Applied Behavioral Analysis
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is utilized in home and school environments as a behavior intervention system for children with autism spectrum disorders. This article presents a brief introduction to the history of ABA and its inception. Further discussed are ways ABA is utilized in a public school setting through education strategies and roles and impacts on certain groups that include students, teachers, and administrators. Solutions for new teachers designing programs or working with autistic children are offered to help them develop the most effective programs through partnerships and collaboration.
Keywords Adaptive Behavioral Function; Autism Spectrum Disorders; Behavioral Intervention; Early Intervention; Educational Function; Intellectual Function
Overview of Autism Interventions
Autism spectrum disorders is an umbrella term for a family of neuro-developmental conditions characterized by early-onset social and communication disabilities, challenges with imagination, and restrictive behaviors that range from stereotyped movements to accumulating vast amounts of information on specific topics (Volkmar, Lord, Bailey, Schultz, & Klin, 2004). Impairments in social interaction is one of the main factors typical of autism disorders, and these disorders also cause multiple deficits in language, play, eye contact, and gestures (Kanner, 1943). According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), other characteristics of autism include “irregularities in communication, repetitive movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences” with the added restriction of the capacity for abstract thought, especially as the individual ages (Hardman, Drew, Egan, & Wolf, 1993).
Autism is a life-long impairment with multiple impacts. Early intervention is central to overcoming many of the difficulties resulting from autism. Despite evidence that autism disorders can be identified as early as 18 months, many children are not identified until much later. As of 2007, children will be screened for autism during well baby checks twice yearly. Given these advancements in early diagnosis, advancements in early intervention programs at earlier ages have also been made (Centers for Disease Control, 2007). Theoretically, many of the interventions developed and offered to autistic children remain highly questionable and untested in terms of long-term research and impact. According to Reed, Osborne & Corness (2007), "It should be noted that it is not clear to the degree to which any program has fidelity to the manual in the face of specific demands of individual children…, and [they] vary from individual-to-individual, and from day-to-day within individuals" (p. 432).
Available treatments for autism vary significantly in terms of "context (e.g., school vs. home), intensity, and theoretical underpinning." Many children receive a variety of treatments, and it should be noted that parents and professionals face difficulty in determining the most appropriate programming for children in accordance with their age, severity of impact, and philosophy (Sheinkopf & Siegel, 1998, p. 15). Before children are placed in a school environment, home programs are typically developed and are used to prepare children for school and community environments. Most behavioral treatment protocols require highly structured, time consuming, and intensive programs. Applied Behavior Analysis has been recommended as a treatment option for autism spectrum disorders (McIlvane, 2006).
Background of Applied Behavioral Analysis
Reed, Osborne and Corness (2007) explain that Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is based on the behaviorist approach of altering behaviors through systematic, extrinsically reinforced behavior modification and training originating from the philosophies of B. F. Skinner, and there are a number of different ABA approaches that have been outlined in a variety of sources. In general, these approaches involve:
• The one-to-one teaching of children with autism by adult tutors;
• A discrete-trial reinforcement-based method; and
• An intensive regime (up to 40 hours a week, for 3 years, in some instances) (p. 419).
One such favored approach operating from this methodology was developed by Lovaas and was entitled the Early Intervention Program or EIP. Lovaas is considered to be the founder of the ABA approach, and his philosophies, program overview, and findings will be examined.
The Lovaas Method
The Lovaas method of ABA that is central to the UCLA Young Autism Project was first developed to maximize behavioral gains made by children during every waking minute. The complete outline for treatment was described in Lovaas' (1981) book entitled: Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children: The Me Book. For the most part, the model is based partially on the principles of operant learning. The primary teaching method is based on discrete trial discrimination learning and compliance with simple commands. Simple commands include: "sit down," "put here," and "look at me." All negative and aggressive behaviors initiated by the child are ignored or punished, and positive behaviors are reinforced. In some cases physical punishments or verbal reprimands are used to extinguish negative behaviors. These punitive reprimands can be represented as a loud "No!" or a slap on the thigh.
The most significant hallmark of the Lovaas program was the duration of time spent in program and program development. According to Lovaas (1987), the program was designed to occur over a 3-year time frame for 365 days per year with a minimum of 40-hours or more a week of initiation. The program outline mandates that for the first year, the majority of attention is focused on the reduction of self stimulatory and aggressive behaviors, increasing imitation responses, generating appropriate toy play, and extending treatment into the family. In the second year of the program, expressive and abstract language is taught as well as "appropriate" social interactions with peers. The third year of the program emphasizes the teaching of appropriate emotional expression, pre-academic tasks, such as reading, writing, and math, and observational learning of peers involved in academic tasks. The average cost of an Applied Behavioral Analysis program based on the Lovaas' model costs an estimated $60,000 per year per child ("Alternatives to Lovaas' Therapy," 1996).
After the conclusion of Lovaas' 1987 findings based on his original study and results, he wrote and published a paper outlining his findings. Initial results reported by Lovaas (1987) concerning the effectiveness of the ABA approach seemed to be miraculous in their results. According to Lovaas' research regarding his designed treatment, children who underwent this approach “made gains of up to 30 IQ points (a finding noted in some children with autism spectrum disorders undergoing special educational programs) (Gabriels et al., 2001). Just less than half of these children appeared to recover, that is, they were not noticeably different from normally developing children after 3 years of the intervention” (Reed, Osborne, & Corness, 2007, p. 419). Despite these amazing results, Lovaas' critics have noted numerous problems with the original study.
Criticism of Results
Firstly, critics allege that one significant problem with Lovaas' 1987 study revealed that Lovaas selected verbal, relatively high functioning participants who might have performed well with reasonable input (Reed, Osborne, & Corness, 2007, p. 419). Secondly, many of the questions surrounding Lovaas' study are centered around the fact that the study was clinical rather than school or community based, which raises questions about generalizability from the clinic to school and community settings (p. 419). Thirdly, all of the “significant number of critiques of Lovaas' original piece of research (i.e., Lovaas, 1987) have focused on problems both with the internal and external validity of the study (e.g., Connor, 1998; Gresham & MacMillan, 1997; Mudford et al., 2001)”(Reed, Osborne, & Corness, 2007, p. 419). These problems create confusion about the actual results of the study and whether the results justify the costs of the program.
In their recent study, Reed, Osborne, and Corness (2007) examined three different autism interventions in a community setting. The three interventions studied comparisons between the ABA model, the portage model, and a special nursery placement. Several findings resulted from this study that both support the ABA model in some instances, as well as other interventions that were less costly and time consuming, yet still offering some features of the ABA model including one-on-one tutoring and overlaps between home and educational environments. Program impacts examined results on stereotyped behaviors, communication difficulties,...
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