Friday, January 2, 2009

ABA: Neanderthal or Evolved?

Ron Leaf’s recent experience with a panel of experts discussing autism treatment brought up again the problem of people having a far outdated view of ABA. We have often taken up the cause of myth busting about ABA. It is viewed as rigid, mechanistic, superficial and short-lived in its effects. The fact is that ABA is a tool that can be used in many ways, some good, some bad, some artful and some uninspired. And it is being used much more skillfully in 2009 than it was in the 1970's because we have learned better ways to impact behavior as well as what behaviors make the biggest difference. Imagine someone making judgements about automobiles based on the models from 30 years ago? They guzzled gas, required constant tuning, spewed pollution, did not have seat belts, and, can you imagine, you hand to crank the window open by hand!

We have posted a video clip of ABA therapy that is taken from a documentary about the UCLA Young Autism Project nearly 30 years ago. We have shown this clip to workshop participants and invariably the reaction approaches horror. We do not use this clip to denigrate the work that was done in the early days of autism therapy. In fact we trained the therapist and he implemented the therapy exactly as we intended him to do it. It represented state of the art at the time. Even as crude as the approach may seem today, it still was more effective than anything else that has come along in the last 30 years.

When you watch this clip you will probably be struck with how harsh the therapist was, the use of food reinforcement and how strongly controlling the therapist was. This is how many people think ABA looks today. What people fail to appreciate is the use of prompts and fading, differential reinforcement, controlling random variables to maximize discrimination of the concept, and genuine praise for making good behavioral choices.

The essence of ABA is its structure, and its intensity, designed to maximize learning gains and close the developmental gap in a short period of time, along with its constant reliance on evaluating outcomes and revising interventions to achieve the best results. But this can be done in a fun, motivating and engaging manner, respecting the child’s preferences when possible, and using natural language and natural environments. We have posted a second clip which illustrates how you can be natural and fun, while still maintaining the integrity and discipline of systematic teaching.

If your idea of ABA is what you saw in the first clip, please remember, ABA has evolved over the past 30 years. -JM


  1. [Posting edited] Unfortunately the ABA in the first clip is how some places still believe ABA should be done. [I have visited a prominent ABA school where] you will see this kind of rote, dated ABA. Robots and children who can't generalize a thing is how most of the kids turn out there. Additionally, many parents complain that no one plays with them or interacts in any way other than through rote discrete trials while continually shoving primary reinforcers in the child's mouth. It is sad that places like this give ABA a bad name, but it still goes on unfortunately.

  2. Not to sound unduly critical, but a training package that is commercially available also is more representative of the first example than the second.

    What is the responsibility of the field overall to helping to clarify a wide variety of technologies to consumers? What practically would be useful?

    Thanks for any suggestions.