While applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a common treatment for autism spectrum disorder 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.
Related resource: Top 20 Applied Behavior Analysis Bachelor’s Degree and BCaBA Coursework Programs
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, 1 in 68 children were diagnosed with autism. Since 2000, the number of children with autism has increased by nearly triple.
The Benefits of ABA Therapy 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 diagnosed with autism learn new behaviors. ABA can help children learn:
- daily chores
- hygiene skills
- gross motor skills
From better social skills to increased intellectual abilities, ABA programs can help children adjust to normal life.
Through ABA, therapists can modify the child’s social and emotional behavior. Empirical studies show that one of the benefits of ABA is an increase in a child’s intellectual aptitude. Through this approach, children are able to develop social and emotional skills that match those of typical children.
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. These applied behavior analysis benefits are long lasting.
In a report by St. John Fisher College, researchers have pointed to the ABA therapy benefits of intervening early for autistic children. With early ABA therapy, children are able to attain a faster recovery rate. They improve in areas like:
- non-verbal expression
- expressive language
- receptive language
Children even achieve better results on IQ tests after an intervention.
The Drawbacks of Using ABA Therapy for Autism
The treatment is not without its detractors. One of the cons of ABA therapy is that some parents and people with autism believe it is unethical. Using ABA 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 ABA 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.
One of the most significant ABA theapy cons is the amount of time it takes. 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 ABA therapy 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, ABA is just an extension of this attitude.
Proponents of ABA treatment 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 ABA, 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 ABA, they only had one option for their future.
Who Can Provide ABA Services?
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.
The Behavior Analysis Certification Board is the leading authority for behavior analyst certification. They operate three unique certification programs including:
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst
- Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst
- Registered Behavior Technician
The BCBA is a master’s level certification. Candidates must have a masters degree from an ABAI accredited or recognized ABA program or complete behavior analytic coursework from another type of program. They must complete their degree and practicum experience hours in behavioral analysis to be eligible to sit for the BCBA exam. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst is a professional who can provide ABA services and can supervise BCaBAs and RBTs.
A Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst is an ABA professional with an undergraduate degree. They provide ABA services under the guidance of a BCBA. The degree can be from an ABAI accredited program or include approved behavior analytic coursework. Common programs that include coursework in ABA include developmental psychology or applied psychology.
An RBT is a paraprofessional who has received supervised training in ABA. These individuals are the backbone of ABA. They work directly with individuals and their families on therapies designed by BCBAs.
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 ABA therapy has helped many children and is backed by research studies, it might not be the best choice for every child. By studying ABA therapy pros and cons and talking to specialists, parents can figure out which treatment plan is best for their child.