QBLOG: Why we are done with the ABA school


Quentin is nine years old. Technically, that puts him in fourth grade. (In reality, he has no real grade; he has always been grouped with kids within 3 years of his age range. This is how it goes for many special needs kids.) For the first time since he was five years old, we’ve moved him into a new school.

The new school is not an ABA school like his old school was. We are done with ABA. Let me explain.

What is ABA?

ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. It is a methodology that involves using positive reinforcements (aka: rewards) to increase positive behaviors and teach specific skills. Sure, this might be simplifying it a bit for those of you out there who are trained BCBA’s (Board Certified Behavior Analysts), but this is how it boils down for me. There are plenty of detailed websites out there which describe this in further detail (see here or here), so I’ll refrain from doing so. I was wary about exposing Quentin to ABA when we first began, but I eventually came to love it. However, I do not feel that way anymore.

At Quentin’s old school, everything was taught using this methodology, and data was collected throughout the day. For example, the minute he entered the school, teachers noted as to whether he put his backpack away and hung up his coat properly. He was then positively reinforced  – sometimes something as simple as, “Nice work, Quentin” – or perhaps something stronger, like a treat, or a few minutes playing on the computer – if he behaved correctly, and gradually the reinforcements were faded out.

When he was first entering Kindergarten, I wrote about how I was excited that Quentin was going to school with a book of logos to use as a reinforcement for positive behavior. To me, this was a great way to include his special interest in learning at school. But slowly, my ideas about special interests have changed. I no longer believe that Quentin’s special interest – or any child’s special interest – should be used solely as a reward. I strongly believe they should be used throughout the day and incorporated into learning.

Why Quentin first attended an ABA school

When Quentin was four years old and still in preschool, we had several SEITs (Special Education Itinerant Teachers) come to our home several times a week and work with him using ABA methodologies at a small desk. I saw how well he interacted with those therapists. He was doing table work with them that I had never seen him do at school before, such as sitting still to complete a puzzle, or matching pictures. Eventually, these therapists taught him how to use pictures to communicate his needs. Before long, he was expressing his needs through words more. I was sold on this method, and I was determined to send him to a school that used the same methods.

I also did a lot of research. I discovered that ABA was considered the “gold standard” for treating children with autism. This is because there have been studies that prove that ABA is effective. This makes sense, as so much of the method itself involves data collection. As a researcher who has done of data collection on children myself, I know the excitement at seeing a line graph move toward a positive trend. I’m sure that all the BCBA’s out there who collect data regularly eventually want to share the improvements. Thus, the ABA method gets a lot of published papers in scientific journal.

Signs of needing a change

We began to sense that ABA was taking over Quentin’s brain at a certain point. I’m not exactly sure when this began. I first started noticing this when Quentin was extremely upset. During extreme meltdowns, he used to shout words that he had to repeat over and over again during Discrete Trial Trainings (one-to-one sessions that involve repetitive tasks). He shouted “PINEAPPLE!” one day in complete despair. Suddenly, I recalled that he was being asked to differentiate different fruits at school. He was shouting a word that he had been asked to repeat throughout the school day. It was funny, but I stifled my laugh. It was also really sad.

Roughly a year ago, we entered the Name-Asking Phase of Quentin’s life. (The beginnings of this phase is documented here.) He started going up to random people, everywhere we went, and asking, “What is your name?” At first, we were so pleased that he was trying to interact! We praised him for asking. But Quentin would hear the name and run off, only to run back and ask again, and re-ask. He would ask people their names as we were walking down the street. Nobody was immune to Quentin’s asking. It could be an old lady using a walker, a dog walker with six leashes, or a guy collecting tin cans who couldn’t speak English. Sometimes, we were lucky and someone would stop and say their name and even ask him for his name. But Quentin never wanted to share his name, or if he did, he would say it very quickly (first and last name, of course) under his breath.

The name-asking thing was most definitely a symptom of too much ABA. It felt as if his brain had been programmed to ask this question when meeting someone new, but he could not stop generalizing this to the entire population of the world. What’s worse is that according to ABA philosophy, someone responding with their name is only rewarding him positively. In other words, he was motivated by hearing a response, which motivated him to keep going, and ask for more names. We had created an ABA Monster! (We’ve only recently gotten this behavior under control, but the name-asking has not completely faded.)

During the past few years, I’ve also started reading a lot more from the autistic community online. In particular, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and a number of blogs by autistic people dislike ABA methods. In social media, I am reading a lot of arguments both for and against ABA, and I’m starting to understand the issues.

One of the main problems, in my mind, is that ABA has deprived Quentin of the socialization that comes from typical schooling. He was working, for the most part, with an adult at his school, one-to-one, throughout the day. His interaction with his peers has never been a priority; school work and rote learning is the focused effort with this method. To some degree, he needed this when he began school at age five, but I cannot see him continuing on this path. He needs a place where he can interact with both children at his school and typical children. He needs to learn conversation and friendship on a more natural level. And ultimately, he needs a place where his special interest of logos is incorporated into his learning, and not simply used as a reward.

The new school

It took a leap of faith to make the change. It also took a lot of bureaucracy. Strangely, Quentin’s new school is just 3 blocks from his old school. It is not, however, a private school. It is a public school – a small District 75 program (New York’s special education term, which is not a geographical district at all), co-located within a larger public elementary school. There is a focus on performing arts. Yoga is done every morning, first thing. He is integrated throughout the day with the typical population, such as at lunch or recess. He is still in a small classroom of kids (six), and there will be plenty of small group and one-to-one learning. While ABA is occasionally used in certain contexts, it is not the focus. No more charts and line graphs.

He is finally doing things that bring him joy. Cooking happens several times a week, as a part of group learning. Quentin will be a part of several stage performances, shown to the entire school (not just to his special ed section). He has recess time on an actual playground (something his old school did not have the space or time for). He eats in a real school cafeteria, with other children.

The best part? On the first day of school, I described his logo interest to the teachers and administrators and they all agreed: There are a few other logo-loving kids in the school that he needs to be set up with!

The kid is happy.

Quentin, after his first day at his new school.

Quentin, after his first day at his new school.

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