A Science of Learning and Behavior

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the most common therapies for children with autism, and widely considered the “gold standard.” Its evidence-based methods have been proven to help children with autism learn and grow and reach their fullest possible potential. It seeks to increase behaviors that help a child with everyday activities and learning and, conversely, decrease those that are getting in the way of their growth and safety.

Yet, ABA is often oversimplified as a system of rewards and consequences. “It is so much more than that,” says Kristine Quinby, President and CEO of Potential. “ABA is the science of learning and behavior. We learn new behaviors and engage in them based on the responses we get to those behaviors. Much like physics is a natural science and gravity exists and always works, the principles of behavior are working on all of us all the time.”

So why is ABA misunderstood?

In a recent National Public Radio broadcast, The Battle Over Autism Therapy ABA, the effectiveness and ethics of ABA therapy were challenged. While different perspectives were presented in the show, which originally aired on Philadelphia’s WHYY on October 7, 2022, a casual listener could easily miss some nuanced aspects of the discussion, or they could simply walk away with a skewed viewpoint. 

This is why Quinby felt it was important to offer her own commentary.

“You will hear people talk about a ‘new ABA’ and an ‘old ABA,’ but those labels can be polarizing,” she says. “The principles of ABA have not changed. It has always been a therapy that seeks to create a change (in behavior) that is socially significant and meaningful for the person. There were techniques used in the ’70s, when ABA first was applied as a treatment, that were quickly identified as unacceptable for any practitioner, such as making a loud noise or spraying someone in the face with water. Those kinds of practices are never acceptable and are not used today.

“I have never known any practitioner to use those methods,” she stresses. In the radio broadcast, which denounces those kinds of practices, adults with autism described their experiences growing up and feeling bored or demeaned by certain repetitive practices. The young man interviewed for the radio show felt smothered by repetitive reinforcements of behavior.

“He may have had a wonderful team, but that approach was not right for him, and he wasn’t able to express it,” adds Quinby. “Many others would not have felt that way.” This is why it is so important to customize treatment plans.

A Life-Changing and Lifesaving Therapy

“Remember, there is a wide spectrum of people with autism,” Quinby notes, “and those who are highly functional can make the argument that ABA was not good for them, or that they simply didn’t need it. And while that may be true for some, for many others, ABA has been life-changing and lifesaving.”

Quinby points out that those who need the most intensive therapies are likely to be nonverbal and can’t speak up for themselves and articulate their experiences. “ABA is an evidence-based therapy, and our science says, and has always said, that punishment should always be the last thing used in a treatment protocol, when all other methods have proven to be ineffective. This is an important distinction.”

Quinby is concerned that many people will hear only the first part of the radio show. “I urge everyone who listens to the show to listen to the whole broadcast,” she says. “There are issues that need to be addressed, and it’s important to acknowledge that some people have been harmed by poor practitioners. That is never acceptable.”

Ultimately, ABA is a science of behaviors designed for everybody. “If you provide reinforcement, whether intentionally or not, that behavior will likely continue. If you provide a punishment, that behavior will likely discontinue. It is a natural law,” says Quinby. “If you are a good teacher, you are probably using behavior analysis without putting a label on it.”

The same applies to parenting. “Good parenting also follows the natural laws of ABA. In good parenting, you don’t let kids just do whatever they want without consequences.”

A Compassionate Science

Quinby explains that ABA is a compassionate science that can prevent abuse, neglect and frustration. Using ABA, practitioners can help kids accept dental work, for example, or learn basic hygiene and toilet training. “Without these life skills, the child with autism risks being bullied, even abused. We aren’t getting rid of your autism; we are giving you the ability to learn like your peers in a classroom.”

Quinby stressed that it’s critical to hear from autistic adults and take their perspective into account. “But do we throw out a whole science that has been life-changing and at times lifesaving? Absolutely not.” 

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