In my university days I worked on both ABA programmes and Options programmes. I was blissfully unaware that any kind of controversy surrounded either of them.
I’d spent my sixth form years volunteering at youth clubs for children with additional needs, and done an afternoon each week at my local special school. I’d loved both, but the intensity of these 1:1 programmes wowed me.
I felt like I had an opportunity to make a real difference.
And at 18 that was a heady feeling.
Looking back now with an adult head, as someone who has spent most of her teaching career working with students with autism in one manner or another, I am far more comfortable with what we did in the ABA programmes than I am with Options.
And yet it is ABA that is consistently criticised in the press.
Options even back then felt random at times. I loved (and still love) the fact that we were allowing the child to take the lead. That we were entering their world and engaging with them on their level. I love the opportunities it’s gave us for creative and imaginative play. I love the opportunities it gave us to show the children that their special interests mattered.
It’s something that has undeniably carried through into my teaching career. I have been known to spend all day pretending to be a purple cat. I’ve also played a form of Tig where I am an angry wolf (think Minecraft) on more than one occasion. I love that Options taught me that, and gave me the gift of understanding why entering a child’s world was so important.
I’m less comfortable about the fact that we spent our Options sessions locked in a small room.
A room in which the children spent their whole days. And I still have no idea why the children on the programme weren’t allowed to eat meat.
Knowing what I know now about the difficulties so many children with autism have about generalising what they have learnt, I cannot help but wonder how many of the children I worked with were able to apply the skills they developed in that room outside of it.
In contrast the ABA programmes I worked on were progressive.
They were forward thinking. We weren’t sat in a room, we were out and about. Visiting the park, the beach, the local museum. We went shopping and we went to nursery.
Generalising skills was at the forefront of our mind.
With the exception of encouraging children to respond to their name, working on eye contact and teaching them to sit at the table for ‘work’ time. I don’t remember teaching behaviours. I remember teaching skills.
The parents I worked for (three sets in total), were not trying to make their children less autistic.
They were trying to give them the skills to enable them to succeed in school.
With the exception of how intensively we worked and the rewards the children were given for completing tasks there was nothing we did that was dramatically different to what was being done in schools at the time.
In hindsight, would I have put the emphasis on eye contact that we did?
No, I wouldn’t. But there wasn’t the knowledge seventeen years ago that there is now. Education is infinitely indebted to the autistic adults who have come forward over the years to talk about their experiences, and to explain that unlike in the neurotypical world eye contact does not equate to attention.
But would I have taught the skills I did?
Absolutely, unquestionably, without a doubt. We taught matching skills, that enabled non verbal children to communicate with us using PECs. We taught basic reading and writing skills to prepare children for school. And we taught play skills, we did puzzles, we jumped on trampolines, we had play dates.
We broke down skills into tiny components and made them feel manageable.
And as someone who went on to be a teacher, this has been one of the most valuable skills that I could have ever learnt. All too often children are expected to run before they can jump. ABA promotes success, it promotes enable children to always be successful. And I find it hard to argue with that.
After all children’s self esteem is precious. We should preserve it at all costs.
People question positive reinforcement. In fact it’s one of the biggest negatives thrown at ABA. To them I say simply, that we all expect to be rewarded in one way or another. As adults, that may be through a simple thank you, a well done, or a salary for our job. For a non verbal child with limited understanding those words mean little. Yet they deserve to know that we recognise how hard they are trying to learn.
Why shouldn’t they be Rewarded?
Whether it’s through tickles, or time playing with a favourite toy. Or whether it’s via small edible treats or video time. Surely like all other aspects of education rewards should be personalised, they should work for the child rather than the teacher.
Learning should be individualised.
And the ABA programmes I worked on exemplified that.
I am not saying there are not examples of bad practice out there. Nor am I saying that there aren’t professionals making promises that a child will become less autistic, or parents who are hoping for just that.
What I am saying though, is that that is not limited to ABA.
It can be found in many therapies, treatments and even schools. Here and abroad.
There is good and bad in everything. In every strategy. In every therapy. And in every approach,
By demonising a therapy, by judging it on the basis of the reports of those who have had bad experiences we are as my grandma would have said – throwing the baby out with the bath water.
And it’s time that stopped.
Early intensive intervention is a good thing. We need more of it. Our children need access to more of it. And so do we as parents and teachers.
If we’re going to make it happen we have to start sticking together, not fighting each other based on our finite philosophies.
We don’t have time for that. There are bigger battles to fight.
We need to start looking for the good, in every approach, in every therapy. And putting those approaches together.
And we can only do that if we work together.
All of us. Parents, adults with autism and teachers. Our children need us all.
They deserve us to be better than what has come before.
If you do want to learn more you might find our autism section a useful place to start. It’s full of different strategies to try out.
Our online autism courses are also a great place to learn more.
Or why not join our private Facebook Group, which brings parents and teachers of children on the spectrum together to discuss strategies to help at home and at school.
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And of course if I can be of any help then please just shout (or drop me an email).