A History, A Controversy, A Hope

If you have looked into early intervention options for your child with ASD, you have likely read about Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. Navigating options for early intervention therapies is a big task, and the mountain of information floating around the internet can be dizzying. What follows is a quick summary of what ABA was, what it is today, and sources to help you find the right methods for you and your family. 

A Quick History

ABA utilizes the principles of human behavior (i.e. reinforcement, motivation, consequence, etc.) to teach social behavior and increase cognitive ability.[i] The ideals and practices underpinning ABA were originally published in 1966 by Ole Ivar Lovaas.[ii] His theories, however, were not greatly accepted until 1987 when he published experimental positive results, at which point, the practices were widely credited and put to use.[iii] 

Lovass’s main claim was that children on the spectrum could eventually reach the same sensory, cognition, language, and learning capabilities as their neurotypical peers by conducting intensive, reward-based one-on-one drills for up to 40 hours a week. The drills took place at a table with the therapist sitting opposite the patient. The focus was to teach autistic children to respond to verbal cues, increase communication, minimize self-injurious habits, etc. This was done by breaking down the desired skills into manageable steps and teaching each step over and over until it was mastered. As steps were mastered, verbal or physical rewards were given. Conversely, when the child did not respond correctly, some form of punishment was given instead.[ii],[iii]

The techniques and theories used in ABA have proven helpful in increasing IQ, communication, and cognition, and it is still the most used and accepted form of early intervention therapy for children with ASD.[iv],[v] Today, most therapies, though ABA-based, are far less rigid and can be molded to fit each child’s needs and comforts.

Why So Much Controversy?

Most opposition to ABA therapies stems from Lovaas’s original version and procedures which aimed to “fix” children with ASD and make them more like their “normal”, neurotypical counterparts. Although the original practices may seem archaic in the context of contemporary society and therapies, against the 20th century backdrop of institutionalization, ABA therapy was a hopeful window to a “normal” life for people on the spectrum. Keep in mind that the idea was birthed in the 1960s under a totally different and less neurodiverse-tolerant social and psychological umbrella.[vi],[ii],[iii]

However, as society has evolved and understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity has increased, the ideals, theories, and practices being used have changed as well.[vii] Therefore, although most early intervention methods are still based on ABA tactics, the aim has shifted away from “fitting” children to social norms and focuses now on using behavior principles to increase the ease and potential of daily activities, social interactions, learning capabilities, and much more.[viii]

What doesABA look like today?

The most notable shift within ABA and ABA-based therapies since the 1960s is, perhaps, the modern exclusion of negative rewards or punishments.[viii] Today, instead of reacting to undesirable behavior, therapists and parents are simply taught not to respond. On the other hand, when a child masters a skill or responds correctly, positive reinforcement is given in abundance. Contemporary ABA-based therapies do not necessarily take place at a desk or table either. For example, with the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), practices and drills are completed in an informal and playful environment where children are more comfortable and use their own preferences for learning.[ix],[x] Other ABA-based therapies include Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) and Strategies for Teaching Based on Autism Research (STAR), to name a few.[xi],[xii]

The process for choosing an early intervention therapy can be overwhelming. But keep calm and keep searching. It is important to speak with your doctors, and before any specific method is selected, ensure that your child’s needs and comforts are taken into consideration.[ix] If you decide ABA is the right therapy for your child on the spectrum, make sure they are assessed by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and/or paired with a therapist who can meet their needs.[xiii] Remember that modern ABA therapy is not a “one-size fits all” model and will require continued observation and participation from parents and therapists. Take comfort and keep hope in knowing that whatever therapy you decide to utilize will be tailored to your child and will aim to help them, as an individual, live the life you dream they can.[xiv] 

More helpful sources for your intervention inquiries:

  • More details on the ABA controversyChild Mind Institute
  • ASD therapy video glossary – Collaboration: Autism Speaks, FSU Autism Institute and First Signs

End Notes

[i] Attentive Behavior CareWhat is ABA Therapy? (2019)
[ii] Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 4(2), pages 109-125 (1966)
[iii] Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55(1), pages 3-9 (1987)
[iv] Infants & Young Children, 18(2), pages 74-85 (2005)
[v] Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, 26 (2011)
[vi] Spectrum FeatureThe Controversy over autisms most common therapy (2016)
[vii] Healthline.comIs ABA right for your child? – Medically reviewed (2019)
[viii] History of the Human Sciences, 30(2), pages 107-126 (2017)
[ix] Pediatrics, 125(1), pages 17-23 (2009)
[x] Spectrum News – Early intervention yields big benefits for children with autism (2010)
[xi] Pivotal response treatments for autism: Communication, social, & academic development, Book, (2006)
[xii] Star Autism SupportThe STAR program
[xiii] Attentive Behavior CareABA Therapy
[xiv] Child Mind InstituteWhat is Applied Behavior Therapy?

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