Written by Sudha Ramaswamy, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA
Myth #1: ABA is not a scientifically proven form of therapy for autism.
Over the past 50 years, an extensive body of literature has documented the successful use of ABA-based procedures to reduce problem behavior and increase appropriate skills for individuals with autism and related disorders. The research base consists of numerous studies involving single-case experimental designs. Nearly six hundred peer-reviewed studies that have been published, demonstrate the effectiveness of ABA with individuals with autism. A number of organizations endorse ABA as a scientifically proven approach for treating children with autism and related disorders. These include, but are not limited to: American Academy of Neurology, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association. ABA is also supported by the U.S. Surgeon General: “Thirty years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning, and appropriate social behavior.”
Myth #2: ABA therapy is only for learners with autism.
ABA is the practice of applying the psychological principles of learning theory in a systematic way to alter socially significant behavior. The practice is used extensively in education, healthcare, animal training, and business management. ABA has been empirically demonstrated to be effective individuals to overcome many types of social and behavioral problems such as quitting smoking, addressing personality disorders, treating obsessive compulsive disorders, and many other issues. Behavioral principles have been applied for learners with autism since the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Studies are available that support the use of ABA programming with learners affected by a number of different disorders including language delays and emotional behavioral challenges. Here is a relevant article about the application of behavioral science to all facets of life:
Myth #3: All ABA programs are the same.
ABA is a science of individual behavior that has its theoretical grounding in High quality ABA programs for autism are not “one size fits all.” Rather, each program is developed to meet the needs of the individual learner. The goal of any ABA program is to help each learner work on skills that will help them become more independent and successful in both the short term as well as in the long term. A qualified behavior analyst designs and directly oversees the program. The behavior analyst will customize the ABA program to each learner’s skills, needs, interests, preferences and family goals.
Myth #4: ABA involves only Discrete Trial Training at the Table Top
Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is one approach used in ABA, but it is not the only method of choice. DTT is a great method to use because it gives therapists the ability to focus on exactly what the learner needs to be successful. It allows therapists to set up clear expectations for the learner and teach in a systematic manner. It is fairly common that learners who have a lower level of verbal behavior or who are younger in age start with a more structured DTT, then transition to a more naturalistic teaching scenarios. Indeed, the most effective teaching includes teaching in all settings throughout the day, across persons and scenarios. Incidental teaching or “natural environment training” includes working with the learner in natural settings.
Myth #5: ABA therapy promotes robotic behavior.
Behavioral rigidity is one of the characteristics of autism. Thus, ABA methods target a variety of skills including generalized responding and creative behavior. As a result, a quality program will teach learners to respond in natural and creative ways. ABA treatments seek to overcome rigidity by teaching multiple exemplars and teaching for generalization to the real-world situations relevant to the learner. In the beginning of a program, responses might seem overly simplified and therefore “robotic” but as the skills progress those skills are eventually developed and transferred to naturalistic settings.
Myth #6: ABA programs institute procedures that are too tough on kids.
In the early days of ABA, punishment was used more often but today positive reinforcement is overwhelmingly in practice. Punishment may be used in rare cases, for example, to prevent serious self-injury, but not before all reinforcement-based methods are exhausted first. If punishment is absolutely necessary, reinforcement procedures targeting alternative behavior should also be in place. There’s also a common stereotype that ABA therapists are strict taskmasters. If a therapist is overly stern and not making sessions fun and engaging, it’s just bad teaching, not ABA. Good therapists will find a way to understand the whole child and create a program that takes into account the child first, then methodically address skill deficits in an engaging manner.
Myth #7: ABA uses bribes consisting of food to manipulate the learner’s behavior.
The difference between bribes and reinforcers can be explained by examining when those events occur. Reinforcers occur after a behavior and are specifically to increase a particular type of behavior. Bribes, on the other hand, are made before the person engages in behavior. Regarding reinforcers, food is a particularly useful reinforcer at the beginning of an ABA program, especially if the individual is a young learner and/or has little to no language skills. However, pairing the food with other items, such as social praise, toys and books, for example, allows those things to become reinforcers themselves and helps expand that learner’s community of reinforcers.
Myth #8: ABA teaches rote responding and not the how and why of behavior
Any good ABA program should be designed to address all the needs of the individual learner. This includes concepts such as social interaction, complex language, problem solving, flexible thinking, and perspective taking. Although these skills are much more complex in nature, they are amenable to the same behavioral principles that guide all of our learning. Thus the complexity and creativity of the home program will really depend on how experienced the person running the ABA program is at addressing these types of skills. Decades ago in the early days of ABA, there was far less experience addressing these more complex learning processes. However, those deficiencies were a result of the professional’s inexperience applying behavioral principles and not problems with the principles themselves. Because ABA is a science, the field itself has evolved over the last several decades with evidence that can be found in studies published across the globe.