Travis just sent me a note, asking this:
“Hi Jackie, I notice you don’t include any behavioural or other social, communication intervention in your training avtivities, They are among the most effctive for young children with ASDs in advancing their development. Is there a reason you don’t cover those? ”
This is not an easy thing to discuss, and I respect Travis for asking. I have difficulty getting past the adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” The best that I can say about ABA from an autistic’s perspective is that it’s paid for by our Canadian medical insurance, and that a practitioner who honestly loves and is loved by her (sorry to sound sexist, but practitioners are mostly women) young clients will get great results from that love, alone.
My lack of mention of ABA is certainly a question bound to come up; it certainly has in more private contexts. So here, I will try to be straight-forward about my concerns without giving insult. Behavioural therapies are based on suppressing the symptoms. When you have an ASD (as I do), you can’t help but realize that these ASD behaviours are expressions of underlying stress and pain.
To suppress these ASD behaviours adds increasing stress to our lives. Although it can be useful to learn to disguise these behaviours temporarily in order not to alienate others with prejudices, it’s a much healthier approach to deal with the underlying health issues causing the pain and stress in the first place.
Many of us autistics who are over a certain age spent rather a lot of time being told we weren’t trying hard enough by people who had no idea just how hard what they were asking us to accomplish actually was, for us. Behavioural therapies, to me, smack of denying or suppressing the individual, who is then the victim of both the ailment, and the culture which further cripples through denial. It implies the person is wrong and bad, not someone with a health problem (and usually more than several) needing to be addressed.
There is also an unfortunate history to ABA. When ABA was first tested in research settings, without any positive social interaction (which by itself has up to 4x the protective, and up to 4x the restorative power of all other health interventions in combination, see Dr. Dean Ornish’s compilation of research in “Love and Survival”), ABA was worse than a placebo unless aversives such as electroshock “therapy” were used. And don’t tell me electroshock therapy is helpful; I’ve not only read the research, I’ve known people wrecked by it when better options were available.
With all of the layers added over time to ABA to make it “more effective”, no one has addressed whether the social connection alone would be more effective without the ABA. Certainly, therapies based more on building social connection, such as RDI and Floortime, are at the very least comparable in their rates of improvements shown.
Finally, to assume that people with ASDs are unintelligent, regardless of degree of verbal interaction or other externally-obvious engagement, is to deny the evidence. Those of us who have broken the communication barrier almost all have areas of genius, despite our other impairments. Please view Amanda Baggs’ YouTube videos, and read Kristine Barnett’s “The Spark”.
It is more the norm for us autistics to have extremely high intelligence, despite the challenges brought on by our poor health, the challenges which are alleviated to some degree if our health can be improved. When we recover sufficient health to increasingly engage, we emerge as highly sensitive people, with all the creativity, perceptiveness, and problem-solving capacity that entails.
To make us plod through ABA sessions which endlessly harp on our deepest deficits, while neglecting our very real gifts and passions, seems backward at best, wasteful from a very dispassionate point of view, and an extreme disservice to the individual being “treated”. We can do better than ABA. In many places, we already are.
Nothing, though, is as healing as love. If a child loves, and is loved by an ABA therapist, I cannot deny that this will help. And often, that’s the very best a parent can hope for, without any other therapies available through our health care and social services. If you are an ABA therapist, and you don’t adore — or “get” on the deepest level — the ASD children you are working with, please find another occupation.
I hope this has clarified things, and please believe me that I don’t wish to start a war about ABA. Michelle Dawson from Laurent Mottron’s Montréal lab is doing a fine job fighting ABA, and I deeply respect her work. My own most fervent wish for my work is to get more attention paid to the underlying health problems causing the challenges of autism, and more effort spent on maximizing and capturing its gifts.