News and Notes from The Johnson Center

We were considering an ABA program, but I’ve heard it makes children act robotic. Should we reconsider?

JCCHD | Mon, August 06, 2012 | [Applied Behavior Analysis][Autism Treatment][Q and A ]

The notion that ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) makes children robotic is a misconception that may be rooted in the repetition that an ABA program sometimes uses; tasks are broken down into teachable steps and those steps are repeated (taught) until they are learned.

A quality ABA program will plan for and teach generalization and natural use of the steps and skills learned in a structured setting as well as in the natural environment.  Ways to teach generalization include using a variety of instructions, a variety of stimuli including naturally occurring stimuli, using a variety of people giving the instructions, and specific reinforcement for the student using a variety of responses.

The plan should be to teach the child a well-rounded understanding of the task, not a factory-made response.  Take the example of teaching a child to respond to social identification questions.  If the child is taught to respond to the question, “What’s your name?” with “Sally. What’s your name?” and that question and response combination is all you teach, then the child’s language may sound robotic or rote.  If a peer says, “I’m Joey.  What’s your name?” then the response of “Sally. What’s your name?” no longer makes sense as they have already said their name and this response will sound too scripted.

Instead of teaching scripted, canned responses, focus on working on a variety of responses to different possible questions; questions like, “Who are you?”, “How are you?”, “How’s it going?”, and “How’ve you been?” and varied responses such as, “I’m Sally”, “I’m okay. What about you?”, “It’s going well”, “Good. You?”, or “Things have been pretty good!” Ideally, the child should learn that pleasantries with peers differ from small talk with grandma’s friends.  The goal should be to make interactions sound much more natural and appropriate to the time and place they occur. 

With this specific example, keep in mind that while it is true that the appropriate response to common social questions is being taught, within that same teaching moments the child is also being taught several pivotal skills like how to listen and discriminate (hearing and comprehending), how to recall and share the appropriate answer, and how to read the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues.  Really, the child is learning how to learn. Most children learn incidentally, through naturally occurring experiences and observations. For example, when a child sees someone touch the stove and then pull their hand away quickly, wince in pain, and say “Ouch! That’s hot!”, they will most likely deduce that touching the stove while it is hot will not be a pleasant experience and should be avoided. Children with autism often do not learn in this way and need to be taught the observational skills that seem to come more naturally to other children.

Through the process of teaching these tasks, we are increasing the capacity for future learning through those naturally occurring learning opportunities. Explicitly teaching these skills is a way that ABA stands apart from other relationship-based and less structured interventions. With ABA, we do not expect or anticipate that a child with autism will necessarily learn the same way a typically developing child would without being taught the necessary prerequisite skills.

Another thing to keep in mind is that these developmental disorders are associated with behaviors that are more rigid, rote, and restricted.  If you meet someone with ASD who appears somewhat “robotic,” it could be that this is attributable more to the disorder itself than to the type of interventions he or she is receiving. And with interventions that open the door to more avenues of communication, more rigid attributes that may not have been apparent in a non-verbal person may be more recognizable once they start to learn verbal communication.

The bottom line is that research has shown us that a quality, comprehensive ABA program is what is needed to help a person with ASD learn how to learn and a quality program will promote and prioritizes generalization. This is the best way to work toward ensuring that scripted, rote responses won’t define your child’s communication style.

Child w/ Toy Robot