A CONTROVERSIAL teaching method adopted by Treetops special needs school was the focus of an hour-long documentary on BB4 on Tuesday night.
First developed in California in the 1960s, ABA uses a system of rewards to change children’s behaviour and teach them new skills.
Although early adopters of the system in the USA used electric shocks, those methods have long been abandoned, however critics have likened the system to “dog training”.
The BBC spoke to Grays mother Julie Barber. Julie told them that she came close to a nervous breakdown. Her son, Jack, who is four, has autism, and she felt overwhelmed by his demanding behaviour.
Julie said: “He was having two-hour meltdowns nearly every day. I’ve got a bad back just from trying to manage him. Food was the problem. It was horrendous – if I tried anything else he would be sick. Even if a drink was too cold, it would make him gag. I was scared that he’d deteriorate because he wouldn’t get the right nutrients.”
Today, watching Jack happily tuck into sausages and baked beans, she still finds it difficult to believe how far he’s come. “He eats pretty much everything now. I can take him out to a restaurant, or a party. You have no idea what that means.”
In September last year, Jack started at Treetops, one of a handful of state special schools in the UK offering a programme of applied behavioural analysis, or ABA.
The success of the system means that Treetops is over-subscribed.
Headteacher Paul Smith said: “We are at absolute capacity. Families are moving from all over the country to get their child in. They are desperate. We know that the earlier a child starts on the programme, the better their outcome will be, but, unfortunately, we’re getting log jams, which means families are left waiting.”
Although no one uses the word “punishment”, there are “consequences” for bad behaviour. These could be the denial of access to a reward or an activity a child does not enjoy.
Smith first learned of ABA when a pupil who was undergoing a private ABA programme at home started at Treetops. After researching the merits of the technique, he asked Thurrock council if they would fund the school to start offering it.
“The local authority were already on board because they were funding home ABA programmes and it would be cheaper to offer it through schools,” he says. Treetops now has 85 children on one-to-one ABA programmes.
A spokesperson for Thurrock Council said: “Treetops is an outstanding special school for children with autism and other learning needs. The approaches used by Treetops are based on sound evidence-based research and have been shown to be highly effective for children with autism.”
But the approach is not without its critics. Perhaps of biggest concern is the principle of changing or removing autistic behaviour. “This is a really contested issue in the autism community,” says Dr Liz Pellicano, head of the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.
“Some people hate their autism because it prevents them from doing the things other people do. But others celebrate it, and feel it offers not only challenges but also opportunities.
“Although therapists wouldn’t say that they’re trying to normalise children with autism, that is the underlying ideology of ABA – to make them indistinguishable from their peers.”
This is not only ethically questionable, she says, it could be harmful, too. “Being told there’s something wrong with you is going to potentially make you more anxious and more depressed, which is already highly prevalent in people with autism.”
There also concerns from experts within Thurrock. One autism specialist, who did not wish to be named said.
“It is great that the child has a huge team of helpers for 40 hours a week but then they all disappear when they leave the school leaving a huge number of social issues.
“That is of course unless Treetops has plans to expand so that it becomes like a residential community and so you never have to leave.”
The Guardian newspaper has also published a feature on the documentary and the comments section provide a fascinating insight into how divided the opinion is into ABA.
Scorpioloth said: “I am autistic and in the autistic community I have met adults who experienced ABA as children who are very angry about it and feel it has hindered rather than helped them. I have not met any who have experienced it and think it was helpful, of course this is anecdotal and could mean that those who found it helpful have gone on to have “normal” lives that do not involve engaging with the autistic community.”
Madupnorth said: “My child is at Treetops, she is a normal child above all else, she cannot do certain things like talk and this makes her very upset and unhappy. She is learning in school to talk and acquire skills to enable her to do the things that she wants to do. She loves going to school. I can understand how someone who is mildly autistic would rightly value their skills and abilities but they are not in a position to advocate depriving others who need intensive help of happiness and a fulfilled life.
Robsmiley said: “I’m autistic, and 38 years old. Being coerced into compliance at a young age didn’t do me any harm. Except for the lifetime of depression and psychological problems relating to feeling like I only I have validity if I do the things other people want me to do, whilst considering what I might want to do for myself to be automatically wrong.”
Bobski said: “My son attended one of these schools. He previousy had a home based programme. ABA just struck me as the best bet. Having taught myself I have seen first hand the approach to problems in mainstream schools and whilst there must be exceptions most appeared to be managing as opposed to addressing individuals. The ABA approach has allowed my son to interact with other folk in his world.