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Can Applied Behavior Analysis Make Children Robotic?


Updated April 09, 2009

Question: Can Applied Behavior Analysis Make Children Robotic?
Can Applied Behavior Analysis make children robotic? Many parents of autistic children believe that ABA consists entirely of drills and rewards, resulting in "appropriate" but robotic behaviors. Yet there are many stories of children who, through ABA, have gained real emotional connectedness. To better understand how drills could possibly lead to connectedness I asked researchers at the Lovaas Institute "Is it true that ABA can make autistic children more robotic?"
Answer: The following answer was supplied by researchers at the Lovaas Institute, one of the premiere organizations in the world dedicated to researching and providing Applied Behavior Analysis to individuals with autism:


Not if implemented correctly.


The following statements can all be placed in the same category:

  • ABA is likely to make children more robotic
  • Phonics reading is likely to make children read without meaning
  • Standardized state testing is likely to make children lose their creativity
Determining whether each of these statements is or is not true often is based on a person’s personal philosophy about education. On one hand, there is a wealth of research showing that many children learn to read through a phonics approach. On the other hand, phonics is about decoding words while reading is about understanding the meaning of what is written. However, any good phonics program does more than teach children to sound out letters on a page. Reading comprehension activities and linking stories to real life experiences are common practices embedded even in a phonics curriculum.

Likewise, there is a wealth of information showing that children with autism learn new skills through a behavioral approach (i.e., ABA). Those who claim ABA makes children with autism more robotic usually make one of three mistakes.

  • 1) They fail to acknowledge that rigidity and repetitiveness are characteristics of autism rather than a result of any well-researched intervention. In order to be diagnosed with autism, one is required to demonstrate “restrictive repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.” Some articles will comment on how those receiving ABA treatment still demonstrate repetitive behavior, speak with little inflection, etc. We know from the research that some children with autism make greater gains than others through behavioral treatment. Therefore, pointing out that some children who receive behavioral treatment still show rigid behaviors is anticlimactic. Since no treatment claims to help all children with autism, and since children with autism demonstrate restrictive patterns of behavior by definition, one would expect some children in any treatment to still show some behaviors that look “robotic.” However, in ABA, there is also a wealth of research showing that repetitive behaviors can be replaced with more appropriate behaviors that serve the same function for a child or adult with autism. Other treatments often talk about how they are replacing repetitive behaviors with more meaningful or playful interactions and can cite a wealth of testimonials. However, their claims have not undergone the same rigorous testing as those studies utilizing applied behavior analysis.

  • 2) They fail to acknowledge the variety of teaching procedures in behavioral treatment. ABA employs a wide variety of techniques that have been supported in the research. These procedures (discrete trial teaching, incidental teaching, mand training, natural language paradigm, functional communication training, etc.) do more than teach children to answer questions or make statements without thinking. They teach children to communicate by requesting their needs. They allow children to take the lead and learn in the natural environment. They create positive relationships between a teacher and child with a major emphasis on making social interactions the reinforcement for learning.

  • 3) They fail to understand the importance and emphasis on systematic generalization utilized in ABA. An underlying philosophy of ABA is that children with autism have failed to understand what well-meaning adults have attempted to communicate in the natural environment. As a consequence, these children have encountered continuous failure in learning situations. Therefore, every effort is made to construct a teaching situation so as to maximize a child’s success. When necessary, this is accomplished by simplifying requests or contriving situations. Opponents of ABA will point to some of these procedures (e.g., always asking a question the same way, using short instructions, rewarding with food) and say they lead to robotic responses, devoid of any true human interaction. What they fail to realize is that these initial responses are just one part of an intervention focused on teaching new skills and transferring those skills into a variety of new situations, until a child learns how to learn in the natural environment. From the moment ABA therapy starts, emphasis is placed on reaching a stage in which social interactions are the main form of reinforcement/link], children are reinforced through natural consequences in everyday life, and learning occurs with less structured teaching. For some children, these changes come quickly. For others, they require slow but steady growth. ABA has been effective in furthering this growth.
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