Would you prefer ABBA or ABA ?
By Jennifer Jones 30/7/2016
I wasn’t sure what to write about today. Over the last 10 years I’ve watched the ongoing debate surrounding ABA therapy with great interest. On the one hand there are ‘patients/clients’ who tout its benefits. On the other, there are former practitioners and ‘patients/clients’ who consider it to be abusive.
There is a camp that has historically equated successful treatments with an autistic person’s ability to blend in and function well in a ‘non-autistic’ world.
More recently, as we shift away from the ‘medical’ model for autism, we know that suppressing someone’s autistic-ness is not a success. It is a cop out. It is a way to avoid supporting autism and providing appropriate accommodations. It is a way of avoiding acceptance.
That being said, ABA is still being practised. One hopes that the use of adversives is on the decline. One hopes that the goals of the therapy are meaningful and respectful of the client. One hopes that this person has the most important ‘voice’ in the undertaking.
For now, I’d just like to focus on one of the foundational concepts inherent in ABA therapy: Operant Conditioning. Why focus on this? Because it’s going on all the time. From birth to death. Almost every moment of everyday. Even when we are alone! And it does impact our future behaviour. Like it or not.
The basic premise is that a behaviour that is rewarded is more likely to occur again. And behaviour that is not rewarded is less likely to occur again. (This is a very simplified view of one aspect of Operant Conditioning! If you are interested in finding out more, there are loads of in depth articles available on the web).
So, for example, if I wake up in the morning and someone brings me a nice cup of coffee, I am more likely to get up without a lot of drama the following morning. The behaviour is getting out of bed. The ‘reward’ is the coffee. Simple, right? Just bring me coffee every morning as soon as my feet hit the ground and we’re good to go. That’s positive reinforcement.
Okay, this time it’s my cousin who is having trouble getting out bed in the morning. Sally hates it when her feet hit the cold floor. It causes a lot of drama. Eureka! We have come up with a solution! We will put a rug on the floor just beside Sally’s bed. We will remove the problem of the cold floor. In a way, this is a reward too – but in OC we would call it negative reinforcement – taking something away (the cold floor) in order to increase the likelihood that Sally will get out of bed.
And, by the way, it’s still behaviour modification even if I bring myself the coffee, or if Sally puts the rug beside her own bed.
Again, it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Ya, right.
When I’m working with young children one of the trickiest parts of helping a child modify his or her behaviour is identifying their ‘currency.’ What would this child consider to be a positive reinforcement? Is it a smile and a hug? Is it a sticker? Sometimes it’s one of those. But often it’s a more natural consequence.
For example, if Johnny washes his hands, he won’t have to feel the sticky jam between his fingers anymore. Johnny is learning on his own that by cleaning his hands he has removed the unpleasant sensation of the jam on them. Hand washing is the behaviour. Removing the sticky jam sensation is the negative reinforcement.
There is a lot of room for both types of behaviour modification. Sometimes we need to set up a learning situation. Sometimes one presents itself. In both cases it can be helpful for an adult to provide the language scaffolding to help our kids understand HOW they are learning:
“I see you’ve washed your hands. That must feel much better than having sticky hands.”
Being specific when describing the behaviour is also important.
Finding the right ‘currency’ for your child, and applying the reinforcement consistently are both important. That much I have learned – often the hard way.
You may have noticed that the subject of ‘adversives’ or ‘punishments’ has not come up in this little opinion piece. Are they unnecessary? Maybe, maybe not. But in my experience, reinforcements (negative or positive) get way too little attention, given the incredible impact they have on outcomes.
Just think about your own life. Are you more likely to want do the dishes if someone praises your clean kitchen and sparkly empty sink? Or are you more likely to want to do the dishes again if someone points out the specks of food you missed on the plates?
So, after a rather long-winded sidebar, I return to the subject of ABA. Whether you’re for it or against it, its worth knowing that we are all subjected to one of it’s most fundamental components: Operant Conditioning.
And that’s okay.