This intriguing article from The Aspergian got me thinking. The author, Carol Millman, (whose biography at the end of the article says she has a diagnosis of autism and is a dog trainer), took a hard look at ABA and compared it unfavorably to dog training. It is well worth a read.
She writes that good dog training takes into account the needs of the dog. After all, an active dog needs exercise, not to learn to sit quietly with no stimulation all the time, because that’s not good for the dog, nor is it in the dog’s nature. It can learn to be a good dog, just not a different sort of dog than it is. For example, no one would think to try to convert a lapdog, like a bichon frise, into a retriever dog that swims for ducks, or into a sheepherder tending to an entire flock. The nature of these breeds is hard-wired. So the high-energy dog can’t be trained to become a low energy dog. It can learn to sit, stay and behave itself, but it can’t learn to be a couch potato dog. Exercise it. It will be a better dog.
Millman argues that ABA is not taking into account the nature and needs of autistic people. She likens it to conversion therapy, and tellingly, ABA founder, Ivar Lovaas was an early practitioner of that disputed treatment, claiming, as he did with early ABA research, that many of the recipients of his treatment appeared to be indistinguishable from their typical peers. But this doesn’t factor in emotional wellbeing or inner needs. Saying “hands down!” over and over doesn’t stop an autistic person’s neurological need to move his hands. ”Scientific” ABA thinks commands are treatment enough and the root causes of behavior are irrelevant.
Hands down! Quiet hands! Mouth quiet! All done!
Blah and blah and High Five! Good job! And that, plus data collection, is “science.” Perhaps if they can explain why ABA fails to help so many people with so-called “severe” symptoms it would be worth a read in a scientific journal. As it is, they just have to say that the person’s autism is “too severe” to be helped.
Millman argues that ABA is indifferent to the nature of autistic people, that it is so programmed to shape autistic people into normal appearing facsimiles, it misses the humanity of the person. The wiggling, high energy, motorically restless kid can’t just be trained to stop wiggling, to stop jumping or flapping. The need to move is in his neurology. But he can move more purposefully, exercise more, learn to have more self-control and learn to communicate his ideas.
Millman’s essay largely focuses on the robotic ABA training of someone who can communicate verbally. I argue that for the autistic nonspeaker, ABA is so much worse in so many ways.
Imagine that the entire purpose of your “gold standard” training is to make you appear normal, but your body won’t let you show what you know. Your artificially cheerful, baby talking instructors treat you like a thick-witted infant and drive you nuts with repetitive, remedial drills and flashcards, well below your actual cognitive level, all the while misinterpreting the real essence of your disability, and mistaking a motor issue for an intellectual one. I have seen this result in some pitiful situations, and I say “J’accuse” to people who won’t consider that they may be wrong, even sometimes, occasionally, or possibly in certain cases.
My novel, In Two Worlds, has a lot to say about this.
My dogs learned a lot of rules, but they still act like dogs. I never imagined training them to act like cats. I never imagined converting my terrier to a Doberman guard dog or my shepherd to a little Chihuahua.
Autistic people can learn to communicate, to exercise, to be educated and to reduce their stims, but they can’t learn to become a non-autistic person. I am in favor of learning skills and information.
I reject the dog training of people.