While applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a common treatment for autism in the United States, it has a number of detractors. ABA is supposed to help with social skills and communication. Some parents believe that it prevents their child from being who they are.

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How ABA Therapy Works

In the last five years, ABA therapy has become increasingly popular. In the District of Columbia and 38 states, private insurance companies are required by law to offer the treatment for people with autism.

The therapy originally began in 1961. At the time, Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas was working at the UCLA psychology department. The treatment that Dr. Lovaas developed gradually turned into the Lovaas Model of Applied Behavior Analysis. The idea behind ABA is operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning works by changing the consequences of specific behaviors. By doing this, psychologists hope to change the actual behavior. During therapy, the psychologist records what happens before a behavior and what occurs after the behavior. Then, this information is used to design changes in consequences for the individual.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 59 children are on the autism spectrum. In 2012, only 1 in 68 children were diagnosed with autism. Since 2000, the number of children with autism has increased by nearly triple.

The Benefits of ADA for Autism

In the last 40 years, ABA has been the subject of many studies. Each study has proven that this approach can help children with autism learn new behaviors. From better social skills to increased intellectual abilities, ABA can help children adjust to normal life.

Through ABA, therapists can modify the child’s social and emotional behavior. Empirical studies show that ABA can help boost the child’s intellectual aptitude. Through this approach, children are able to develop social and emotional skills that match their peers.

Children are more likely to remain in school when they receive ABA. They also perform better in school. Eventually, parents can learn the same techniques to learn at home. Soon after treatment begins, many parents notice a positive impact on their child. They notice less frustration and better communication. Problem behaviors start to go away as the therapy continues.

In a report by St. John Fisher College, researchers have pointed to the benefits of intervening early for children with autism. With early ABA therapy, children are able to attain a faster recovery rate. They improve in areas like non-verbal expression, imitation, matching, expressive language and receptive language. Children even achieve better results on IQ tests after an intervention.

The Drawbacks of Using ADA Therapy for Autism

The treatment is not without its detractors. Some parents and people with autism believe that ADA is unethical. Using ADA therapy implies that the child is abnormal or needs to change. It requires children to become like their “normal” peers. Some detractors say that this approach is abusive, unethical and wrong.

The goal of ADA is to get children to learn coping mechanisms and new behaviors that help them fit into society. This implies that the child has to change in order to learn the correct answers and normal behavior. According to detractors, this takes away the child’s ability to be themselves. It also takes away their own choices in life. They do not get to choose who they are or what they want to do. Instead, they have to conform to the acceptable behavior chosen by others.

Some parents are also worried about the stress of ABA therapy. Some therapists will recommend up to 40 hours of therapy each week. For a child who is unaccustomed to this type of schedule, the change can be stressful.

Another potential problem is in the treatment itself. ABA is designed to be individualized. This individualized program can be a benefit or a drawback depending on the circumstances. Since the therapy can be modified to suit the child, it can make research studies harder to conduct. It also makes it more challenging for therapists to describe what the child’s individual results will actually be. At the same time, individualized treatment also provides children with the exact care and behavioral modifications that they need.

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Finding the Middle Ground

The reality might be somewhere in between both sides of the argument. While ADA does give parents the ability to choose their child’s behavior, this is not particularly different than what parents already do. Parents tell their children when to go to bed, who they can hang out with and what to eat. When children are taken to important events, they are taught to remain quiet and be respectful. In a sense, ADA is just an extension of this attitude.

Proponents of ADA believe that this therapy does not limit who the child will become. Instead, it gives the child extra options. For example, a child may want to be alone because they cannot handle social interactions. Through ADA, the child can learn how to be happy and safe around other people. Once the child becomes an adult, they can choose if they want to be solitary or social. Before receiving ADA, they only had one option for their future.

The hardest part for parents might not be in weighing the advantages and disadvantages of this treatment. In the United States, the biggest challenge is finding someone who will provide this therapy. Many school districts do not give their aides specialized support. Even when they have a behaviorist available, they might not have the funds to actually provide one-on-one attention. While credible ABA agencies have strict educational requirements, school districts often rely on special education teachers to care for children with special needs.

Children rarely have the knowledge or experience to make their own decisions. Because of this, parents have to decide which treatments are the most effective for their child. While ADA has helped many children and is backed by research studies, it might not be the best choice for every child. By doing their research and talking to specialists, parents can figure out which treatment plan is best for their child.