Let me begin by saying that Dr. LaVigna is not primarily focused on 'early intervention' ABA. His agency, IABA, according to the content of his presentations, has a focus on autistic young adults and adults who are experiencing very serious problems in any number of areas. These include long-term aggressive/violent behaviors and very challenging self-injurious behaviors. Some of Dr. LaVigna's clients are the types that some people, such as Harold Doherty, would claim have no future outside of an institution. An excerpt from their website says : "It is the philosophy of [IABA] that a person with a developmental disability is entitled to live his or her life with the full dignity of a developing human being, as a self-reliant and productive member of society."
This leads me to the "good" side of ABA. I am familiar with many of the ethical and academic critiques of the ABA method, and I agree at least in part with many, if not all, of them. But there is an aspect of ABA which, in my view, is not directly in the line of fire of that criticism. I am referring to the following (loosely paraphrased) 5 goals of Dr. LaVigna's approach to behavioral supports for autistic individuals:
- Community presence and participation that are appropriate and valued by society.
- Autonomy and self-determination through the exercise of increasingly informed choice.
- Continuous involvement in the ongoing process of becoming independent.
- Increasing independence and productivity, to the point of economic self-sufficiency.
- The opportunity to develop a full range of social relationships and friendships.
Now, it is important to grasp that this goal set is certainly not exclusive to ABA as an approach. This set of 5 goals, however, could be applied to virtually any technique and would remain admirable regardless, in my opinion. This set of goals seems to me to be a good beacon of orientation for working towards the happiness and well-being of autistic adults. Notice the lack of emphasis on "reducing/eliminating autistic behaviors" or causing the client to strive to "become indistinguishable from his/her peers" and using that as a measure of success. None of those concepts are discussed or referred to . Instead, a sense of community, a sense of responsibility, the building of meaningful relationships, and true self-determination are discussed. I think that is highly appropriate. And, again, if you refer to my last post on ABA, I believe that a well-intentioned person or group of people who have appropriate goals in mind and value the autistic person they spend time with can have a positive impact in numerous ways that may not be measurable in terms that translate well to research studies (the reverse, unfortunately, is sadly also true).
Here is the other thing about Dr. LaVigna's approach that I found to be good. And you'll have to forgive me for giving the Cliff Notes version, as I spent more time listening than taking notes and therefore can't easily reconstruct precisely what he was saying. But this has to do with, again, self-determination. I think self-determination is a big issue in ABA. My son is only 6 years old, and therefore of course will not be granted nearly as much freedom of choice as one would grant an adult. This is true for virtually any teaching approach for any population. But I do recognize that as a person grows and develops, more opportunities must be afforded that person to self-determine. The squelching of this basic human right is a travesty and occurs far too frequently amongst autistic people (particularly in institutional settings). There are those (again, like Harold Doherty) who believe that institutions are very appropriate for many people, for those who are simply 'beyond help'. I disagree, and therefore applaud Dr. LaVigna's focus on this issue. Briefly, Dr. LaVigna 'indexes' his clients' activities on a matrix. The matrix is categorized into at-home and community settings, with further divisions to specify functional (such as errands) vs. social situations. As a measurement of success (in other words, 'success' cannot be achieved without...), the client must gradually increase his/her involvement in choosing/avoiding/specifying activities (I don't like that word, but have no other to use in its place) to the point where they are at 100% self-determination.
And, really, this approach is one embodiment of ABA. Dr. LaVigna tries to understand what the individual's obstacles to success are (functional behavioral analysis) and then tries to implement (Apply) a plan to achieve the goal of helping the person overcome those obstacles.
I may seem to someone reading this post to be a huge fan of Dr. LaVigna. That's not necessarily the case at all. I am extracting some of the things he talked about and using them as a theoretical model for how, in my opinion, ABA can be used as a method to positively impact the lives of autistic people. Some things he described really resonated with me as being appropriate and logical and of great potential benefit.
But my comfort level with anyone's application of ABA techniques or principles will always be tempered by some of the serious, valid problems with the approach. Problems such as;
Are the goals always met and, if not, what then? Is the functional behavioral analysis likely to be correct? Is 'non-aversive' really not? Will Discrete Trial Teaching create robotic little autistic people? Is the whole thing a colossal waste of time? What do research results tell us? These are some of the potential negatives, and deserve as much attention as the aspects that I perceive as being good.
In my next post on ABA, I will get into some of those issues.
I'd also like to recommend some further reading for those who are interested.
First, a recent ( as in yesterday) and excellent commentary from Sharon on ABA in Ireland.
For an in-depth look at ethics and ABA, please read Michelle Dawson's The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists.
And this excellent essay by Phil Schwarz.