Although Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy has been considered the gold-standard for supporting children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for over fifty years, parents and autism advocates have recently expressed concerns aimed at protecting a child’s neurodiversity and identity.
In a culture that celebrates and respects the lived experience, parents are eager to find therapies that shape independent living while also respecting their child’s unique way of thinking. So, we wanted to clarify a common misconception about ABA, hoping it will help parents make educated choices for their families and alleviate any concerns that would prevent a parent from finding appropriate treatment.
Misconception #1 ABA is Ableist
One of the misconceptions with ABA is that it is ableist, or that it views non-neurotypical individuals as people that must be “cured” of their intellectual differences. This perspective is largely tied to older ABA practices that have since been rejected by professionals; individuals with autism, for example, do not need to be “fixed,” and they do not need conversion therapy. Rather, individuals with autism or other neurodivergent people should be celebrated just as much as their neurotypical peers. Because no learner is quite the same, Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) work on a case-by-case basis with both caretakers and learners themselves to help address self-destructive behaviors, identify anxiety-inducing triggers, and examine coping mechanisms. People can be helped without changing who they are, and in many instances, behaviors such as violent tantruming or consuming non-edible substances must be eliminated before progress can be made in terms of independence. The purpose of Applied Behavior Analysis is to teach skills that will help individuals lead healthy, happy, and meaningful lives.
While ABA can assist learners in meeting social norms, it goes beyond that—language development, adaptive living, self-regulation and self-advocacy, money management and vocational skills, as well as leisure/play are all things that are taught during ABA. Skills that are fostered are highly tailored and prioritized based on the unique needs and goals of the learner and/or the learner’s family. When prioritizing goals, a BCBA will work with the learner/learner’s family to identify both short-term and long-term goals, as well as the skills needed to meet each one. Then, according to the ways in which the learner respond to treatment, strategies to help the learner can be adjusted as needed. In this way, an analyst works with both learners and parents to create realistic steppingstones to behavior modification, all according to their unique needs and goals. Success means something different for each client, and by outlining the road to get there, progress made is tangible, sustainable, and worthy of celebration.
Misconception #2: ABA is only for people with Autism and is not effective for people with other diagnoses
ABA is implemented in a variety of different forms to help people from all backgrounds. It is used to help people quit smoking, treat obsessive compulsive disorders and eating disorders, counsel relationships, and improve aggression management strategies in the police force. ABA is scientifically-backed by studies that support its use for children with Downs Syndrome, CP, General Development Delay, Emotional Disorders, ADHD, PTSD, etc. To read more on this subject, click here.
Misconception #3: ABA is primarily for children
ABA has been used to teach both children and adults of virtually all ages new skills and behaviors. While ABA is most effective when implemented at a young age, this is also true with any kind of learning or therapy. Ideally, if a child has received a diagnosis early on, therapy is usually recommended to start before the age of 3. Children’s brains develop in spurts called critical periods, and the first of these occurs around age 2, or toddlerhood. At the start of these critical periods, the number of synapses, or connections between brain cells (neurons), doubles, meaning that children have twice as many connections as adults. These connections between neurons are the place where learning occurs in the brain, so between the ages of 2 and 7, the duration of the first critical period, would be the ideal time for a child to take in new information. Thankfully, for those who seek treatment later in life, there is a substantial amount of evidence showing ABA is still effective in changing behavior. New research has shown that for language development, the window of time has extended from the previously-believed 10 years of age to learn a language to about 17-18 years old. Beyond that time period, there is still much to learn besides language. “Researchers have found that ABA can help adults learn specific skills, like how to dine in a restaurant, shop for clothing or use public transportation” (ABA Programs Guide). Though much of the research in ABA therapy and interventions has shown that early intervention is the most effective form of treatment, as long as an adult is invested in changing themselves, progress can be made. Because it is challenging to overcome years of conditioning, BCBAs are extremely patient with learners and are willing to work at their own pace.