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Doing Life Together

child 1When Ann took away her son’s play station to begin his homework, he threw a huge temper tantrum. Her son, Rob, was autistic and a handful when it came to managing his behavior.

So Ann decided to try a method of working with Rob’s behavior that she saw on a TV interview. Even though the method was presented as new, it is not new. It has been around since I began seeing clients in the late 1970s. The application of the method to autistic behavior might be new, although I suspect we were using this without knowing about the label of autism.

The method is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). It is based on basic reinforcement principles applied to behavior. The idea is to teach new skills that will help the autistic child do better in a number of environments. To do so, the child is engaged by using reinforcement for appropriate behavior. The method is sometimes considered controversial, though I can’t really see this as I was teaching these skills to parents without autistic kids for years. Teaching takes time because you have to reinforce the behaviors you want using rewards and gradually shape the desired responses. Rob, for example, would be rewarded with extra play time later if he gave up his play station with no temper tantrum.

ABA focuses on changing behavior. So the parent/teacher may have a bag of rewards, give a direction and reward the child if there is compliance. Some argue that this is like dog training. Well, the principles are similar. You reward appropriate behavior and withhold reward for inappropriate behavior. I would argue that we all do this when potty training, teaching compliance to directions and more. Helping autistic kids learn behavior that is going to help them in different environments is a positive goal. It’s individualized teaching that considers what the child needs to be successful. There are clear consequences for noncompliance.

Yes, kids do cry, tantrum and become stubborn when rewards are withheld and parents/teachers are firm about  rewarding appropriate behavior. But that is part of any parenting effort.

Critics say ABA is trying to normalize children with autism. I say, it is helping kids socialize and fit into environments that help them grow and learn.

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