LEARN’s Kerry Hoops Uses Assent-Based Practice to Make COVID-19 Vaccination Comfortable for Kids with Autism

By: Katherine Johnson, M.S., BCBA

Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Vaccination visits can be terrifying for an autistic child – a new environment, unfamiliar sounds and smells, being touched by a stranger, and all of this culminating in a painful poke. Anxiety and unwillingness to sit for a vaccine shot can lead to parents and medical professionals winding up with a difficult decision: hold the child down against their will or forego the vaccine. At LEARN, we care about our clients’ health and the experience they have when receiving healthcare.

Recently, the Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP, a LEARN organization) partnered with the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin in a series of vaccine clinics. These events were carefully designed to provide families with autistic children a positive experience while receiving their COVID-19 vaccines.    

The clinics were held in a local children’s museum, and a pair of seasoned clinicians teamed up with each child, who had reviewed a vaccination social story before coming. Parents answered a questionnaire about their child’s experience with shots and specific interests in advance; clinicians used this information to build rapport with the child, make them comfortable, and provide distraction. Choice was built into the entire experience: children got to select toys, the type of bandage they received, and the body part where they would receive the shot. Clinicians also provided non-invasive devices to mitigate injection pain, like the Buzzy pain blocker, and shot blockers. The most intriguing part? Clinicians waited until the child indicated they were ready before giving them the vaccination.

The result was phenomenal: dozens of autistic children receiving their COVID-19 vaccine without a tear. Kerry Hoops, our Clinical Director at WEAP, said that one experience in particular stood out to her: a boy who was terrified that the shot would hurt, asking about it repeatedly. After assuring him they would not let the shot be a surprise, they spent some time doing one of his favorite activities: having races around the museum. They gave him the opportunity to watch his mother get the vaccine, and then took him to a sensory room in the facility where they watched wrestling (WWE) together. Getting him comfortable was a process that took nearly an hour, but the end result was a child who received his vaccine willingly, and left having had a positive experience.  “The coolest thing is seeing the parents’ responses,” said Hoops. “They were so happy because they were not expecting the vaccination experience to go as well as it did.”

The procedures Hoops and our other clinicians at LEARN used are all evidence-based practices commonly used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) called “antecedent interventions.” Frequently, interfering behaviors (like screaming or bolting from a doctor) occur because the child is trying to escape from something uncomfortable or scary. Antecedent interventions are meant to create an environment that the child doesn’t want to escape from. “We’re trying to create a positive experience so when they go in for their next vaccine, they’re not going to be afraid,” says Hoops.  

The most groundbreaking component of these vaccine clinics was it was not the medical professional who decided when it was time for the shot, nor was it the parent. It was the child. In addition to using antecedent interventions, our WEAP clinicians also had the medical professionals hold off on the procedure itself until the child had indicated they were willing to receive the vaccine – something known as “gaining assent.”  

Assent, having a pediatric patient agree to treatment, is a practice that has been required for medical research since 1977, citing the need to respect children as individuals. Since then, some practitioners have extended assent procedures to their regular pediatric practice, asking for the child’s permission before they listen to their heart, for instance. The new BACB ethics code includes a provision for “gaining assent when applicable,” and proponents argue that Assent-Based ABA prevents difficult behavior and teaches children critical self-advocacy skills. The ability to determine what is and is not comfortable and acceptable for oneself is particularly important for children who struggle to use language, or who are at higher risk of being misunderstood because they are autistic. At LEARN, Assent-Based Programming is one part of our overall Person-Centered ABA Initiative. 

Although Assent-Based practice doesn’t guarantee that every child will eventually agree to the procedure (2 children of the 73 children in the clinic did not assent to the vaccine), it was overwhelmingly successful. The impact was evident in the enthusiastic responses from parents afterward. One parent wrote, “Thank you for the BEST vaccination experience ever! Our family was overjoyed to have been part of this clinic.” 

LEARN is proud to announce that WEAP and ASGW are planning on expanding their vaccine clinics to regular children’s vaccines in the coming year. For more information, check out the ASGW’s website.

Kerry Hoops, MA, BCBA, is the clinical director for Wisconsin Early Autism Project’s Green Bay region. Kerry began her career helping children with autism over 20 years ago when she was attending UWGB for her bachelor’s in psychology and human development. She fell in love with the job and chose to work in the field of autism as her career. Kerry furthered her education at the Florida Institute of Technology and Ball State University with a master’s in applied behavior analysis and became a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). She loves helping children and families in Wisconsin and internationally in Malaysia. Kerry also works at the Greater Green Bay YMCA for the DREAM program, focusing on events for socialization for adults with special needs. She has been on the board of directors for the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin since 2014 and is the acting president.

LEARN more about LEARN’s Person-Centered ABA Initiative. And, to stay connected, join our newsletter.

Neurodiversity – Origins and Impact

By Katherine Johnson. M.S., BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Judy Singer is an autistic Australian social scientist. In the 1990’s, seeing echoes of her mother’s struggles in herself and her own daughter, it occurred to Singer that this common thread pointed to the possibility that their differences were actually neurological traits. They were having a first-hand experience of that part of biodiversity that is the natural range of variations in brain functioning: she coined it neurodiversity

The neurodiversity paradigm considers all brains to be normal; brain differences are simply the neurological counterpart to genetic variations in height, eye color, or hair color. Scientists consider such variation in biological traits to be essential to the health of individual populations and entire ecosystems.  When viewing autism through the lens of neurodiversity, it comes to light that some of the individual differences that have been assumed to need remediation in the past, may actually be important in helping society as a whole make progress through new and different ways of thinking. 

The concept of neurodiversity has been enthusiastically embraced by that portion of the autistic community who are able to speak, as it promises to alleviate some of the bias and discrimination they have experienced. Their common message? Specific words and types of support can have unintended negative effects, causing them to feel inferior, powerless, misunderstood.  

Arising from these negative experiences is a more widespread understanding of how words and actions affect the private events (thoughts and feelings) of people on the spectrum. ABA practitioners are charged by the BACB Ethical Code to “treat others with compassion, dignity, and respect,” and the voices of the neurodivergent convey essential information about ways to do this. 

LEARN’s Response

LEARN’s neurodiversity initiative is a direct result of listening to the insights of autistic folks who are able to express their experiences of living in a society that was built for neurotypical people. 

  • Development of a Person-Centered ABA workgroup – Learn Leadership charged a workgroup of clinical leaders with the task of supporting clinicians in reaching our vision for a neurodiversity-informed, Person-Centered ABA approach. The workgroup includes clinicians, supervisors, and clinical development individuals. 

  • Forming of a Neurodivergent Advisory Committee – The first action of the Person-Centered ABA workgroup was to formalize a process for getting input from the neurodivergent community.  The committee is made up of neurodivergent clinicians and non-clinicians who work at LEARN; they meet regularly to review and give feedback on articles, trainings, and other materials, and are compensated for their role on the committee.      

  • Co-creation of the Values Statement – The Person-Centered Workgroup and the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee co-created a values statement, entitled “LEARN Values Neurodiversity.” The statement was written in order to express our position to our clinicians and also guide subsequent actions by the Person-Centered ABA Workgroup. It was presented at an internal training and is available on our website. 
  • Communication – Shifting the mindset of a large organization doesn’t happen overnight. In order to connect regularly with our clinicians on person-centered topics, a portion of our monthly video message to clinicians includes information about subjects related to neurodiversity, such as ableism, assent, and including client input in treatment planning. It’s important that staff are not only hearing this information but also discussing it, so each month, clinical teams engage in discussions with their colleagues on these topics. 

  • Assent Leadership Workgroup – With the addition of “assent” to the BACB ethical code and the subject’s importance to treating our clients with compassion, dignity, and respect, LEARN is offering “guided exploration” groups in assent that meet regularly for four months. The intention is to create local leaders in Assent-Based Programming throughout our network.   

  • Treatment Plan Evaluations – Our Treatment Plan Evaluation team works hard to review clinicians’ clinical work through the permanent product of their treatment plans. These reviewers have been given resources to help them identify Person-Centered practices to promote in their feedback.

  • New Hire Training – In the 2022 revision of our New Hire Training for behavior technicians, we are explicitly teaching them about neurodiversity and assent, as well as ensuring that language throughout is respectful, and that programming examples fit Learn’s conception of Person-Centered ABA.
     
  • Autistic Voices – Throughout this process, we are having an increasing number of autistic guests on our podcast and making it a regular practice to interview autistic folks for guest blog posts.  These are ways that we can listen to autistic voices ourselves and also use our resources to center those voices in the ongoing cultural conversation.

As ABA practitioners, we have always cared about our clients – helping and supporting others is our entire reason for being. In the initial years of our still-young field, that care was expressed by taking a singular approach: teaching skills to help them function in our society. As autistic self-advocates find more channels by which to make their voices heard, the themes that are emerging tell us that there is more to supporting this community than just teaching skills. For instance, using words that validate our clients’ identities and sense of self is important. We can create a positive emotional experience for the people we support during the learning process – by listening to them and giving them agency. And most importantly: where success measures are concerned, our clients’ quality of life should be central.

LEARN is listening. 

To learn more about neurodiversity, check out our other blogs “Voices for All: Ash Franks” and “Neurodiversity: What It Means, Why It Matters.”

Addressing Health Equity in ABA Treatment Part I: A Black Mother’s Experience

LEARN is committed to fostering a culture that embraces what makes us each unique—be it race, ethnicity, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, disabilities/abilities, or socioeconomic background. LEARN aims to acknowledge the lived experiences and diversity of perspectives of our staff and welcomes our teammates to share their story to help foster conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion in our communities.

By: Asia Johnson, BCaBA, Autism Spectrum Therapies

Asia Johnson (she, her, hers) is an Assistant Behavior Analyst in AST’s greater New Orleans, Louisiana region and the co-chair of LEARN Behavioral’s DEI Employee Resource Group.

Walking on her tiptoes was interesting but cute. Rocking back and forwards raised my eyebrows. But the repetitive “I’m going to stop, I’m going to stop,” felt like weights pulling on my heart.

I had never heard the word autistic before. Little did I know that in a matter of months, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) would be commonplace. I would sit in my living room with tears in my eyes and my phone in hand watching my daughter attempt to self-regulate. I felt helpless. For days this cycle would continue, leaving me uncertain if I was a good mother. I revisited each trimester of my pregnancy, actively attempting to re-evaluate anything I may have done wrong.

A mom of two with limited resources but a Medicaid card ready to go, I assumed it would be a walk in the park to get my daughter evaluated. I naively thought they would immediately tell me what was causing the concerns and provide tools to assist her. I imagined myself falling backwards into a hammock free from the weight of the world only to fall through the very net I assumed would hold me up. I was told there would be a nine-month wait before I’d receive a call about the evaluation. I was devasted. Even more, devasted to learn that if I had private insurance, I could have achieved a diagnosis in a few weeks.

As a Black woman who experienced medical malpractice during my pregnancies, I was on edge. I wasn’t sure I could trust clinicians to have my best interest at heart, let alone my child’s. With the pending evaluation, I wanted help but preferred help from someone who looked more like me. I kept wondering how a white female could relate to my child or me. Culturally we are different, from the way we comb our hair to how we greet another person.

When diagnosis day finally arrived, I was elated to put a name to all the restless nights. My daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I left that day with reassurance that I was indeed on the right track. But as I toured different facilities, I did not see anyone that looked like us. This feeling left me disappointed. No one in my family had walked this path, so I had no help with guidance or insight, but I was determined to obtain some help. As a parent, we are tasked with some minor and some major decisions to make on our children’s behalf; making the natural choice to seek applied behavior analysis (ABA) services was a significant decision in my eyes.

While I was grateful and relieved to finally have a diagnosis, I soon had a new concern. I quickly learned that the field of ABA lacked diversity within leadership roles. The most recent demographic data report by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), reports 70.05% of certificants are white, with the remaining identifying as Latinx (10.56%), Asian (6.85%), Black (3.93%), Pacific Islander (0.38%), and American Indiana (0.28%).

My daughter’s primary struggle was with receptive communication. She could speak but would often talk at people. Her conversations would lead to questions she overheard on television: “Did you know your heart is located in your diaphragm?” However, my child was rarely truly interested in the actual response; if she was, she didn’t wait long to receive the answer before jumping in with another medically driven question. It seemed as if her focus was on the oohs and ahhs or the “wow, how smart” conversations that would follow.

ABA was described to me as a treatment option using empirical studies to promote behavior changes among people living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ABA included various treatment settings, and my daughter was provided two options. Option one was to have a behavior technician come into our home. The clinician explained how they would use ABA practices to decrease her comorbid diagnosis of sibling rivalry. Option two was an after-school social skills group to target her ability to reciprocate verbal responses when communicating with others. However, both did not resonate with my lifestyle nor my views as a Black parent, especially with the syntactic structures and linguistics I noted in our brief conversation. I often wondered if my family’s values would be accepted or would I have to have a practitioner come into my home and encourage their societal norms, and that was not something I was willing to accept. As a single mom, I also pondered how I would be able to bring my daughter to a social skills group while working a full-time entry-level job.

I wasn’t wrong to worry. Research shows that Black Indigenous Persons of Color (BIPOC) families and those of low socioeconomic status may encounter issues with inappropriate treatment delivery because of different cultural perspectives. I knew BIPOC families receiving treatment from white practitioners could often face implicit biases because of the country’s systematic racism, which frightened me. Unfortunately, the data says  white clinicians are likely to make assumptions regarding treatment based on stereotypes and their own lived experiences, leading to inaccurate recommendations. So, I did not move forward with ABA services. I did not feel any facility I visited had clinicians who knew how to properly teach my brown-skinned child how to speak the English language, consistent with my families’ syntactic structures.

This pivotal moment in my life shifted my perspectives and my professional journey. I decided that I could (and would) become the Black clinician I once sought. My journey has been harrowing, and often times I still feel like I remain the elephant in the room. But today, there is a peek of light at the end of the tunnel.

When parents embark on a journey designed to make socially significant changes in their child’s life, resistance is likely to happen when approached by a white clinician – especially in southern regions. The south has been known for racial divides and limited resources for Black communities. Southern states have long represented large Black populations and are often referred to as the Black Belt.  Nonetheless, Black patients continue to fight a battle for health equity and justice. ABA services are no different; the Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders found that African-American children with autism were diagnosed an average of 1.4 years later than white children and spent eight more months in mental health treatment before being diagnosed.

BIPOC patients deserve support in their fight for equal services. BIPOC patients deserve consideration when formingeffective treatment plans. After a long road to a proper diagnosis, families should not face additional challenges in teaching their children the tools necessary for productive and responsible citizenship consistent with their cultures.

My goal as a clinician has always been to inform the world of societal differences that may impact treatment modalities. One example is the lack of acknowledgment often witnessed when practitioners teach verbal and behavioral skills. Often, Black individuals are forced to code-switch. When practitioners not familiar with the cultural nuances in language, work in some homes, they may dictate using what they are familiar with. Code-switching is exhausting, yet many Black individuals are forced to use the “standard language” society deems acceptable in a field focused on effective treatment. As a Black woman, I’m aware of this struggle (and have had to do it in my own life and work). I’m even more aware and conscious that it may be more challenging for those who are autistic to change their behavior readily, let alone the spoken language they are accustomed to hearing.

My experience as a Black Medicaid recipient who crossed various obstacles with my daughter’s diagnosis and treatment process encouraged me to seek out a company devoted to expanding diversity when I finally received my certifications. I am now a Black clinician striving for continued growth with ABA services in the south. I am hopeful for change as I continue to acknowledge cultural differences within my treatment plans.

LEARN pledges to create a community centered around trust, respect, tolerance, and empathy. Read more about LEARN’s DEI journey in our 2021-22 DEI Annual Report and find out how we are investing in our clinicians cultural competence and increasing the diversity of our clinical team. Together, we’re better.

Voices for All: Ash Franks Talks about Supporting Autistic People While Being Autistic and Her Role on LEARN’s New Neurodiversity Advisory Committee

In September 2020, LEARN convened a group of neurodivergent staff to form our Neurodivergent Advisory Committee. The committee reviews and gives feedback on matters relating to neurodiversity and other person-centered ABA topics and was instrumental in the content, messaging, and visual design of LEARN’s Neurodiversity Values Statement. We asked Ash Franks, a member of the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee, to share her thoughts with us.   

 

HI, ASH! FIRST, I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU TO BE AN AUTISTIC PERSON SUPPORTING OTHER AUTISTIC PEOPLE? 

Supporting other autistic people while being autistic means listening to what they have to say, however they communicate it, whether it be through an AAC device, sign language, PECS, or verbal language. It also means giving them breaks if they need it, and allowing them to use tools to cope (e.g. stuffed animals, headphones, weighted blankets, etc.). Looking back on my experiences as an autistic child has been very helpful in trying to help children who are at AST.

HOW DOES BEING AUTISTIC INSPIRE YOUR WORK IN ABA? 

Being autistic allows me to see different perspectives and ideas compared to neurotypical people, as they tend to think differently than I do.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE AND HOW IT WORKS. 

Basically, we are trying to re-vamp ABA materials through a more neurodivergent-friendly lens, so we can make our treatment as effective as possible. Having autistic people and other neurodivergent people look at ABA therapy through their eyes allows them to explain what works and what doesn’t work. This way, we can work to have treatment be as effective, safe, and as fun as possible for everyone involved. Having BCBAs see the autistic perspective is important because we have direct experience with what worked for us growing up versus what didn’t and might be able to help streamline the treatment to be as effective as possible.

CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF SOME FEEDBACK YOU HAVE GIVEN IN YOUR ROLE ON THE COMMITTEE? 

I tend to give feedback on the more artistic and creative side of things, as I am very geared towards having an eye for creative things in the world.

FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVES IN OUR FIELD? 

Including autistic people in ABA is super important because we need to account for neurodivergent perspectives to make treatment as effective as possible. Since I am autistic, I can give a firsthand account of what has personally worked for me throughout my life, and what hasn’t. I myself was never in ABA therapy growing up, but I did other types of therapies that I also have found helpful from time to time.

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER PLACES IN OUR SOCIETY THAT YOU THINK IT WOULD BE HELPFUL TO LISTEN TO THE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVE?

I think listening to autistic perspectives in the workplace would be very helpful. I think having a quiet room for staff that has sensory toys specific for staff would be very helpful, also maybe including a comfy place to sit with a weighted blanket would be good too. Another place it would be helpful to listen to autistic people is when it comes to shopping at malls, since malls can be overwhelming for most autistic people. I know some stores have “quiet” shopping hours where they reduce the lighting and turn off the music, and I really wish more places would do this.

ASH, THANK YOU FOR YOUR THOUGHTS AND FOR THE EXCELLENT WORK YOU’RE DOING ON THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE!

Ash Franks is a Behavior Technician for Learn Behavioral. Ash works in AST’s Hillsboro, Oregon location. Outside of work, she enjoys photography, cooking, video games, and spending time with family and friends. 

Voices for All: Ash Franks Talks about Supporting Autistic People While Being Autistic and Her Role on LEARN’s New Neurodiversity Advisory Committee

In September 2020, LEARN convened a group of neurodivergent staff to form our Neurodivergent Advisory Committee. The committee reviews and gives feedback on matters relating to neurodiversity and other person-centered ABA topics and was instrumental in the content, messaging, and visual design of LEARN’s Neurodiversity Values Statement. We asked Ash Franks, a member of the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee, to share her thoughts with us.   

 

HI, ASH! FIRST, I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU TO BE AN AUTISTIC PERSON SUPPORTING OTHER AUTISTIC PEOPLE? 

Supporting other autistic people while being autistic means listening to what they have to say, however they communicate it, whether it be through an AAC device, sign language, PECS, or verbal language. It also means giving them breaks if they need it, and allowing them to use tools to cope (e.g. stuffed animals, headphones, weighted blankets, etc.). Looking back on my experiences as an autistic child has been very helpful in trying to help children who are at AST.

HOW DOES BEING AUTISTIC INSPIRE YOUR WORK IN ABA? 

Being autistic allows me to see different perspectives and ideas compared to neurotypical people, as they tend to think differently than I do.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE AND HOW IT WORKS. 

Basically, we are trying to re-vamp ABA materials through a more neurodivergent-friendly lens, so we can make our treatment as effective as possible. Having autistic people and other neurodivergent people look at ABA therapy through their eyes allows them to explain what works and what doesn’t work. This way, we can work to have treatment be as effective, safe, and as fun as possible for everyone involved. Having BCBAs see the autistic perspective is important because we have direct experience with what worked for us growing up versus what didn’t and might be able to help streamline the treatment to be as effective as possible.

CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF SOME FEEDBACK YOU HAVE GIVEN IN YOUR ROLE ON THE COMMITTEE? 

I tend to give feedback on the more artistic and creative side of things, as I am very geared towards having an eye for creative things in the world.

FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVES IN OUR FIELD? 

Including autistic people in ABA is super important because we need to account for neurodivergent perspectives to make treatment as effective as possible. Since I am autistic, I can give a firsthand account of what has personally worked for me throughout my life, and what hasn’t. I myself was never in ABA therapy growing up, but I did other types of therapies that I also have found helpful from time to time.

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER PLACES IN OUR SOCIETY THAT YOU THINK IT WOULD BE HELPFUL TO LISTEN TO THE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVE?

I think listening to autistic perspectives in the workplace would be very helpful. I think having a quiet room for staff that has sensory toys specific for staff would be very helpful, also maybe including a comfy place to sit with a weighted blanket would be good too. Another place it would be helpful to listen to autistic people is when it comes to shopping at malls, since malls can be overwhelming for most autistic people. I know some stores have “quiet” shopping hours where they reduce the lighting and turn off the music, and I really wish more places would do this.

ASH, THANK YOU FOR YOUR THOUGHTS AND FOR THE EXCELLENT WORK YOU’RE DOING ON THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE!

Ash Franks is a Behavior Technician for Learn Behavioral. Ash works in AST’s Hillsboro, Oregon location. Outside of work, she enjoys photography, cooking, video games, and spending time with family and friends. 

What is Contemporary ABA?

RONIT MOLKO, PH.D., BCBA-D
STRATEGIC ADVISOR, LEARN BEHAVIORAL

It has been said that history is written by the victors. The colonists won the American Revolution, and so the war has been cast as a noble struggle to escape the yolk of tyranny. Had the British won, history books today would memorialize the conflict as the empire’s rescue from the clutches of ungrateful rebels.

Likewise, able-bodied people comprise the dominant culture in America; thus, we define “normal” along the contours of able-bodied activities. We consider, for example, an autistic mind or a visual impairment that enhances other senses to be of diminished value. In fact, they may simply be different ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

For many of the 60+ million Americans who have some kind of disability, this is a challenge. They are forced to fit their round life into the square hole of able-bodied culture despite the ease with which culture could accommodate everyone, including those with disabilities.

Ableism and Ableist Misconceptions

The inability of the able-bodied to recognize that not everyone is like them has given rise to a new label – ableism. This is the equivalent of the racism White Americans exhibit by failing to recognize the advantages they have versus people of color. We must be attentive to eliminating assumptions that reflect an able-bodied view of the world that does not pertain to everyone.

People with disabilities tell me that ableist thinking includes a variety of knee-jerk assumptions and misconceptions, including this one: that people with disabilities have no autonomy and constantly need help, even if they don’t ask for it.

Another version of this is the idea that people with disabilities must constantly explain themselves, for example by detailing how they became disabled, or that they have average or superior intelligence even though they do not communicate verbally. It is also an ableist misconception that all disabilities are visible. This perpetuates stigmatization and mistreatment of people with mental illness, which is, after all, no different from physical impairment except that it affects the brain. Taken together, these false ableist impressions accrue as barriers to inclusion and equity for disabled people.

ABA Intervention

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), considered by many to be the gold standard of treatment for autism, has as its ultimate goal providing autistic individuals with the skills to function at their highest potential and live as independently as possible. The field of ABA has decades of empirical evidence to support its efficacy in teaching new and necessary skills and reducing challenging behaviors that interfere with learning.

Recently, ABA has increasingly become the target of much controversy as self-advocates are speaking up about their personal experiences with ABA and the rejection of the notion that teaching autistic individuals the skills we deem necessary without their input and self-determination is erroneous. Some advocates for this community argue that independence without happiness is a hollow goal, and that autistic individuals should decide what outcome they want to achieve. Becoming as much like everyone else as possible may not be it.

ABA, which is essentially the science of good teaching, has a long history and was originally developed in the 1960s by a group of researchers at the University of Washington. ABA was used to treat individuals with developmental disabilities and initially was a rigid, highly-structured and teacher-directed program which led to some of the negative experiences and associations with ABA. Historically, for example, ABA was used to reduce or eliminate “stimming” – repetitive physical movements and sounds that may soothe and reduce anxiety. We now better understand that stimming helps autistic individuals manage their sensory processing and their environments.

 Just like in other areas of medicine and science, the field of ABA has advanced in a significant and meaningful way to become a play-based, naturalistic, family-focused and individualized, contemporary treatment that is tailored to the unique needs and goals of each individual. Another hallmark of a good ABA program is the collection and reporting of data to demonstrate efficacy. Most payors today require providers to demonstrate success, validated by parents, of the participant measured by obtaining and maintaining goals that are developed by the provider and family together. If your service provider is not providing a program that fits this description, you are likely not in the hands of a provider who is adhering to best and current practices.

As the ABA provider community has the opportunity to learn from more adults, something that was not available when this science was first being applied to autism, there are more and more opportunities to adjust and modify services to meet the needs to each individual. The idea that we discard a technology that has successfully treated thousands of individuals because of negative experiences is akin to suggesting that we eliminate an entire specialty of medicine because of some failures of treatment.  Having said that, service should always be informed by the individual receiving them, and their advocates who have their best interests at heart.

Every negative experience is unacceptable and should be heard so that changes can be made to ensure an optimal experience for future clients. Good ABA programs are client-centered and solicit the consent and input of all involved. As you consider treatment for your family member or yourself, do your research and ask your provider the important questions:

o   Will I participate in determining the goals of treatment for myself/ my child?

o   How are your staff trained?

o   How is my child’s program developed? Do all clients receive the same program or are they individualized?

o   Will there be parent goals as part of my child’s program?

o   How often is my child’s program modified or revised?

o   How is data collected and reported? How often will I see data on my child’s progress?

 Your child’s program should be client-centered and future looking which means that your family and relevant caregivers are providing input into your child’s strengths and challenges, and that you and your child are helping to guide the goals of his/her program based on your preferences and needs.

 The science of ABA has a long history with decades of research to support its development and evolution. While ABA is most widely known in its application to autism, ABA was developed, and has been applied, to address many circumstances regarding behavior that matter to society. ABA is applied in many different areas including mental health, animal training, organizational behavior management, marketing, forensics, sports, and physical health, to name a few. Just as other areas of science and medicine advance and application of treatments change, so has the field of ABA. Many lives have been impacted by ABA for the better. It is incumbent upon the professional community to listen, learn, and evolve its practice so that their services are as relevant and effective as possible. After all, the purpose of ABA is to help consumers of these services achieve goals they define as meaningful and helpful.

What is Contemporary ABA?

RONIT MOLKO, PH.D., BCBA-D
STRATEGIC ADVISOR, LEARN BEHAVIORAL

It has been said that history is written by the victors. The colonists won the American Revolution, and so the war has been cast as a noble struggle to escape the yolk of tyranny. Had the British won, history books today would memorialize the conflict as the empire’s rescue from the clutches of ungrateful rebels.

Likewise, able-bodied people comprise the dominant culture in America; thus, we define “normal” along the contours of able-bodied activities. We consider, for example, an autistic mind or a visual impairment that enhances other senses to be of diminished value. In fact, they may simply be different ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

For many of the 60+ million Americans who have some kind of disability, this is a challenge. They are forced to fit their round life into the square hole of able-bodied culture despite the ease with which culture could accommodate everyone, including those with disabilities.

Ableism and Ableist Misconceptions

The inability of the able-bodied to recognize that not everyone is like them has given rise to a new label – ableism. This is the equivalent of the racism White Americans exhibit by failing to recognize the advantages they have versus people of color. We must be attentive to eliminating assumptions that reflect an able-bodied view of the world that does not pertain to everyone.

People with disabilities tell me that ableist thinking includes a variety of knee-jerk assumptions and misconceptions, including this one: that people with disabilities have no autonomy and constantly need help, even if they don’t ask for it.

Another version of this is the idea that people with disabilities must constantly explain themselves, for example by detailing how they became disabled, or that they have average or superior intelligence even though they do not communicate verbally. It is also an ableist misconception that all disabilities are visible. This perpetuates stigmatization and mistreatment of people with mental illness, which is, after all, no different from physical impairment except that it affects the brain. Taken together, these false ableist impressions accrue as barriers to inclusion and equity for disabled people.

ABA Intervention

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), considered by many to be the gold standard of treatment for autism, has as its ultimate goal providing autistic individuals with the skills to function at their highest potential and live as independently as possible. The field of ABA has decades of empirical evidence to support its efficacy in teaching new and necessary skills and reducing challenging behaviors that interfere with learning.

Recently, ABA has increasingly become the target of much controversy as self-advocates are speaking up about their personal experiences with ABA and the rejection of the notion that teaching autistic individuals the skills we deem necessary without their input and self-determination is erroneous. Some advocates for this community argue that independence without happiness is a hollow goal, and that autistic individuals should decide what outcome they want to achieve. Becoming as much like everyone else as possible may not be it.

ABA, which is essentially the science of good teaching, has a long history and was originally developed in the 1960s by a group of researchers at the University of Washington. ABA was used to treat individuals with developmental disabilities and initially was a rigid, highly-structured and teacher-directed program which led to some of the negative experiences and associations with ABA. Historically, for example, ABA was used to reduce or eliminate “stimming” – repetitive physical movements and sounds that may soothe and reduce anxiety. We now better understand that stimming helps autistic individuals manage their sensory processing and their environments.

 Just like in other areas of medicine and science, the field of ABA has advanced in a significant and meaningful way to become a play-based, naturalistic, family-focused and individualized, contemporary treatment that is tailored to the unique needs and goals of each individual. Another hallmark of a good ABA program is the collection and reporting of data to demonstrate efficacy. Most payors today require providers to demonstrate success, validated by parents, of the participant measured by obtaining and maintaining goals that are developed by the provider and family together. If your service provider is not providing a program that fits this description, you are likely not in the hands of a provider who is adhering to best and current practices.

As the ABA provider community has the opportunity to learn from more adults, something that was not available when this science was first being applied to autism, there are more and more opportunities to adjust and modify services to meet the needs to each individual. The idea that we discard a technology that has successfully treated thousands of individuals because of negative experiences is akin to suggesting that we eliminate an entire specialty of medicine because of some failures of treatment.  Having said that, service should always be informed by the individual receiving them, and their advocates who have their best interests at heart.

Every negative experience is unacceptable and should be heard so that changes can be made to ensure an optimal experience for future clients. Good ABA programs are client-centered and solicit the consent and input of all involved. As you consider treatment for your family member or yourself, do your research and ask your provider the important questions:

o   Will I participate in determining the goals of treatment for myself/ my child?

o   How are your staff trained?

o   How is my child’s program developed? Do all clients receive the same program or are they individualized?

o   Will there be parent goals as part of my child’s program?

o   How often is my child’s program modified or revised?

o   How is data collected and reported? How often will I see data on my child’s progress?

 Your child’s program should be client-centered and future looking which means that your family and relevant caregivers are providing input into your child’s strengths and challenges, and that you and your child are helping to guide the goals of his/her program based on your preferences and needs.

 The science of ABA has a long history with decades of research to support its development and evolution. While ABA is most widely known in its application to autism, ABA was developed, and has been applied, to address many circumstances regarding behavior that matter to society. ABA is applied in many different areas including mental health, animal training, organizational behavior management, marketing, forensics, sports, and physical health, to name a few. Just as other areas of science and medicine advance and application of treatments change, so has the field of ABA. Many lives have been impacted by ABA for the better. It is incumbent upon the professional community to listen, learn, and evolve its practice so that their services are as relevant and effective as possible. After all, the purpose of ABA is to help consumers of these services achieve goals they define as meaningful and helpful.

Top 5 Autism Studies from the Last Year

BY KATHERINE JOHNSON, M.S., BCBA
SENIOR DIRECTOR OF PARTNERSHIPS

Looking back at 2021, there were significant developments, both in research and thought leadership, in the field of autism and applied behavior analysis (ABA).  Here are some studies and papers you don’t want to have missed!

 

Girls’ Genetics and Autism

2021 gave us another important building block in the ongoing investigation in to how and why autism manifests differently in girls than in boys.  A study by Jack et. al. found that there was a much greater difference in brain activity in autistic and non-autistic girls, than was previously found between autistic and non-autistic boys when viewing biological motion.  In the second half of the investigation, they looked at the girls’ DNA.  What they found (greater differences in brain activity and more gene mutations among the girls) bolsters the “Female Protective Effect” theory, which holds that girls require more genetic predisposition to autism in order to show autistic traits.  Inquiries into how autism manifests differently depending on sex is integral to being able to more accurately identify and support girls on the spectrum.

Allison Jack, Catherine A W Sullivan, Elizabeth Aylward, Susan Y Bookheimer, Mirella Dapretto, Nadine Gaab, John D Van Horn, Jeffrey Eilbott, Zachary Jacokes, Carinna M Torgerson, Raphael A Bernier, Daniel H Geschwind, James C McPartland, Charles A Nelson, Sara J Webb, Kevin A Pelphrey, Abha R Gupta, the GENDAAR Consortium, A neurogenetic analysis of female autism, Brain, Volume 144, Issue 6, June 2021, Pages 1911–1926, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awab064

How Can Behavior Analysis Help Prison Reform?

Many behavior analysts have heeded the call to focus on their own cultural competence and anti-racism work; this paper outlines ways they can put those skills to good use.  Crowe and Drew review the history and current state of a social injustice faced by many people with disabilities: segregation via incarceration.  The authors posit that behavior analysts can help to interrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline” and outline their theory.  Although the authors call for a grand restructuring of the prison system (including abolition of the current system), they also offer thoughts on how behavior analysis could improve current institutions.

Crowe, B., & Drew, C. (2021). Orange in the new asylum: Incarceration of individuals with disabilities. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 14(2), 387-395. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-020-00533-9

Bridge Over Troubled Water…

If you have been following the conversation about ABA and neurodiversity, you’ll want to read this paper.  A group of Autistic and Non-Autistic authors challenge the belief that ABA is inherently harmful for Autistic people and proposes the perspective that behavioral interventions can be “compatible with the neurodiversity paradigm.”  After a history of autism and behavioral interventions, the authors delve into a thorough discussion of how Naturalistic Developmental Behavior Interventions may bridge the gap between opposing viewpoints about the use of behavioral interventions with people on the spectrum.

Schuck RK, Tagavi DM, Baiden KMP, Dwyer P, Williams ZJ, Osuna A, Ferguson EF, Jimenez Muñoz M, Poyser SK, Johnson JF, Vernon TW. Neurodiversity and Autism Intervention: Reconciling Perspectives Through a Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Intervention Framework. J Autism Dev Disord. 2021 Oct 13. doi: 10.1007/s10803-021-05316-x. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34643863.

The Function of…. Happiness?

And the Functional Analysis (FA) gets another twist!  Thomas et. al. assessed whether or not paying attention to indices of happiness would assist in finding effective interventions to decrease challenging behavior.  They found that when interventions were derived from what they learned about the children’s happiness, they were as effective as interventions based solely on the function of the challenging behavior, and they were associated with more behavior associated with happiness.  In the search for effective treatments that are maximally acceptable to consumers, this is a useful addition to the FA!

Thomas BR, Charlop MH, Lim N, Gumaer C. Measuring Happiness Behavior in Functional Analyses of Challenging Behavior for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Behav Modif. 2021 May;45(3):502-530. doi: 10.1177/0145445519878673. Epub 2019 Sep 30. PMID: 31565953.

Assent in Research

With the addition of “assent” to the BACB Code of Ethics, behavior analysts have begun the search for research, resources, and materials on the topic.  After a discussion of the federal statute and how it may or may not apply to autistic subjects, the authors discuss assent in the context of the behavior analytic values of self-determination and choice.  They then examine how frequently assent has been obtained in the behavior analytic research (spoiler alert: not frequently), note the methods that have been used, and propose a procedure for obtaining assent from nonverbal potential research participants.  This may be the only JABA article on assent in 2021, but it’s a fair bet that it will inspire many more in 2022.

Morris C, Detrick JJ, Peterson SM. Participant assent in behavior analytic research: Considerations for participants with autism and developmental disabilities. J Appl Behav Anal. 2021 Sep;54(4):1300-1316. doi: 10.1002/jaba.859. Epub 2021 Jun 18. PMID: 34144631.

Top 5 Autism Studies from the Last Year

BY KATHERINE JOHNSON, M.S., BCBA
SENIOR DIRECTOR OF PARTNERSHIPS

Looking back at 2021, there were significant developments, both in research and thought leadership, in the field of autism and applied behavior analysis (ABA).  Here are some studies and papers you don’t want to have missed!

 

Girls’ Genetics and Autism

2021 gave us another important building block in the ongoing investigation in to how and why autism manifests differently in girls than in boys.  A study by Jack et. al. found that there was a much greater difference in brain activity in autistic and non-autistic girls, than was previously found between autistic and non-autistic boys when viewing biological motion.  In the second half of the investigation, they looked at the girls’ DNA.  What they found (greater differences in brain activity and more gene mutations among the girls) bolsters the “Female Protective Effect” theory, which holds that girls require more genetic predisposition to autism in order to show autistic traits.  Inquiries into how autism manifests differently depending on sex is integral to being able to more accurately identify and support girls on the spectrum.

Allison Jack, Catherine A W Sullivan, Elizabeth Aylward, Susan Y Bookheimer, Mirella Dapretto, Nadine Gaab, John D Van Horn, Jeffrey Eilbott, Zachary Jacokes, Carinna M Torgerson, Raphael A Bernier, Daniel H Geschwind, James C McPartland, Charles A Nelson, Sara J Webb, Kevin A Pelphrey, Abha R Gupta, the GENDAAR Consortium, A neurogenetic analysis of female autism, Brain, Volume 144, Issue 6, June 2021, Pages 1911–1926, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awab064

How Can Behavior Analysis Help Prison Reform?

Many behavior analysts have heeded the call to focus on their own cultural competence and anti-racism work; this paper outlines ways they can put those skills to good use.  Crowe and Drew review the history and current state of a social injustice faced by many people with disabilities: segregation via incarceration.  The authors posit that behavior analysts can help to interrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline” and outline their theory.  Although the authors call for a grand restructuring of the prison system (including abolition of the current system), they also offer thoughts on how behavior analysis could improve current institutions.

Crowe, B., & Drew, C. (2021). Orange in the new asylum: Incarceration of individuals with disabilities. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 14(2), 387-395. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-020-00533-9

Bridge Over Troubled Water…

If you have been following the conversation about ABA and neurodiversity, you’ll want to read this paper.  A group of Autistic and Non-Autistic authors challenge the belief that ABA is inherently harmful for Autistic people and proposes the perspective that behavioral interventions can be “compatible with the neurodiversity paradigm.”  After a history of autism and behavioral interventions, the authors delve into a thorough discussion of how Naturalistic Developmental Behavior Interventions may bridge the gap between opposing viewpoints about the use of behavioral interventions with people on the spectrum.

Schuck RK, Tagavi DM, Baiden KMP, Dwyer P, Williams ZJ, Osuna A, Ferguson EF, Jimenez Muñoz M, Poyser SK, Johnson JF, Vernon TW. Neurodiversity and Autism Intervention: Reconciling Perspectives Through a Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Intervention Framework. J Autism Dev Disord. 2021 Oct 13. doi: 10.1007/s10803-021-05316-x. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34643863.

The Function of…. Happiness?

And the Functional Analysis (FA) gets another twist!  Thomas et. al. assessed whether or not paying attention to indices of happiness would assist in finding effective interventions to decrease challenging behavior.  They found that when interventions were derived from what they learned about the children’s happiness, they were as effective as interventions based solely on the function of the challenging behavior, and they were associated with more behavior associated with happiness.  In the search for effective treatments that are maximally acceptable to consumers, this is a useful addition to the FA!

Thomas BR, Charlop MH, Lim N, Gumaer C. Measuring Happiness Behavior in Functional Analyses of Challenging Behavior for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Behav Modif. 2021 May;45(3):502-530. doi: 10.1177/0145445519878673. Epub 2019 Sep 30. PMID: 31565953.

Assent in Research

With the addition of “assent” to the BACB Code of Ethics, behavior analysts have begun the search for research, resources, and materials on the topic.  After a discussion of the federal statute and how it may or may not apply to autistic subjects, the authors discuss assent in the context of the behavior analytic values of self-determination and choice.  They then examine how frequently assent has been obtained in the behavior analytic research (spoiler alert: not frequently), note the methods that have been used, and propose a procedure for obtaining assent from nonverbal potential research participants.  This may be the only JABA article on assent in 2021, but it’s a fair bet that it will inspire many more in 2022.

Morris C, Detrick JJ, Peterson SM. Participant assent in behavior analytic research: Considerations for participants with autism and developmental disabilities. J Appl Behav Anal. 2021 Sep;54(4):1300-1316. doi: 10.1002/jaba.859. Epub 2021 Jun 18. PMID: 34144631.

TSC: A Rare Genetic Disease with a 50% Autism Diagnosis

Kari Luther Rosbeck, President & CEO, TSC Alliance, and Steven L. Roberds, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer, TSC Alliance join us for a discussion about Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSCA) a rare genetic disorder. This is an incredibly educational conversation on how this disease is identified and treated.  About 50% of those diagnosed with TSC, will also have a diagnosis of autism. Even if your child is not at risk for TSC, the thoughtful approach to treatment and resources can be valuable for all parents. As Kari shared, “When people are ready, they need to know; what are the  right questions to ask, what about genetic testing, what about medication, and how does that whole system work?”

 

Learn more about TSC Alliance by visiting tscalliance.org

Interested in ABA therapy for your child? Contact us https://lrnbvr.com/contact

All Autism Talk (allautismtalk.com) is sponsored by LEARN Behavioral (learnbehavioral.com)