, to help children and to train animals does not diminish its value in supporting better choice making in children with autism. I always laugh when I hear this myth and think, “hmm, people sometimes choose to feed meat bones to their dogs. Does that mean that my New York steak with peppercorn sauce is merely dog food adapted for use with humans?”

ABA just uses food and toys to bribe kids into doing things / ABA gets kids hooked on edible rewards.

One of the most misunderstood concepts of ABA is the value and importance of reinforcement. ABA is a reinforcement based science. We understand that, in life, the things we do that are followed by positive changes in our environment are most often the things we choose to do again. This “success leading to repetition” is what creates our behavior patterns and ultimately helps us to determine the kind of people we are to become. The fact that reinforcement is defined as occurring after a behavior shows that the terms “Bribe” and “Reinforcement” are not synonymous. Bribes involve saying to someone, “If you do this, I will give you this.” Bribes are dependent on a negotiation before the behavior occurs. Since reinforcement occurs only after a behavior is completed, they are not one in the same. In fact, most ABA programs teach that the use of “If, Then,” statements are often contrary to good teaching. Additionally, there is nothing in the definition of reinforcement that dictates what reinforcement is or can be. It only dictates when reinforcement occurs and what it does for a behavior. The actual stimulus that serves as reinforcement should not and cannot be determined by the ABA program developer. Instead, reinforcement is always determined by what actually does increase future behavior.

In general, some forms of food, accessibility of items, physical or mental stimulation, attention, and praise act as the reinforcement for most everything we do. We eat because it tastes good and/or to nourish our bodies, read books because it stimulates our brains in positive ways and tend to be nice to others because it gives us some combination of attention, praise and self-satisfaction. The same is true for children with autism but to differing degrees. Depending on the child, it is quite possible that none of these higher-level stimuli support behavior change. That leaves us with only lower level items to work with at the start of a program. Food, physical play, music, videos, and toys are often good early reinforcers that help a child learn important new skills. But, as important as it is to identify what currently works as reinforcement for a child, it is just as important to increase the amount and level of reinforcement that is meaningful to the child.

Another critical component of a good ABA program is the move to work from lower level reinforcers such as food to higher level reinforcers such as praise over time, and to reduce the frequency at which the child is being reinforced.

ABA is a specialized Autism therapy and is not useful for people with other diagnoses.

ABA is used around the world to help all kinds of people overcome all kinds of social and behavioral problems such as quitting smoking, addressing personality disorders, relationship counseling, obsessive compulsive disorders, and many other common issues. Behavioral principles only began being used for children with autism in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Studies are available that support the use of ABA programming with children affected by any number of different disabilities including Downs Syndrome, CP, Emotional Disorders, General Developmental Delay, etc.

(adapted from http://knospe-aba.com/cms/en/home/44.html)

ABA turns kids into “little robots”

When done correctly, ABA will maximize a child’s ability to express their own personality and preferences by teaching them the skills they need to communicate, play, and otherwise enjoy life…by teaching them how to LEARN.

ABA addresses “behavior” only, it’s not language focused.

ABA programs are comprehensive programs – meaning that an ABA program will address all aspects of a child’s life. These areas include behavioral needs in addition to social skills, language/communication skills, cognitive skills, self-help/daily living skills, play skills and motor skills.

ABA doesn’t “work” with older kids.

ABA now shows through research to yield significant skill gains with older children, as well as those who began as toddlers. While age at onset of treatment remains a powerful factor in the overall prognosis for a child with autism, this should not be sole reason to deny a child access to treatment

ABA is all table work.

While ABA therapy programs do involve table work, ABA therapy is NOT solely “table work.” The therapy is a comprehensive program which involves time working and playing at the table, away from the table, in the backyard, around the house, in the community, at school, in structured peer play sessions, and anywhere else the child needs to be able to learn and apply skills! ABA also involves a lot of time spent engaged in fun, reinforcing activities to ensure that the child is enjoying therapy time.

ABA uses aversives / physical punishment.

NO. ABA therapy programs do not use physical punishment to treat autism.

ABA takes childhood away from the child.

Just the opposite – with ABA therapy, we are striving to give childhood BACK to the child by them the skills that they need to communicate with others (adults and children), to play, to understand what toys are for and how to use them, and to generally be able to access the community and enjoy life.

Discourages socialization by keeping kids home.

ABA therapy encourages socialization by teaching children the pre-requisite skills they need to be successful in a social environment before placing them into an automatic self-contained placement. When children are placed into a more stressful social school or other social environments without the pre-requisite skills, they are significantly more likely to have an increased level of behavioral programs, which decreases the likelihood that they will be successful in a classroom setting and make friends. Compare this to being dropped off at college while you were only a high school freshman – would you have been ready socially?

Skills only “work” at the table, with the therapist.

If skills are only taught in one place with one person in one way, yes, that is how they are likely to be exhibited. However, as stated above, a good ABA program incorporates generalization components from an early stage to prevent just this aspect. The entire goal of the program is “learning to learn,” meaning that the child will not only be able to demonstrate learned skills in any environment with any person, they will also be able to LEARN new skills in other environments, from other people.

Children hear “no” 66% of the time.

Absolutely not. This tends to come from people who do not understand ABA therapy, and take the x, x, p rule (which is only for MASTERED material) to mean that every time we introduce something new to a child, we always let them get it wrong twice before we ever tell them the answer or help them at all. This would go against all of our training and research about how to introduce a new skill. The other MAJOR flaw with this logic is that it assumes that the child never, ever get anything correct on their own!

Sessions are structured to keep children successful overall!