Viewing ABA as a Science

I heard from a colleague that they didn’t “believe in ABA” and I was moved to write this point of view. ABA or “Applied Behavior Analysis” is not a religion. It is not a program. It is a science. I view it as the science of learning. My individual mission in life is to make the biggest difference that I can for children with autism and their families while I am here on earth. To that end, I have spent the last 27 years learning as much as I can from as many people as I can. I have attended trainings in numerous methodologies and have found value in them all. But, I can honestly say, the work I did learning about applied behavior analysis and verbal behavior have had the biggest impact on me not only as a therapist but as a mother, a leader and as a human being in general.

Learning about applied behavior analysis allows one to understand the contingencies around which a specific behavior happens. It’s a way of answering the question, “Why do people do what they do?” I compare the contingencies to gravity in that it doesn’t matter if you “believe” in gravity or not, you will still hit the ground if you jump off the building. The same holds true for the contingencies of behavior. They will happen whether you believe in them or not, so why not understand the principles enough to manipulate contingencies to get desired behaviors?

This is not to say that there aren’t excellent teachers out there who do not have a working knowledge of applied behavior analysis. Over years of trial and error and motivation to improve their teaching, their own teaching behaviors have been shaped. The problem is, most of us don’t leave our academic careers with an understanding of “how” to teach. I hear from beginning therapists all the time that they learned how to recognize and diagnose disorders but had very little training on what to do with the disorders once they were diagnosed! I thoroughly believe that everyone who has a job that requires them to teach ANYTHING, including parents, teachers, therapists, would be more effective if they learned the basic principles of applied behavior analysis.

This is also not to say that the cognitive point of view is not important. The field of cognitive psychology and speech/language pathology has contributed excellent research that is often not looked at by behavior analysts. I’ve seen some programs where skills are being taught that are not developmentally appropriate and where prompting strategies are not appropriate or most effective given the specific disorder with which the child is presenting.

So why hasn’t this happened? The science has been around for over 30 years! I believe there are a couple of reasons for this. First, the community of behavior analysts needs to do a better job of bringing the science to the masses. We have to make it more understandable. The jargon is important because the definitions are precise but we have to be able to teach the science in a way that’s more accessible to a wide variety of people. Second, we need to stop dividing into camps of behavioral and cognitive professionals and have an open mind to what each other is saying. We need to present at each other’s conferences and open a dialogue. After all, it doesn’t have to be in “either-or” situation. What is happening in a child’s brain/body and what is happening in a child’s environment are both important considerations. Parents should never be told that they can’t use a combination of techniques when working with their child. Third, we have to clarify that ABA is not a program. There are many programs based on the science of ABA but the science can (and should in my opinion) be applied to any program one chooses.

So, my request is that we all open our minds to the possibility that none of has all the answers and that by working together and learning about each other’s points of view, we may be able to make an even bigger difference than we already are. Our children will thank us!

Tracy Vail,MS,CCC/SLP

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