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7 Myths About Applied Behavior Analysis

Autism was once a mysterious disorder, plagued by myths and misunderstandings. Some of these myths persist today, especially when it comes to treatment for this developmental condition. Many parents are interested in treatment for autism, but lingering misconceptions may prevent some parents from seeking help for their child. Clearing up these myths may help more children get the treatment they need for autism.

Myth: ABA is not a scientifically proven treatment for autism

Fact: There is significant scientific evidence backing ABA as an effective therapy for individuals with autism. Researchers from Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute reviewed several evidence-based practices (EBPs) and found that applied behavior analysis techniques have the most scientific support. A number of state and federal agencies, including the Surgeon General of the United States and the New York State Department of Health, endorse ABA as an effective treatment for autism.

Myth: ABA is a new treatment

Fact: Psychologists laid the foundations of ABA more than a century ago. John B. Watson promoted behaviorist views in his 1913 address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. B.F. Skinner originated and founded applied behavior analysis, presenting his views on operant conditioning in his 1938 book, The Behavior of Organisms.

Therapists began using ABA in the early 1960s as a way of teaching skills communication, social, academic, play, work and community living skills. They also used the approach to reduce problem behaviors in those with autism.

Ivar Lovaas applied Skinner’s approach to children with autism in 1970. Lovaas published The Me Book in 1981, essentially creating a training manual that details the principles of behavioral therapy.

Myth: ABA is not based on real human experience

Fact: The basic theory of ABA is that all learned behaviors have an antecedent and a consequence, and that consequences shape behavior. For example, most adults work to earn a monetary reward and would likely stop working if they ceased to receive that reward. ABA uses positive reinforcement as the consequence of choosing the desired response.

Myth: ABA is nothing more than “drilling” exercises done at a table

Fact: ABA uses a variety of teaching methods, including Discrete Trial Training (DTT), often referred to as “drilling.” DTT breaks down complex skills into smaller, discrete tasks then combines skills to accomplish complex goals. A trainer teaching colors to a child might begin by presenting a red ball and a white ball, asking the child to point to the red ball, and then rewarding the behavior. After the child can confidently identify the red ball, the trainer repeats the process with yellow, blue, green and so on. Once the child can identify all the basic colors reliably, the trainer could train the child to perform complex actions. Instead of asking the child to point to the red ball, for example, the trainer could ask the child to pick up only the red, white and green balls and leave the rest behind.

DTT is only one of the methods used by ABA trainers. Other methods include:

  • Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) for very young children
  • Pivotal Response Training (PRT) to increase a child’s motivation to learn, self-monitor behavior and initiate communications with others
  • Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI) that focuses on verbal skills

Myth: ABA trains a child to act without thinking

Fact: All learning has some amount of rote memorization and practiced routine. A significant number of normal behavior choices in life are the result of habits and reactions to stimuli. ABA builds upon the way the human brain learns to help individuals accomplish relatively complex tasks of everyday living.

The simple act of brushing one’s teeth is a good example of a normal behavior choice resulting from habit and reaction rather than from contemplative thought. When someone brushes his teeth, he does not pause to dwell on each behavior necessary, such as wetting the toothbrush, squeezing the toothpaste onto the toothbrush, etc., to accomplish the end goal of cleaning his teeth – he automatically moves from one aspect of the chore to the next without thought.

Habits form through practice. Years of practice at turning on the water helps him judge how much water is necessary and how much toothpaste his toothbrush can hold. He avoids flooding the bathroom by reacting to the stimulus water flowing onto the floor and stops squeezing the tube when toothpaste falls off the brush. With enough practice, he is able to accomplish the many tasks required to brush his teeth and to react to potential problems as they arise.

ABA successfully breaks down complex behavioral tasks into simple steps. The individual performs each step and receives positive reinforcement upon successful completion. Repetition creates a habit, which means the child can accomplish that task without having to think about it. DTT then teaches the child how to combine several small tasks into more complex behaviors.

Myth: All ABA programs are the same

Fact: Applied behavior analysis is a science of individual behavior. Skinner first graphed “cumulative records” for each subject he studied rather than looking at the behaviors of large groups of people. In other words, he looked at the specific behaviors of each subject he studied. ABA still focuses on changing specific behaviors in each individual, so an ABA program for one person is vastly different from another person’s program.

Myth: ABA therapy is only for individuals with autism

Fact: This is false, ABA therapy is not only for individuals with autism. Because it reflects how all human brains learn through positive and negative reinforcement, ABA therapy helps children and adults without autism adopt beneficial behaviors. The principles and techniques of ABA can foster basic skills, including looking, listening and imitating. It can also help cultivate complex skills, such as reading, conversing and understanding another individual’s perspective.

Applied behavior analysis teaches a child to find success by taking small steps. This gives a child the potential to open doors otherwise closed.

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