This past week, after many months of Philip telling me he wanted to go to a regular school, I notified my school district that we want Philip enrolled in public school as soon as he can. We also informed his ABA school that we are making a change.
Quite simply, I can justify this switch by a Michael J. Fox quote I saw on Facebook a few months back.
Philip has had an ABA based education since he was 2 and a half. Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA is “the application of operant and classical conditioning that modifies human behaviors, especially as part of a learning or treatment process. Behavior analysts focus on the observable relationship of behavior to the environment, including antecedents and consequences.” For Philip, this method of learning involved breaking information and skills into bite size morsels that were repeated over and over. A reward, usually an edible, was given for correct responses. Data was collected and a student was said to have mastered a skill after answering correctly 8 out of 10 times, over a span of time. A student could not advance to a harder skill until mastery of a prerequisite skill. We initially picked ABA because it is considered the “gold standard” of autism treatment. Because there are scientific papers backing it, ABA has a favored status among all other therapies. But I do wonder how the researchers chose their subjects. Did they exclude non-speaking kids? How old were they? I suppose I could dig up these articles, but I haven’t the time because we have found something that actually works for Philip: rapid prompting method or RPM.
I think ABA was wonderful for Philip when he was between 2-4. His teachers were caring and enthusiastic. In the beginning Philip showed good progress. Through ABA he said his first words and even “I want.” He learned to identify everything- objects, letters, numbers, colors, shapes, actions. Because he did so well in the first year, we thought he might even “recover.” However, by the time Philip was around 4, we saw a leveling off in Philip’s acquisition of new skills. He just could not use his spoken words for anything other than requesting food or something highly motivating like “swing.” We also saw that he was no longer enjoying his sessions with his favorite home teacher, Amanda. We tried to get her to try floortime to vary it up, but nothing seemed to work. When we moved from Miami to Buffalo, Philip enrolled in a highly reputable ABA school. However, he did not progress much. In fact, his verbal ability seemed to decrease. This year his IEP goals were many of the same in years previous- identifying coins and a set of sight words. How could it be that at home, Philip could add, multiply, reduce fractions, attend to advanced lessons in history and science, read quizzes and answer correctly, and write essays, yet at school he could not master his preschool level programs?
I now believe ABA was good in Philip’s preschool years because in many ways, “normal” preschoolers are taught in a similar way. For the most part, preschoolers are concrete in their thinking and can easily be motivated by outside, tangible rewards. A preschool classroom, minus the excess art on the walls, can look very similar to an ABA classroom for any age with its manipulatives, puzzles, flashcards, and picture schedules. But after preschool, education for the normal child switches gears to literacy, learning concepts, and problem solving. For Philip, he remained stuck in perpetual preschool because he could not demonstrate what he knew in the way his teachers asked of him. His mind was maturing normally and he hungered for new things to learn, but his inability to speak and his lack of body control betrayed his mind, making him appear to be at a developmental level of a toddler even though he was not.
There are fundamental differences between ABA and RPM. The first difference is in what you teach. In ABA, teaching is based on concrete information presented piecemeal, in a rote, repetitive manner. In RPM, teaching is the same as for any child of the same age. Concepts and reasoning are emphasized over drilling. In ABA, using pictures is the preferred way of delivering lessons via flashcards and also for communicating. In RPM, the use of text based language is the preferred way of teaching and communicating. In ABA, an external reinforcer is used to motivate learning. In RPM, the reward is learning itself and intrinsic. In ABA, prompts are used to provide “errorless” teaching. Often a hand-over-hand prompt will be used to lead the person to the correct response which is then gradually faded so the person can do it himself. In RPM, prompts are used to help a person initiate a response, whether it is correct or not. An incorrect response is dealt with by teaching the child again. Prompts in RPM are multisensory. They include handing the person a pencil as a touch prompt, a verbal prompt such as “you got it,” or a visual prompt which may be a shake of the letterboard. Lastly, ABA presumes an autistic individual must be taught in baby-steps. RPM presumes the same person is intelligent, but needs support to help show what he knows.
Philip is ready to leave his special segregated school for a regular integrated school where he can learn like his neurotypical brother and sisters. RPM has finally given Philip a way to demonstrate what he knows by spelling on a letterboard. We are working hard for Philip to learn independent typing too. We want Philip to have the best chance to be part of mainstream society, to contribute, and to feel a sense of worth and happiness. Mostly we want to support Philip’s own desires and strengths. And this is what he says:
“I want to go to a regular school. I want to learn everything there is to learn. I want to achieve typing. (My strengths are) talking on letterboard, understanding math, and independent thinking. I am smart. Each day I will help others. One day I will surprise a lot of people.”