I recently started reading The Self-Driven Child by Dr. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson. I had heard it mentioned in a few places, and had already read their book The Thriving Child. It wasn’t available as an ebook on my kindle so I bought the paperback version. As I was reading it, I thought it sounded very familiar. As if I’d read it before. As it turns out, I had. The Self-Driven Child is the US name of The Thriving Child. And yet that fact is hidden inside the cover and not advertised anywhere else. That alone has really annoyed me as I feel I wasted money. But I suppose I now have a paperback version to give to someone.
The book itself is the stuff I lap up. All about giving children autonomy and about the brain science behind that. Fantastic book with lots of practical advice. That is, until they get to the section where they talk about autistic children. Then it seems that they get taken in by the “science” of ABA. An area where it’s been shown that most studies have undisclosed conflicts of interest.
Here is what they say about ABA: “All that said, the best documented intervention for autism, applied behavior analysis (ABA), uses predetermined goals and a specific set of behavioral strategies (including rewards and negative consequences) to reach young children on the spectrum, and places minimal emphasis on promoting a sense of autonomy. This would seem on the surface to contradict our argument, but it is important to remember that the brain’s motivation system works differently in children with ASDs. They are less responsive to the kinds of social rewards (like a smiling parent or enthusiastic praise) which motivate most kids. By working on precise goals and using specific rewards to enforce target behaviors, ABA is often very effective at enabling children to engage with others, develop language skills, and behave in a socially acceptable way. Therapeutic approaches that involve controlling the behavior of children with ASD through rewards, pressures, or constraints can be useful for building the basic skills that are necessary if a child is to develop autonomy.”
This is so wrong and such a misunderstanding of what ABA is and does. It’s not a “therapeutic approach”, it isn’t “effective”, it isn’t “useful”, it doesn’t build any basic skills, and they do not seem to know about the harm it causes.
The authors seem to have fallen into the trap of thinking that autistic kids need to be treated completely differently to other kids. That somehow it’s ok to abuse them, and that they can never learn “the basic skills that are necessary if a child is to develop autonomy” without ABA.
Alfie Kohn, in his wonderful blog post Autism and Behaviourism has this to say about that fallacy: “Even teachers and clinicians who would hesitate to treat other children that way assume it’s justified, or even necessary, to do so with, well, you know, those kids.” He goes on to say “Frankly, I’m embarrassed that, until about a year ago, I was completely unaware of all the websites, articles, scholarly essays, blog posts, Facebook pages, and Twitter groups featuring the voices of autistic men and women, all overwhelmingly critical of ABA and eloquent in describing the trauma that is its primary legacy.” I’m glad somebody out there is listening!
My hope is that people who write books about parenting, about human behaviour, about psychology, who feel the need to include a chapter or section on autistic people, can first listen to autistic people and learn from them. Maybe that way they will stop thinking that ABA is in any way appropriate for us.