ABA Therapy: Applied Behavioral Analysis (recommended treatment for children with autism)
When I first started this particular blog series, I had grand dreams of sharing all sorts of valuable lessons about ABA therapy. I imagined all of the amazing ideas I would learn about how to work effectively with my three three year-old son diagnosed with ASD and how blogging about it would help, not only me, but other parents out there.
It hasn’t worked out so well.
I haven’t been blogging much valuable insight about ABA therapy because the therapists we’ve worked with haven’t given us much. ABA Lesson #2 goes into more detail about the issues we’ve had; it’s been disheartening and frustrating, to say the least.
Though I should say former company we’ve been working with because we cut ties as of yesterday. I couldn’t feel more relieved. It all came to a head after Friday’s session.
After our last team meeting, I thought we had hashed-out all of our concerns and had a game plan. One of our biggest concerns was the back-to-back therapy sessions on Thursdays and Fridays, meaning we would have therapists in our house for four hours and Big C wouldn’t get a nap. I was very explicit about this being a concern, and I was reassured that the second session would take on the form of a “play session” where Big C and the therapist would socialize through a series of board games. I was still a little worried, but I thought we’d give it a try.
That is not what happened. At all.
Here’s a prime example of why some students grow to loathe school. They get stuck with a shitty teacher who lacks intuition or empathy.
The second therapist shows up at the house for the second session and seems a little surprised by the reminder of a “play session.” I also remind her of my concerns about overtaxing Big C, and that he seems a little extra tired today. Unprepared, she hasn’t come with any games, so I have to give her a crash course on how to play Hungry, Hungry Hippos, a favorite game of his we have.
The session take place in our home office, as usual. It has a glass door, so I can “sneak a peek” if I want, but we keep the door closed to keep my 15-month old out (he’s always interested in what big brother is doing!). The session begins about 4:25 pm with a promise that “we’re going to play and have fun today, buddy!”
She starts running drills. He moves through them fairly quickly, but it is quite evident he is a little wound up, which is actually a sign that he is tired. It’s the mania before the crash. The therapist attempts a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos, but she screws up repeatedly (seriously, it’s not hard) which flusters Big C immensely. After only one game (which takes, literally, a minute) she puts it away and goes back to “table time” asking him to do a series of tasks for rewards. Today’s rewards are cheese, Craisins, and iPad time.
She never comes back to any games. So much for a “fun” session.
By 4:50 pm, twenty-five minutes in, I can hear the meltdown begin. I am frustrated because he should have had a break already. That was something repeatedly discussed, but I don’t go into the room because I recognize he needs to work through the tantrum before seeing me.
It isn’t until hours later, when I watch the video of the session (something I insisted on a week prior) that I learn what I describe next. Had I known sooner what was actually going on in there, I would have intervened sooner.
Basically, I feel like I am watching my son suffer a sort of mental torture. I’m not exaggerating. She makes promises and doesn’t keep them. She makes demands: “Touch the table, go ‘Ba!”, match the red card, find the circle, touch your nose, what’s this boy doing on this card, blah, blah, blah,” running drill after drill, then not making good on the promise for a break.
Big C tells her early on, “I’m tired.” I am so proud. He is using his words instead of simply having a meltdown.
She doesn’t care.
“Do this (another random, out-of-context task), then you can have a break.”
Big C tells her, “My butt hurts.” He wiggles around and tries to stand, but she restrains his seat so he can’t.
“You just have to work through it.”
Are you kidding me?
He keeps trying to put his head down.
“Put your head up.”
He closes his eyes.
“Open your eyes.”
He starts flailing his arms, getting more and more agitated with every passing second.
“Hands down.” She grabs his arms and places them on the table.
He starts to get angry. “Don’t touch me!” Good for you, buddy. Tell her what you want.
She ignores him. She continues to poke and prod him until he is literally sobbing.
“What do you want to work for? Do you want to work for cheese? Do you want to work for water?”
Work for water?!?
“I want my Mommy!” He has already told her this repeatedly, but it falls on deaf ears. He tries to get up, but she won’t let him.
“You have to work for it. Do this.” She taps her nose.
“Do this.” She taps her nose again. After a few more times, he does it. He wants her to stop and is smart enough to know it is the only way to make it stop.
But it doesn’t work. Instead, she says, “Do it nicely.”
My three year-old son is completely exasperated at this point. He has no idea when the end is in sight. I sure as shit don’t, and frankly, I don’t think the therapist knows either. She seems to have completely lost herself. It’s like she’s trying to break him.
And she does. At this point, he is going through all of these crazy motions, tapping the table, touching his nose, putting his hands down, matching colors, describing actions depicted on cards, all with snot and tears dripping down his face.
Finally, after 45 minutes, he is allowed a break. He runs out of the room and collapses in my arms, sobbing.
And the therapist has the gall to tell me she has no idea what set him off. Even though he told her he was tired, he told her his butt hurt, he told her he wanted to see him Mommy. Even though he completed every task she asked, even though she kept lying to him, promising him a break that would seemingly never come. And she couldn’t tell me what “set him off.”
Oh, and she also warns me he may have a scratch on his arm from when she was restraining him. Yes, you read right. And, sure enough, he has a small, bleeding scratch. Thankfully a Jake and the Neverland Pirates band-aid is a cure-all.
I tell her the session is over and to please leave.
Our goals have been very explicit with our so-called ABA “team.” Teach him how to manage his aggression, and teach him how to interact positively with his peers. How did this session help to reach those goals? No one can seem to tell me how.
I am so sorry, Big C. I am so, so, so sorry.
So I guess I have learned some valuable lessons so far. Don’t just assume that if a person is a BCBA (Board-Certified Behavior Analyst) that he or she is necessarily quality material. Sadly, you sometimes have to learn that truth the hard way.
I would like to end by saying this post isn’t meant to put down ABA therapy. I certainly hope my experience was merely a bad one and not representative of what ABA therapy should look like. I’m quite sure there are amazing therapists out there (and I plan to pursue them), but I cannot deny the bitter taste this bad apple has left us with.