15 Feb 2008

ABA Hyped in Irish Media

I've written a few times about the hype and inaccuracies about ABA in the Irish media recently. Well it continues. Here I examine and summarise some of these articles.

On Wednesday, the Irish parliament debated a motion by opposition party Fine Gael, calling for government funding of as many ABA schools as parents want.

According to the Irish Independent,

Experts say ABA is the best form of education for autistic children, but the Government refuses to provide blanket funding for the therapy.

Who are these experts, and what gives them the authority to say such a thing without evidence?
The reporting of the ABA stories is entirely credulous.

Imagine if some people had developed what they said was a treatment for, say, epilepsy. They have no studies showing increased efficacy of their treatment over other standard therapies, and only one randomised trial, which also showed no benefits, and most of the authority for the claims of this new treatment, came from a poorly written 21 year old study, which combined the treatment with a now outlawed additional drug. Would people be writing this therapy up as the best way to help people with epilepsy? Well, I certainly hope not.
Why then are standards so very low when it comes to autism?

So the motion was lost by a mere 8 votes, and many members of the main government party, Fine Fail, while voting against the motion, criticised their Education Minister. TD (member of parliament) Mary O'Rourke said:

I feel that the door is not fully open within the Department of Education to embracing ABA. The effect ABA has on children with autism is huge.

How does she know this?

Keith Duffy, Boyzone member and Ireland's own 'autism advocate' celebrity, said;

It's very, very simple. If you give a child the appropriate attention and education for four to five years it will cost between €26,000 and €50,000 per year and the child then has a chance of entering mainstream school.
But if you don't do that the child could end up institutionalised by 13 and it will cost the State €3m to €4m over the lifetime of the child to care for them.

Ah, it's our old favourites, the "pay now or pay later" and the "only ABA (or chelation or homeopathy or insert crank therapy of choice here) will save those awful, tragic autistics from lifetime imprisonment" canards.

He describes his 7 year old autistic daughter before ABA;

She had no communication skills, she had no language and her motor skills weren't great.
She fixated on objects and she just lived her in own little world.

But after 5 years of ABA, she is a "completely different child."

Well of course she is! It's to be expected that a 7 year old child is completely different from the child at 2!

The last Irish Independent item (for today at least) is the lengthy article written by Brigid Sinnott, MA, BCBA, a senior behaviour analyst. She states that autistic children, or rather the parents of children with autism, "held little hope of their child developing independent skills or going to their local school with their peers." But then, a new dawn, the ABA missionaries arrived with their ability to break everything down into lots of baby steps, and teach these poor creatures how to learn!

She says of the Irish ABA schools;

These schools provide a scientific and intensive approach to education, which results in significantly greater learning in every area, compared to any other type of 'autism schooling'.
These results from our own ABA schools are absolutely in line with international research studies evaluating the effectiveness of ABA schooling.

She then describes how 40%, or 12 of the students at her own ABA school went on to their local schools, She doesn't say what flavour of autism these particular children had on entering ABA, nor whether they are attending local schools without additional assistance or accommodations. I do hope not.

Unlike a lot of other conditions, children with autism present with needs and abilities very different one from another; they do not learn in the same two or even 10 ways. Therefore, the eclectic model, even with its two or three strategies, will not meet the varied learning needs of most children with autism.

I'd like to know what this 'eclectic' model is. Where is it said that it involves 2 or 3 strategies? I agree with Sinnott that autistic children have a range of needs and abilities, and each one deserves an individualised education with dedicated, knowledgeable teachers. This can easily be accomplished without resorting to a fully ABA driven system.

On the other hand, a child attending an ABA school is accessing a curriculum generated by a detailed assessment of their specific learning needs. No two instructional programmes are the same in an ABA school and each programme is continually being adapted, based on the responses of each child, measured on a daily basis, to their programme of instruction. Each child benefits from an education that is not just autism-specific, but specific to their autism and far superior in meeting their needs than any other method.

The detailed assessment and individualised education programme are needed for every autistic child in every school. Parents would be much better served working on that goal. There is no evidence that the ABA method is far superior than any other method.

Most importantly, the way these learning goals are taught is specific to the way each child learns. ABA has hundreds of well researched, tried and tested strategies. This approach is possible because of the high level of expertise of practitioners in ABA schools. Tutors are typically psychology graduates with lengthy and ongoing training in ABA and supervision is provided by certified behaviour analysts.

This is not needed. The expense in paying for all these ABA trained staff could be much better spent on other resources thereby benefiting a much greater number of autistic children.

When a family is burdened and heartbroken with the news their child has autism, and they encounter ABA -- with the learning and quality of life possibilities it has for their child -- this should be the beginning of hope, not the start of a battle.

Well done, you managed to get the crucial devastation rhetoric into the article.

The worst examples of hype, lies and callousness came from TD Ulick Burke, as quoted in a Galway newspaper;

There are over 900 children currently waiting on speech and language therapy in Galway, despite constant appeals to government to provide further resources for autistic children in the West.

If true, this is a disgrace. I wonder how many of these children are autistic? They are being let down by their government, and parents and educators would do well to take the authorities to task over such a lapse.

This shocking figure was released recently following a parliamentary question from Galway East TD Ulick Burke. The recent decision by the government to refuse to fund Applied Behavioural Analysis for autistic children in Ireland has caused outrage and concern among desperate parents, who believe that this treatment is the only way their children will be able to live an independent life.

I'm getting fed up with the implication that my son will never be able to live an independent life, because he has never undergone ABA.

TD Burke says:

They [the government] are essentially saying that every child should be in the mainstream system. There is no research to back this up. There is 40 years of research to show the that just two years of ABA before a child enters school means that they have a 50 per cent chance of being able to take full advantage of mainstream education and live a full life.

Where have you all hidden this 40 years worth of research? Boy that old Lovaas paper sure does get misrepresented!

Shockingly, Burke continues:

One man I met told me about his son, who has been institutionalised since he was 17 because he didn't get the formative treatment he needed at a young age. He is sitting in a small room for up to 24 hours a day and he will be there for the rest of his life. The stories that you hear are absolutely heart-wrenching and something has to be done about it. All these parents want is what everyone other parent wants, for their child to happy, content and independent. It's just not good enough!

So a man is to be imprisoned in a small room for the rest of his life, for the crime of being autistic! This is a terrible miscarriage of justice. I can assume that the dedicated member of the Republic's Parliament will be working tirelessly for this man, to ensure he is freed from such a fate. It is disgusting that shocking abuses are held up as the alternative to more spending on ABA.

Finally, here's a post I read again recently, describing an alternative to behaviourism in the teaching of autistic children.


Unknown said...

ABA is not "hyped".

It is supported by hundreds of studies over five decades demonstrating gains in intellectual, social and behavior areas.

The studies have been reviewed by respected professional bodies including the American Academy of Pediatrics (2007), the MADSEC Autism Task Force (1999-2000) the Office of the US Surgeon General, education and health agencies in New York and California, and the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.

Parents across North American AND in Ireland have sought ABA for their autistic children because it works.

The anti-ABA prejudice you displayed in your comment is supported by .... nothing. Nothing at all.

Anonymous said...
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Sharon McDaid said...

Oh Harold, ABA is so hyped!

Did you read the media reports I quoted? How can anyone think that a politician saying this isn't hype;
"There is 40 years of research to show the that just two years of ABA before a child enters school means that they have a 50 per cent chance of being able to take full advantage of mainstream education and live a full life."

I don't understand the concept of anti-ABA prejudice. I am merely pointing out the inaccuracies in the marketing and reporting of ABA. If it was the epilepsy treatment scenario I described, no-one would say I was prejudiced against the proposed treatment just because I was pointing out the flaws in the evidence.

My is objections to ABA are supported by this recent UK study which showed that children attending autism specific nurseries had the same outcomes as children engaged in intense behavioural intervention programmes.

Autism researcher Michelle Dawson gives a good summary of the problems of ABA science here.

Anon, thank you for your detailed and knowledgeable comments. Are you involved in autism education yourself?
Like you said, there is a scandal in the provision of services to autistic people, both children and adults. How much better would it be if parents lent their considerable weight to forcing their government to provide more speech and occupational therapists, diagnosis centres, support and understanding for families, fun activities and outings as well as the all important support for adults to be able to work and live with their autism. The 'ABA or institutionalisation' argument is a false alternative logical fallacy.

Anonymous said...
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Michelle Dawson said...

For a better idea of the standards Mr Doherty, a leading Canadian autism advocate, applies to autistics, I suggest this post as well as this one.

Buster said...


I've sent you some emails. You probably haven't opened them yet. I'd appreciate if you could help me out with the issue contained therein.

Much obliged, Buster.

Sharon McDaid said...

I was asked to delete 2 comments, and since anyone who comments via Blogger can delete a comment whenever they want, it's only right that I comply with a request from a non-Blogger commentor.
The posts were not offensive or anything.