Advanced Behavior Analysis

Presume Competence


“Rather than labeling individuals as “low functioning” or “high functioning,” we should recognize that people with autism vary in their ability to demonstrate competence. Our responsibility is then to presume, find, and strengthen that competence. “ John P Hussman, Hussman Institute for Autism

One of the first and most important steps in preserving dignity and improving the lives of autistic individuals begins with presuming competence. This means understanding that everyone has the ability to think, feel and grow, even if not immediately obvious on the outside. Behavior is communication. Behavior does not just happen randomly.

Presuming competence means that we respect that behavior is motivated by a number of factors, including: a physiological need, physical discomfort, frustration, the need to communicate, sensory needs, etc. Behaviors which are observable to us may be communicating a more covert event taking place for the individual.

Allowing constant unrestricted access to communication systems (i.e. AAC, PECS etc.) is imperative. Presuming competence means that we assume the person is attempting to communicate through their behavior, and offer a mode of communication with the necessary assistance to help meet their need. A lack of verbal language does not necessarily equate low intelligence. Language delays or difficulties may not always stem from cognitive deficits.

The Evolution of Modern ABA Therapy

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has experienced significant growth since its beginning in the 1970s. The milestones of ABA therapy growth have come from unparalleled education, embraced positivity, public awareness, and continued acceptance. Unfortunately, many Autistic adults recollect negative memories with their own ABA therapy from childhood. 

Previously practiced ABA therapy included the following techniques. 

-Forced prolonged eye contact

-Withholding basic needs (such as access to food/drink)

-Entirely restricting access to self-stimulatory behaviors

 -Forcibly extinguishing other uniquely autistic traits  

Traditional Applied Behavior Analysis promised parents that, following intensive therapy, their child would be “indistinguishable” from their peers. While ABA does certainly improve communication, social and adaptive living skills, it does NOT extinguish Autism (nor should it). 

If your child is receiving ABA therapy which involves any of the methods mentioned above, that is a huge red flag to begin searching for a new provider immediately. 

Modern Applied Behavior Analysis typically functions as part of a comprehensive treatment package for children with special needs rather than the sole source of therapy. A treatment solution may involve speech therapy, occupational and sensory integration therapy, psychotherapy, and more. Treatment is entirely individualized, as opposed to the one size fits all antiquated ABA approach. 

 

ABA therapy has always focused on shaping behaviors and skills to encourage independence. Over the years, treatment has shifted focus from coercion and punishment procedures to positive encouragement and reinforcement. Positivity while continuing to expanding the capacity to respect bodily autonomy and neurodiversity. 

Some individuals remember ABA therapy as strictly table work, training one to respond to specific cues to receive reinforcement. While table work is often still part of therapy in the form of discrete trial training (DTT), ABA therapy also encompasses the use of naturalistic and incidental teaching strategies to use motivation within the natural environment to encourage skill acquisition. 

Previous ABA therapy interventions have also been said to increase prompt dependency and promote unnatural, robotic responses. However, current ABA practices focus on using least to most intrusive prompting methods and systematically fading prompts to encourage individual independence. While prompts are still utilized within ABA therapy, the systematic fading allows for continued learning in scenarios outside the learning environment, providing access to generalization and skills maintenance.

While ABA therapy has continued to evolve, so have the ethical principles to support ethical treatment within the field. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) functions as the governing board for behavior analysts and behavior technicians administering ABA therapy. The ethical code for behavior analysts and behavior technicians has received many updates over the years to include the most current and ethical practices within behavior analysis. All BCBA’s and RBT’s are thoroughly trained in accordance with this moral code to ensure quality and ethical treatment for those receiving behavioral therapy. The ethical code focuses on the following core principles; benefiting others, treating others with dignity, compassion, and respect, behaving with integrity, and ensuring the competence of interventionists (BACB, 2021). With the guidance of this code and following the most recent research and recommendations within behavior analysis, the field is continuing to evolve to provide the most ethical and responsible treatment.

Promoting Autism Acceptance in Society

Autistic children are extremely capable of developing skills that help them live their “best life”. The individual characteristics that each child possesses should be championed and capitalized upon. By no means should their uniqueness be taken away while developing a plan to help your child live within the boundaries of this great big world.  

Nervousness

We strive to help children develop themselves while respecting the differing abilities they possess. For example, it is critical to understand that stimming (or self-stimulation) is an important human behavior that helps with emotional and sensory regulation. To some degree or another, every human uses repetitive physical movements or vocalizations to help them cope with all levels of feelings. Have you ever heard someone hum a tune while working? Or how about bouncing their foot under the table at dinner? 
We respect the bodily autonomy of children by listening to their voices and their physical cues. Our team does their best to use the least intrusive and least restrictive measures to help children learn, cope and grow. We want to see all autistic humans successfully included in classrooms, social settings, and workplaces.
Autism awareness is essential, but Autism acceptance is crucial for promoting widespread inclusion in society. Acceptance encourages empathy and understanding, which will, in turn, promote change. To help this change occur, we strive to provide education and insight on the autistic experience.

Suggestions for inclusivity:
-Spend time learning about autism
-Listen to autistic voices
-Presume competence
-Invite autistic peers to parties and events
-Demonstrate understanding instead of pity
-Identify areas of interest and utilize that as a teaching strategy or social interaction
-Create a flexible environment by offering choices
-Encourage children to invite neurodiverse peers to participate in play, even if the child seems uninterested or disengaged…their participation matters
-Be mindful of sensory sensitivities