Think you know the answer to our next question?? True or False: ABA can result in “robotic” behavior/language.
Although this is a tricky question for reasons we’ll discuss, the answer is FALSE!
There seems to be a reoccurring myth around ABA making children “robotic” through its teaching mechanisms. Odd, right?! And definitely not something anyone would want for their child! Similar to our last blog, this myth also comes from the misconception that ABA therapy involves a series of repetitive drills that ultimately teaches a very specific, rigid way of responding. The vision usually goes something like this: a learner is required to sit at a table for hours at a time while the therapist practices the same skill repeatedly and gives the learner something they like after responding in a particular way. It is completely understandable and realistic to think that ABA therapy can result in rigid behavior if this is what is actually happening, but we answered FALSE to the original question because this is NOT true ABA therapy. In other words, ABA therapy done the right way will not result in robotic behavior.
On the contrary, well-designed ABA interventions are individualized for each learner. Moreover, while some amount of “drills” may be needed to begin the teaching process, generalization should be taught almost immediately for the exact purpose of avoiding rigid behavior. A highly structured teaching environment may also be needed initially, but the goal of any quality ABA program should be to fade teaching to the natural learning environment. All of this to say, don’t let the beginning phases of ABA fool you – it is just a starting point!
Now, let’s break down and dig even deeper into how this often misperceived vision of ABA fits into the bigger, better picture of what ABA really is! Children who are diagnosed with developmental disabilities often demonstrate difficulty learning, and generalization may not occur as automatically as it does with typically developing children. For instance, teaching the color yellow when playing with blocks may not result in “free” learning that other yellow things are yellow, too. Due to this difficulty, explicit teaching of what would be a natural developing milestone must be explicitly taught across many different skill areas (communication skills, gross motor skills, etc.). Thus, the idea of skills being explicitly taught can be easily misinterpreted as those skills being “drilled” over and over again. Furthermore, many people also believe that rigid behaviors emerge because ABA usually begins with simplifying a task or expectation when, in fact, these steps are just the beginning of a series of new skills to be learned and transferred into various situations and places.
So how do we develop these more advanced skills? The next critical point to understand is that a good ABA program should always be geared towards teaching something we call “generalized responding.” Let’s talk a minute about what this means. This means that when teaching Johnny to greet people, he learns to use different phrases, with different people, in different places, and in different situations. That doesn’t sound very robotic, now does it?? To do this, multiple evidence-based teaching strategies must be effectively combined until they ultimately mimic the way a typically developing child learns. In other words, the end goal is to create a teaching environment that is similar to that of the learner’s peers. This will inherently decrease the probability of fostering robotic behavior during therapy. Sound like a lot of work? It is! This takes a great deal of training, planning, and adjusting across therapy sessions. And as with any profession, some of us are going to be better at this than others.
Let’s look at a couple of examples in more detail. Time and time again, I have worked with children who are rigid in their communication with others. They may go throughout their day saying, “I want juice,” “I want cookie,” or, “I want ball.” While this rigidity may seem like a negative side effect of ABA, it is actually a teaching error. The learner was probably never taught to communicate in any other way except to say, “I want _____.” Yes, it is wonderful that they can request what they want! However, our goal as ABA therapists is to create ongoing generalization of these once explicitly taught skills so that the learner is also occasionally asking in other ways like, “Can I have a cookie?” or, “Will you find my juice?”
Let’s look at one more example. As you have probably figured out by now, my favorite way to teach is through the natural environment – where the learner typically plays, socializes, eats, sleeps, and carries out the rest of their daily routine. So if I want to teach a learner what an apple is, I might begin by explicitly teaching the learner what a tangible apple is (that I purposely brought to my session that day). From there, I might then teach the learner to identify a picture of an apple, an apple in a book, an apple in the kitchen at school, an apple on TV, etc. I would also begin working with the family on incorporating practice with this concept into the learner’s daily routine. If Mom is going to the grocery store, then it is the perfect time to teach how many types of apples there are and how to ask for an apple! By working with the learner in these natural environments, we significantly decrease the chances of them falling into highly rigid patterns of responding.
So in short, ABA does NOT create robotic language or behaviors IF it is implemented correctly. Just as with catching our kids being good, we can all probably be better at helping our kids generalize the things they are learning at school or in therapy settings. Now, let’s all get to it!
De Marchena, A. B., Eigsti, I. .M., & Yerys, B. E. (2015), Generalization weaknesses in verbally fluent children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(10), 3370-3376.
Hsieh, H. H., Wilder, D. A., & Abellon, O. E. (2011), The effects of training on caregiver implementation of incidental teaching. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(1), 199-203.
Stokes, T. F., & Baer, D. M. (1977), An implicit technology of generalization. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10(2), 349–367.