Applied Behaviour Analysis

April is National Autism Awareness Month and this month our blog will be focusing on posts about autism.

A while ago I watched a programme on BBC4 about Applied Behaviour Analysis. It was a documentary that explored the controversy surrounding ABA which is an intensive intervention used to ‘treat’ autism. I found it incredibly interesting but also rather disturbing. It’s taken me a while to decide to blog about it and unfortunately the programme is no longer available to view online via the BBC website, but I did find this clip from the film on YouTube:

The film focused mostly on a school in Essex called Treetops and followed the progress of two boys during their first term, tackling issues with launguage and food as well as social engagement. Treetops is the only school in the UK which offers a full ABA programme. Some see the ‘tough love’ support that the school offers as the best way to teach children on the autistic spectrum new skills and help them function within mainstream society, whereas others argue that ABA is dehumanising and abusive and a way of eliminating autistic behaviour.

First developed in California in the 1960s, ABA uses a system of rewards and consequences to modify children’s behaviour and teach them new skills. Based on the discoveries of psychologist B.F.Skinner and his experiments with rats and pigeons at Harvard University, controversy has always surrounded the technique and likened it to dog training. In the 60s psychologists like Ole Ivar Lovaas used ‘aversives’ such as mild electric shocks when children did not comply with desired behaviours. These punishments have thankfully been abandoned but ABA is still very demanding with some programmes involving over 40 hours a week of contact time.

At Treetops they practice a type of ABA known as verbal behaviour or VB and each child is “paired” with an assistant who carries a bag of rewards. These can be toys or props that the child enjoys using. During training session, whenever the children performs a task correctly, or behaves as they are being taught to, they get a few minutes with their reward. It’s a very individualised programme that is tailor made for each child and begins with teaching them how to request things. A lot of problematic behaviour stems from frustration at not being able to communicate, but once the children have a way to tell people what they want, or don’t want, they can move onto other aspects of the programme.

So from one point of view I can see the real benefits of such intensive ‘training’ and seeing one child go from not being able to eat anyting but custard without being sick, to him tucking into a plate of sausages and mash a few months later was incredible. In his case his teaching assistant would give him a tiny spoonful of regular food, and if he ate it he’d immediately get a spoonful of the baby food he liked, as a reward. This continued until he was able to eat the food placed in front of him without the need for the reward.

From another point of view the film also focussed on a very charismatic ABA consultant called Gunnar Frederiksen who works with families all over Europe. He views autism as a condition that can be cured and eliminated and I found his opinions very disturbing and his approach to children with autism quite abusive.

The question of how far we accept autistic difference and how much should we push people with autism to fit into society’s norms raises wider questions that affect us all – how do we achieve compliance in our children, how much should we expect children to conform and how far should parents push children to fit in with their own expectations?

If you would like to find out more about ABA, here is a list of online resources I’ve found. These links will all open in a new browser window or tab.

  1. Treetops School –
  2. A clip from the film I watched:
  3. ABA Tutorship –
  4. Bean ABA Services –
  5. Child Autism UK –
  6. Step by Step School –


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