Saturday, August 25, 2007

Clinic Notes: The Science Behind ABA

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the most popular and effective therapy for autism. However, ABA also has it critics who say it is too rigid and creates kids who are robotic. (I have been working in ABA for nearly 40 years and have yet to see ABA produce a robotic child.) A second criticism states that the research behind ABA is modest. Well, I think these critics do not know the history of learning theory and the countless experiments with experimental animals and humans that can be traced back to Thorndike's trial and error experiments with cats in 1898. B.F. Skinner's Functional Analysis of Behavior, which is the backbone of ABA, examined human behavior using behavior principles tested on years of animal experiments. Even today, countless scientific journals publish peer-reviewed studies examining ABA with various clinical populations. Based on decades of research, ABA is recommended as the treatment of choice in treating autism by CDC and other health agencies. How much science do the critics want?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Clinic Notes: ABA and Time Out

Time out means time out from positive reinforcement. If there is no positive reinforcement in the child's environment then time out will not work. Recently, a child with autism in Iowa school was left in time out for 3 hours. Of course, the parents were outraged and called a lawyer. But before the case came to trial the family moved and the school system continues to use its time out rooms in the same way.
There has always been controversy about time out and the Iowa school is not the first to get into trouble over improper use of time out. Parents are always telling me that they have tried time out with their child but it does not work. Time out is a very good procedure when done right and ineffective when done wrong. The standard time out procedure below is the procedure I have been using for 30 + years and it works. It will not work for a child with autism that is removed from an environment that has no reinforcers. For example, an environment where there is too much stimulation or too many demands being placed on the child. Being placed in time out would be reinforcing. And time out should never be used by itself, but always combined with a reinforcement procedure for the appropriate behavior.
Time out 101:
Time out is an often used and misused procedure. If done properly, time out is a very effective, humane procedure. Find a place in your house where a time out chair, preferably a chair with arms and not a bench, can be left. The chair should face a blank wall and not be close to a window, shelves, glass, electrical outlets, or storage cabinets containing chemicals. Hallways and alcoves often work. Do not use bathrooms or closets. The time out chair should be close to the play area so the child can be placed in time out quickly. Think safety, especially for small children.
Use an egg timer and teach the child that he or she cannot get out of time out until the egg timer goes off. The child has to stay in time out for three minutes plus one minute of good behavior. In other words, the child has to be quiet and cannot be arguing, complaining, or tantruming for one full minute before he or she can get out of time out.
Do not be surprised if the child comes up with a whole bag of new inappropriate behaviors in order to get out of time out. Kids have been known to gag, vomit, and one of my own kids even hit herself in the face several times. Do not respond and thereby reinforce these new inappropriate behaviors or they will increase in their frequency. Only good behavior gets the child out of time out.
In the beginning of this procedure it's not unusual for a child to be in time out for fifteen to twenty minutes before he/she quiets down, and to go to time out as often as twenty times a day. After a few days the child learns the requirements of the time out procedure and he/she gets out in the minimum four minutes. The number of times the child goes to time out each day also drops dramatically. (Record the frequency and length of time outs and you will see the child's progress.)
When the child gets out of time out, remind your child of why he or she had to go to time out in a firm tone. Tell your child that he/she will have to go again if your directions are not followed immediately. Do not be timid with your voice or body language. (Go to for ABA programs using time out and reinforcement that eliminate inappropriate behavior and establish appropriate behavior.)