when Lisa Quinones-Fontanez’s son Norrin was diagnosed with autism at age 2, she and her husband did what most parents in their position do — they scrambled to form a plan to help their child.
Ultimately, they followed the experts’ advice. They put Norrin in a school that used applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, the longest-standing and best-established form of therapy for children with autism. They also hired an ABA therapist to direct a home program.
ABA involves as much as 40 hours a week of one-on-one therapy. Certified therapists deliver or oversee the regimen, organized around the child’s individual needs — developing social skills, for instance, and learning to write a name or use the bathroom. The approach breaks desirable behaviors down into steps and rewards the child for completing each step along the way.
ABA was tough on everyone at first, says Quinones-Fontanez: “He would cry sitting at the table during those sessions, hysterically cry. I would have to walk out of the room and turn on the faucet to tune it out because I couldn’t hear him cry.”
But once her son got settled into the routine of it, things improved, she says. Before he began therapy, Norrin did not speak. But within a few weeks, the ABA therapist had Norrin pointing his fingers at letters. Eventually, he learned to write letters, his name and other words on a dry-erase board. He could communicate.
Norrin, now 10, has been receiving 15 hours a week of ABA therapy at home ever since. He is still in an ABA-based school. His therapists help him to practice age-appropriate conversation and social skills, and to memorize his address and his parents’ names and phone numbers.
“I credit ABA with helping him in a way that I could not,” Quinones-Fontanez says. “Especially in those first few years, I don’t even know where we would have been without ABA therapy.”
But in recent years, Quinones-Fontanez and parents like her have had cause to question ABA therapy, largely because of a fiercely articulate and vocal community of adults with autism. These advocates, many of them childhood recipients of ABA, say that the therapy is harmful. They contend that ABA is based on a cruel premise — of trying to make people with autism ‘normal,’ a goal articulated in the 1960s by psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas, who developed ABA for autism. What they advocate for, instead, is acceptance of neurodiversity — the idea that people with autism or, say, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or Tourette syndrome, should be respected as naturally different rather than abnormal and needing to be fixed.
“ABA has a predatory approach to parents,” says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and a prominent leader in the neurodiversity movement. The message is that “if you don’t work with an ABA provider, your child has no hope.”
What’s more, the therapy has a corner on the market, says Ne’eman. Most states cover autism therapy, including, often, ABA — perhaps because of its long history. But in California, for example, parents who want to pursue something else must fund it themselves.
These criticisms haven’t made Quinones-Fontanez want to ditch Norrin’s ABA therapy, but they confuse her. She says she can see what the advocates are saying on some level; she does not want her son to become a ‘robot,’ merely repeating socially acceptable phrases on command because they make him seem like everyone else. Sometimes Norrin will approach friendly people on the street and say, “Hello, what’s your name?” as he’s been taught, but not wait around for the answer, because he really doesn’t understand why he’s saying it. “He just knows to do his part,” she says.
The message that ABA might be damaging distresses her. “I’m trying to do the best I can. I would never do anything to hurt my child,” she says. “This is what works for him; I’ve seen it work.”
Whether ABA is helpful or harmful has become a highly contentious topic — such a flashpoint that few people who aren’t already advocates are willing to speak about it publicly. Many who were asked to be interviewed for this article declined, saying they anticipate negative feedback no matter which side they are on. One woman who blogs with her daughter who has autism says she had to shut down comments on a post that was critical of their experience with an intensive ABA program because the volume of comments — many from ABA therapists defending the therapy — was so high. Shannon Des Roches Rosa, co-founder of the influential advocacy group Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, says that when she posts about ABA on the group’s Facebook page, she must set aside days to moderate comments.
Strong opinions on both sides of the issue abound. Meanwhile, parents like Quinones-Fontanez are caught in the middle. There’s no doubt that everyone wants what is right for these children. But what is that?
A new view:
Before the 1960s, when autism was still poorly understood, some children with the condition were treated with traditional talk therapy. Those who had severe symptoms or also had intellectual disability were mostly relegated to institutions and a grim future.
Against this backdrop, ABA at first seemed miraculous. Early on, Lovaas also relied on a psychotherapeutic approach, but quickly saw its futility and abandoned it. It wasn’t until Lovaas became a student of Sidney Bijou, a behaviorist at the University of Washington in Seattle — who had himself been a student of the legendary experimental psychologist B.F. Skinner — that things began to click.
Skinner had used behavioral methodologies to, for instance, train rats to push a bar that prompted the release of food pellets. Until they mastered that goal, any step they made toward it was rewarded with a pellet. The animals repeated the exercise until they got it right.
Bijou contemplated using similar strategies in people, judging that verbal rewards — saying “good job,” for instance — would serve as adequate motivation. But it was Lovaas who would put this idea into practice.
In 1970, Lovaas launched the Young Autism Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, with the aim of applying behaviorist methods to children with autism. The project established the methods and goals that grew into ABA. Part of the agenda was to make the child as ‘normal’ as possible, by teaching behaviors such as hugging and looking someone in the eye for a sustained period of time — both of which children with autism tend to avoid, making them visibly different.
Lovaas’ other focus was on behaviors that are overtly autism-like. His approach discouraged — often harshly — stimming, a set of repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping that children with autism use to dispel energy and anxiety. The therapists following Lovaas’ program slapped, shouted at or even gave an electrical shock to a child to dissuade one of these behaviors. The children had to repeat the drills day after day, hour after hour. Videos of these early exercises show therapists holding pieces of food to prompt children to look at them, and then rewarding the children with the morsels of food.
Despite its regimented nature, the therapy looked like a better alternative for parents than the institutionalization their children faced. In Lovaas’ first study on his patients, in 1973, 20 children with severe autism received 14 months of therapy at his institution. During the therapy, the children’s inappropriate behaviors decreased, and appropriate behaviors, such as speech, play and social nonverbal behavior, improved, according to Lovaas’ report. Some children began to spontaneously socialize and use language. Their intelligence quotients (IQs) also improved during treatment.
When he followed up with the children one to four years later, Lovaas found that the children who went home, where their parents could apply the therapy to some degree, did better than those who went to another institution. Although the children who went through ABA didn’t become indistinguishable from their peers as Lovaas had intended, they did appear to benefit.
In 1987, Lovaas reported surprisingly successful results from his treatments. His study included 19 children with autism treated with ABA for more than 40 hours per week — “during most of their waking hours for many years,” he wrote — and a control group of 19 children with autism who received 10 hours or less of ABA.
Nine of the children in the treatment group achieved typical intellectual and educational milestones, such as successful first-grade performance in a public school. Eight passed first grade in classes for those who are language or learning disabled and obtained an average IQ of 70. Two children with IQ scores in the profoundly impaired range moved to a more advanced classroom setting, but remained severely impaired. In comparison, only one child in a control group achieved typical educational and intellectual functioning. A follow-up study six years later found little difference in these outcomes.
The methods promised parents something that no one else had: hope of a ‘normal’ life for their children. Parents began to demand the therapy, and soon it became the default option for families with newly diagnosed autism.