Never Say Never

I never thought I would be writing this. We are back to ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis). Whoa. Wha? Me? The mom who said a hundred times “ABA just didn’t work for us”?  If you are anti-ABA try to read on. If you are pro-ABA stop pumping your fist already and read on 😉

For those who are new to the method, I attached a definition of ABA that I found on the BACB (behaviorist certification) site below.* As I understand it from my experience, ABA therapy for young kids basically means setting goals, measuring progress, and rewarding for doing work toward the goal. The reward can be anything (e.g., edible, play, iPad, sensory break). Generally, negative behaviors are ignored. I have never had much of an issue with the overall concept of ABA, but the devil is in the details of the ABA plan and the talent and experience of the ABA therapists. Being a top-notch ABA therapist to young children who need to work on verbal, academic, play, social, and fine/gross motor skills is a tall order. There can be hundred of goals to work on and they are all detailed in developmental maps ( ,, but it is hard to determine how to prioritize goals, when a child is ready for goals, when a child has truly mastered a concept (without holes in logic and without forgetting what they have mastered later), and how to teach something to a child who may have a very different perspective of the world than his/her teacher. Also, a good ABA therapist will be skilled in relationship therapies like Floortime ( and RDI (, and will use a child’s interests to meet goals. It is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination, which is probably why there are people, like me, who have had bad experiences.

ABA did not work out for us when Beth had intensive ABA therapy from 3 to 4 years old. I saw basically no progress with an increase in negative behaviors (aggression, sleeping issues, increased stress). The therapists were able to get Beth to be in a typical preschool classroom (With an ABA-trained aid who fed her squirts of glycerin on her hand, which she licked off as a reward for just being there. Glycerin? Long story there.). In the end it was clear Beth only cared about the reward and was not really tuning into the classroom. Occasionally when music was involved she seemed to have fun. So, we took a very long break from ABA and did Floortime and standard teaching methods at home. I wanted to see if Beth could do things without the edible rewards and if her language could progress with more natural methods like Floortime. Soon we added a speech therapist, because it was clear I could not do it alone and not with just Floortime. Over a year’s time with the Floortime approach, speech therapy, and standard teaching methods, Beth was really initiating with her body (by getting into everything around the house) and verbally (rapid requesting for things she wanted). But slowly, ABA sneaked back into the picture. And when I tried it this time, it worked better than before and I finally understood why people support ABA. When it comes to autism and therapies, never say never is my motto now.

Rewards for Work

To say that Beth and I struggled trying to do schoolwork in our homeschool is an understatement. It was tough to get her to work for a couple of minutes without rewards. Often she would get very upset before we could complete the task. With no other option, and despite my loathing of edible rewards, ABA made a comeback with me introducing rewards for schoolwork. I worked very hard to find a range of rewards, and over time we have a nice set of both edible and non-edible rewards (examples include peppermints, mint floss, blowing bubbles, iPad time, batting a balloon around, and a break in her room where she usually jumps on the bed). Why the need for such high reinforcement for just 5-10 min of school or language work? In short, it is incredibly difficult for her to focus on the task (due to competing sensory interests), coordinate her body and language, and sit still. I always thought if we got the work level right or made the task extremely fun it would not take an additional reward, but I tried everything and I still had to use the “additional” rewards.

The additional rewards worked, but Beth reached the point of rapid requesting for items and we had a new problem. She would bug me constantly for the reward because she finally had the words. My friend used a token board with her son and it worked wonders, so I decided to make one to space out her rewards and teach her to wait. I believe it works great for Beth because it gives her a sense of time and how long she needs to wait in a visual representation.

Token Board (front). I tell Beth  moves 1 penny into a small box after doing some work and after 4 pennies are earned (moved into the small boxes) she gets the reward in the large  box.

Token Board (front). Beth moves 1 penny into a small box after doing some work and after 4 pennies are earned (i.e. moved into the small boxes) she gets the reward in the large box. Velcro is used for attachment of rewards and coins (Side note: I rotate pennies, nickles, quarters, and dimes so that Beth is learning the coin names too).

Token Board (back). Reward choices are on the back of the board and after Beth chooses her reward, I move it to big box in the front of the board.

Token Board (back). Reward choices are on the back of the board and after Beth chooses her reward, I move it to big box on the front of the board.

I try to focus on the positive and be happy we are able to use rewards effectively now. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had a variety of rewards and a token board been used in Beth’s previous ABA program. She was so hyper-focused on the glycerin reward and her verbal requesting was so sparse it seems like an obvious missed opportunity. But maybe Beth just needed time to mature before she accepted other rewards and a token board. We’ll never know.

Flashcards & Developmental Maps

I can’t remember why, but about 4-5 months ago, Beth and I pulled out some simple I Spy books that she had when she was 2 ( I remember she used to point at some items before autism really became evident at just before age 3, but she really couldn’t attend to the book or point to them at all when we tried it again recently. To make a long story short, after a visit to an ophthalmologist and a diagnosis of Oculomotor Apraxia (not the most severe kind, thank God), I became aware of how truly difficult visual scanning and discrimination is for Beth. The ophthalmologist told me she most likely will grow out of it, and to make things as easier on her as possible. He suggested a distraction free work space, picture books that were not too busy, and a book holder for reading (  I also have Beth use a slant board for writing and doing activities, because scanning a flat surface is more challenging than on the slant board.

In addition to the visual issues,  I realized Beth had a terrible time initiating pointing. For awhile I had to nudge her elbow and rest her hand on the table in front of the I Spy book, and occasionally had to sweep my hand across the book to get her attention and help her to point. Over time she is doing much better with pointing to things in books. I remember we had great difficulty in the previous ABA program with pointing to flashcards. She used to pick up the cards or brush her hand across them instead of pointing. I suspected then that she was actually getting some of them wrong when she knew the answers. Now that we worked through her motor issues with pointing I can say that was definitely the case. No wonder she was frustrated.

The experience with the I Spy books got me thinking that maybe the ABA flashcards I thought she hated were not such a bad idea after all. I had asked the ABA therapists why flashcards were necessary for her sessions but I did not get a good answer. Now I know if you get the right flashcards, they can be very useful, especially for kids with visual scanning and discrimination problems (the flashcards should not be so big that it requires a lot of scanning, not so small that it is hard to discriminate the picture, and a white background is best….unfortunately we did not have the right flashcards in the previous ABA program). Put simply, flashcards are visually easier to scan to find the answer to a question. Also, flashcards give a visual grid of choices when you are working on language goals, which if the scanning issues have been addressed, reduces frustration.

So, I stopped thinking of flashcards as the enemy and went back to our old developmental map from her previous ABA Program, the VB-Mapp ( With the help of Beth’s speech therapist and the VB-Mapp to set goals, we did a lot of receptive work (pointing to answers) and expressive language work with flashcards and Beth has gained a lot of skills.

I definitely have a lot of issues with the VB-Mapp and I would suggest ignoring the first list entirely and going with the second more detailed list. For some reason some of the secondary tasks on the second list within the book don’t quite align with the main goals they are associated with, and yet the secondary goals are very important for children like Beth who need every step taught. My biggest beef with the VB-Mapp is a part that states that children should respond in a certain amount of time (it is called fluency). Or else, what?  The therapists gave her the answers, that is what (errorless learning is what the therapists called it). I think the theory goes that we should give answers to reduce frustration, and some therapists say that the children are just in a habit of not answering and they need to answer faster. This frustrated Beth to no end. I know she had something in her head that wanted to come out, but she just couldn’t get it out when she was 3. I argued with the therapists to give her more time (because she often did answer if given enough time) and we struck some sort of compromise. But her “amount of time to answer” and her ability to answer at all was very inconsistent back then. Now she can answer fast, and all I can say is that over time, her processing of language and ability to speak an answer has gotten faster without ABA.

When we stopped ABA the first time, we gave Beth a lot of choices, asked her what she wanted and what she saw, and worked on receptive directions tirelessly. We worked with a great speech therapist who is very good at Floortime. One day we noticed Beth’s receptive language was way up, later we noticed she was singing, then later more spoken words started coming out. Then we tried ABA again and it seems to work. So, maybe she just wasn’t ready to speak when we did ABA from 3-4 and now she is (?)  Which is the frustrating thing about ABA. You have the map, you have the method, but you have no idea how to prioritize or teach each individual kid. And you definitely have problems deciding when a kid is ready to attack a goal. Like I said. Being an ABA therapist is a tough job.


Definition of Behavioral Analysis (taken from “Briefly, professionals in applied behavior analysis engage in the specific and comprehensive use of principles of learning, including operant and respondent conditioning, in order to address behavioral needs of widely varying individuals in diverse settings. Examples of these applications include: building the skills and achievements of children in school settings; enhancing the development, abilities, and choices of children and adults with different kinds of disabilities; and augmenting the performance and satisfaction of employees in organizations and businesses.”


4 thoughts on “Never Say Never

  1. Deborah says:

    This is very interesting. When we abandoned ABA, we told the agency that provided it that one of our biggest issues with it was a problem with sequencing. Our daughter has done much better outside the program since, and we have realized things that were considered “mastered” really weren’t even begun (such as an understanding of prepositions). But I do agree, behavioral principles can be very effective. I’ve often wondered how effective our ABA program could have been if it had been informed by developmental psychology.
    “Good servant, bad master” is a saying that comes to mind.

    • grahamta says:

      Yep, we think alike. It is good to get out there that it is so complicated, it can actually be addressed in totally different ways depending on the team members involved. I am finding it helpful now, but may never have realized the value without her visual scanning issues.

      • michelle s says:

        Our daughter has significant dyslexia in all areas. ABA was traumatizing. But it was because ABA in our home was a control issue….demand, demand against our daughter’s abilities. Melt downs to aggression. Tammy what u r doing…. Teaching, respecting daughter’s differences, following her lead. Applying ABA as a Beth centered program. Wonderful to hear it’s paying off. Yes, hard to be an ABA therapist. But some just have no common sense. Glad u are so intuitive and can guide Beth effectively through an ABA program.

      • grahamta says:

        Well we get each other, don’t we!? Yep, if the motor planning issue is not front and center in every interaction, every goal, then there will be tons of frustration. Every little thing is impacted by it. If I would have fully grasped the impact, things would have been much, much different. The problem is ABA therapists do not understand the other fields sometimes and they have the bulk of the hours, and the developmental maps they use crosses all areas, so of course it leads to problems on tough cases where the other fields come into play if communication and coordination is not top notch. Lots of misunderstanding, overlapping goals, contradictory approaches on Beth’s team led to no progress.

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