Autism expert Michelle Dawson isn’t a fan of ABA therapy as a treatment, claiming it neglects the overall well-being of people with autism. She’s not alone: as more government funding is allotted to ABA, its efficacy—and even ethics—are being called into question by naysayers.
The complaints of many, Dawson included, challenge the very science behind ABA, which uses positive reinforcement to encourage the repetition of learned responses. Some attack ABA at its moral core, touting a devaluation of the individuality that colors the human experience. Perhaps warier of discounting entirely the measurable results many have experienced from ABA therapy, still others cautiously maintain that it simply “might not be right for everybody.”
Well, nothing is right for everybody. And science isn’t the discovery of absolute, irrefutable truth, but the search for it. But make no mistake: repetition and learned response based on reward is a very humanistic concept, and one applicable to all of us. Sometimes it’s on a base, primitive level, and occurs in our subconscious: We become “addicted” to exercise because of the endorphins that follow a workout, that indescribable good feeling — that reward. A more evolved manifestation: We pick our battles with loved ones for the reward of the relationship.
For most of us, repetition and reward, action and reaction are built-in contributors to the process of making decisions; evaluators that have muscled their way into our repertoire of skills before we can even speak. For those with autism, a jump-start may come in handy, plus a few years of referring to the user manual before appropriate responses to social and environmental cues become automatic.
It’s my understanding that ABA therapy as a treatment for autism provides, in essence, that jump-start. As with any behavioral therapy approach, of course there are qualifiers: One needs to be stabilized medically first. It shouldn’t be viewed as a blanket solution, cure-all. Hope is important — acceptance is critical. Responses may vary.
But to discount ABA therapy is to discount a very intuitive and familiar approach to helping those with autism go further and do more with their lives, manifested on a more formal, structured level. To that end, it is not only a methodology but a unifier, highlighting the commonalities shared by those with autism and those without.