ABA: Challenging Treatment

Early on in November, BBC4 broadcast a documentary entitled, “Autism: Challenging Behavior.” The documentary featured parents and children with autism in a different settings, and included footage from the only state-funded ABA school in the UK. The reactions on Twitter were predominantly against ABA being used on those with autism.

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For those who are unaware of the history behind the creation of Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA, this article will provide some eye-opening information.

In 1971, autism was distinguished from schizophrenia (Kolvin, I. ‘Studies in Childhood Psychoses: Diagnostic Criteria and Classification.’  British Journal of Psychiatry, 118, 381-384). However, way back further in the 1940s and 1950s there was an alleged childhood schizophrenia epidemic not dissimilar to the alleged autism epidemic we hear about these days.

The early research that lead to the creation of ABA is found in the research done in the 1940s, where researchers determined that classic conditioning that had been deployed on “normal and subnormal” (these words were used by researchers of the day) humans proved that “subnormal” children formed conditioned responses to shock faster than “normal” children did. Up until then, operant conditioning had only been tested on animals.

In fact, Dr. P.R. Fuller published in the American Journal of Psychology in 1949 what is considered to be a seminal research paper entitled “Operant conditioning of a vegetative human organism.”  Dr. Fuller wrote about an experiment he did on a minor whose disability was never identified and whose medical history was  unknown to Dr. Fuller. Fuller started by depriving his study subject — a real human being — of food for 15 hours after which time, a syringe of warm milk-sugar solution was squirted into the corner of the test subject’s mouth. This was the reinforcer. A bit of this solution was given to the subject each time he raised his right arm.

Eventually, the subject was conditioned to such a degree that he would raise his right arm 19 times in a 16 minute period in order to receive the milk-sugar solution. After 16 minutes, the subject was exhausted and fell asleep. The following morning, he raised his right arm and opened his mouth simultaneously. He always only ever raised the right arm.  The test was declared a great success and then he proceeded to extinguish the subject’s response by removing the food reinforcer over a period of 70 minutes, after which time the subject stopped raising his right arm.

Yes, I know this was back as the 1950s were about to be ushered in, but the basis for ABA has its roots in these sorts of experiments that dehumanized people in exchange for complete compliance without question.

Dr. Ivar Lovaas,considered by professionals the world over to be the “father”of ABA, created his therapy based on the concept that autistics are lesser beings who are more apt to be lumped in with stupid animals than with humanity. Here are some comments Dr. Lovaas has made with regards to autistics and his beloved ABA therapy:

“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.” (Ivar Lovaas, 1974)

“In any case, what one usually sees when first meeting an autistic child who is 2, 3, or even 10 years of age is a child who has all the external physical characteristics of a normal child — that is, he has hair, and he has eyes and he has a nose, and he may be dressed in a shirt and trousers — but who really has no behaviors that one can single out as distinctively `human’. The major job then, for a therapist — whether he’s behaviorally oriented or not — would seem to be a very intriguing and significant one, namely, the creation or construction of a truly human behavioral repertoire where none exists.” (Ivar Lovaas, 1976)

Ivar Lovaas passed away in August 2010, but his method of ABA lives on. It’s Ivar Lovaas’ method to which professionals refer when they speak of ABA. They do not mean TEACCH, also known as the Schopler Method of ABA, or DIR, also known as the Greenspan Method of ABA.

When people refer to ABA they mean the LOVAAS Method of ABA … a treatment that Ivar Lovaas created specifically to be used with those diagnosed with autism. That the Lovaas method has been modified for others does not negate the fact that ABA was initially created by Lovaas FOR use on Autistics.

That being said, it should be noted that even Lovaas stated as early as 1987 that the word “recover” was incorrect and as such, the term was not used in any of his subsequent research. In other words, even Lovaas realized that one does not “recover” from autism and one cannot be “cured” of autism by way of the Lovaas Method of ABA.

For any professional to claim that they can “recover” or “cure” someone diagnosed with autism by way of ABA is to knowingly sell false hope to desperate and devastated parents who are overwhelmed with everything associated with having a child diagnosed with autism.  But are those diagnosed with autism as incapable as Ivar Lovaas stated repeatedly over the decades?

Dr. Peter Szatmari, Head of Child Psychiatry at McMaster Chodoake in Hamilton (ON) in Canada, led a research study and published his findings in 1989. This is the same Dr. Peter Szatmari who, along with Dr. Stephen Scherer, was lead researcher in the Autism Genome Project research study that included 137 medical scientists and researchers in 50 medical centres in 9 countries with 1,600 families where at least one child was diagnosed with Autism.

In other words, Dr. Szatmari is no flash-in-the-pan alarmist medical professional when it comes to Autism.  He has devoted much of his energy towards unraveling the ‘mystery’ of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Dr. Lovaas had previously published information that the best outcome that could be expected for an autistic on the spectrum was an average IQ of just under 70 (mental retardation).

Interestingly enough, all of the subjects in Dr. Szatmari’s study were born before 1970 and had IQs between 68 and 110. Forty-two percent had university degrees and 7% were community college graduates. This represented a higher percentage of university graduates among autistics than in the NT population.

Half of the autistics in Dr. Szatmaris’ study lived completely independently while only 30% required minimal assistance in order to live independently. Most of the subjects were working (full-time employment) or were students (full-time).  Only 5% required constant assistance and the balance required varying degrees of assistance in order to live independently, and most of the subjects involved in the study were working or post-secondary school students.

What was most remarkable about this study was the fact that not one of these persons had been subjected to the Lovaas (ABA) Autism Treatment as the treatment had not yet been marketed when these autistics were children.

The mistaken yet very popular notion that individuals with autism cannot learn without ABA is insulting to individuals with autism as well as to their families.   An ever-increasing number of parents view ABA as being abusive, where children are treated like dogs to respond to Pavlovian responses and parents are tricked by professionals into believing that faking “normal” through forced compliance is a good thing.

And yes, Lovaas held his diminishing attitudes towards individuals with Autism even in light of all the evidence to proved his attitude was flawed. His treatment of, and his comments about, individuals with Autism could be found in studies published, and in which he was involved, as recently as 2005.

Elyse Bruce

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