Connor and the Evil ABA Binder

“You’re doing it all wrong.”

That’s what a so called “ABA” team leader told me when I was working as an early intervention developmental therapist with Connor, an adorable three year boy with ASD.

“You’re not following the plan I put in place. You’re taking the child to the park and putting him on the swing.” Barbaric.

“You’re putting him on the teeter totter.” Cruel.

“You’re playing with him in the sandbox.” Heartless.

“You need to follow my ABA protocols.”

After hearing statements like these (and many more), I knew something wasn’t right.

I knew what I was doing wasn’t real ABA. It was too cold. Too rigid. Too textbook. It just didn’t feel right.

No competent teacher would force a small child to sit at a table one-on-one for hours.

No caring parent would force their child to do that which they clearly hate for hours at a time, day after day.

What real ABA looks like

It starts with a program created and supervised by a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

A BCBA has the education, training and expertise in behavior and development. A BCBA understands the science behind behavior. She works on socially significant behaviors using a developmental approach, including verbal behavior and the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM).

I’ve believe in doing ABA therapy in a natural way.

I love seeing a child’s face light up when they point to a dog as we play in the sandbox.

I love hearing them say “water” for the first time after being completely non-verbal for years.

Putting a toddler in a crib and playing peek-a-boo to get that awesome reaction and giggles.

That’s real ABA.

Playing with dolls. Putting Elmo and Cookie Monster on a bus and wheeling them around the room while taking data as the child says “beep-beep” or “ready set…GO!”

That’s real ABA.

What ABA Is Not

ABA is not sitting at a desk performing a task 10, 20, 30 times. And being rewarded with a Skittle for each correct action.

That’s not ABA.

That’s torture.

Unfortunately, many so-called ABA therapists are trained in this type of repetitive behavioral therapy, often referred to as discrete trial training or DTT.

DTT is great to teach a new skill, difficult skill or a skill to a child who is not cognitively ready to learn from his natural environment or a child that will get distracted from natural environment. DTT can be an important part of an ABA plan. However, it should never be the only part of an ABA plan.

Especially for a little guy like Connor…

The story of little Connor and the evil ABA binder

Little Boy Playing
Connor was three years old. When I was assigned to work with him, he was totally non-verbal. Only small babbling sounds. He also had “stimming behaviors,” including hand flapping, running around in circles and making loud noises. I was told to improve his language and reduce his stimming behaviors.

How? By following what it says in his ABA binder. His evil ABA binder.

It said I needed to sit at his tiny table and complete task after task for two hours with small breaks.  To do lots of puzzles and receptive I.D. programs until he gets it.

I remember thinking, “This didn’t seem like proper ABA to me.”

I had my doubts. I had my questions.

But I was told not to question.

Don’t question it.

Don’t doubt it.

Just do what it says.

Then everyone will be happy.

Except Connor.

Turning cute little Connor into a performing monkey

“You need to stay with him for your two hour session in his bedroom where his box of ABA materials are. His manipulatives are there. His puzzles, matching cards and books. His candy.  His DVD player too. And most importantly, his ABA binder.”

“He needs to do the entire session in his bedroom.” (Which was all of 2×2. His crib took up most of the room. He had a small table with a tiny chair for him, a dresser and a big ABA box. I would squeeze myself in the corner on the floor right near his table and run his programs for two straight hours.)

If he began “stimming” I was told to do a STOP program where I would reward him every few seconds with candy for him stopping to stim on his iPad while watching his favorite show.

Are you kidding me?!

This child has autism! He loves watching his favorite show as a reward for a few minutes. He’s stimming and flapping his hands because he’s excited! You want me to stop him from doing that?!

Yes?! OK.

Sorry Connor.

Back to the binder.

Back to being forced to sit at the table for hours doing DTT trials over and over again. Back to doing puzzle after puzzle. Ring stacker, shape sorter, lots of pictures to identify and don’t forget the candy.  The boatload of candy.

One day I had a forbidden thought.

What if I took Connor out to the park across the street and we brought along a juice cup and big bubbles. Maybe we can get him to learn a different way. Maybe he can learn from his natural environment. Maybe he will be happier outside versus his tiny, suffocating room. Maybe…

Taking little Connor to forbidden places

I got to Connor’s front door with my overloaded four bags of goodies. Toys, games, bubbles, a ball and some water toys. Also his favorite reinforcers, Thomas the train books, bubbles, puzzles and a fluffy Thomas pillow. Pictures of items from his natural environment. His mom, dad, sister, brother, cat, dog, favorite pillow and favorite toys. You name it. Everything Connor loved was in the bag.

We began our session by going to the park across the street, unloaded our bags and began to play!

We started playing ball. I held the ball back until he would sign ball and say “buh.” And boy he would get that ball right in his belly!

I ran up and down the slide with him, holding him at the top and not letting him go down until he said “go” and then he would fly down the slide! We would play in the sandbox, hide treasures and pictures –working on receptive skills.

Show me ball. Show me dog. Touch your head while pouring sand on our heads and then run over to the teeter totter and have Connor mand for “up,” “down” and “ready-set-go.” I put him on the swing and stop it every couple of seconds to get a giggly “up” or “swing” or “weee!”

I recorded all the data. All the imitations. Touching body parts. Putting hands up in the air. I recorded it all on index cards and continued for the entire two hours.

We took a walk around the block working on “stop” and “go” and “come here.” And instead of “show me dog” with a picture of a dog we passed a few dogs and each time I said “show me dog,” Connor would take his cute little finger out and point to the dog. And when the dog came by, he got to pet the dog as a reinforcer! Wow! Amazing!

This went on for the next few weeks.

It was remarkable to see Connor’s progress. He didn’t stop saying new words and signs. He was playing more appropriately. He was working on natural skills in a natural way.

The screaming and hitting was almost gone. His language was exploding. His play was getting better. He initiated a wave and hi to a neighbor in the park.

His eye contact was amazing. Not because he was sitting at the table and being forced to look at me when getting the command “look at me” and receiving a candy. He was looking at me because I was playing with him. We were having fun together. We were enjoying the same favorite things together. It was incredible to see his beautiful green eyes look at me smiling as if to say, “thank you for allowing me to be the three year-old I am.”

I enjoyed going to Connor four times a week. I loved every minute I was there.

I loved watching him smile. I loved watching him request his mommy and papa to give him a drink or something to eat. I loved watching him splash in his pool and touch his head and his belly and his toes when asked “where’s your belly?” “Where’s your head?”

I loved him. He was fun, engaging, cute, sweet. He was an adorable three year-old boy…who happened to have autism.

We were making tremendous progress.

“Follow the plan or pack your bags”

I ran back in after our outdoor sessions to transfer the data into the big fat ABA binder in his tiny hot room. I did that daily. Religiously.

But then I received a few phone calls from the ABA team leader saying, “I’m hearing from mom how you’re going outside. You’re going to the park. That’s not in his program. That’s not in his protocol. That’s not ABA. And that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing.”

This went on and on.

So I tried “modifying” my sessions.  I would do half outside and half in his room. I tried the ABA leader’s plans but I was so sad doing it. I knew Connor could make more progress in a very different way.

I tried my hardest to please everyone.

Then the team leader told me I was still not doing things “right” and that if I can’t change my sessions and do them all in his room for two hours and follow her protocols…I may as well leave.

And so I did.

I packed my bags, kissed Connor goodbye and left him some Thomas toys. I quietly hoped and prayed that one day mom will realize the truth.

Get real ABA. Your child deserves it.

Unfortunately, stories like Connor’s are common. Too common. And no one is to blame. The ABA therapists are doing what they think is ABA. And the parents trust what the ABA therapist tells them.

Having fun.

Being outside.

Throwing the child up in the air.

Playing his favorite sport.

That’s real ABA.

Getting get soaked in the sprinkler. Turning the water on and off until he says “water.”

Engaging the child in his favorite interests and actually enjoying it with them.

Understanding what the child is truly capable of.

Celebrating each and every accomplishment with fan-fare galore!

Showing the child you care about them.

Loving them for who they are.

That’s how I believe ABA should be done.

“We had a great time!”

That’s what our kids and therapists say after a session. Why? Because they’re receiving real ABA. From  real, board-certified ABA therapists (BCBAs).

If your child is receiving ABA therapy only at a desk for hours on end, you could be doing more damage than good. If ytou feel something’s not right, ask questions. Collect information. It’s critical you know what you’re getting.

Give us a call. We can help you. We can help your child.

Demand real ABA. Your child deserves it.