Posts Tagged ‘aba’

Personhood and the Special Needs Child

Dear Reader,

I recently stumbled upon a chain of posts on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for children with autism. I do not have a child with autism (though I know a good handful) and I don’t really have any expertise at all in this area so I can’t really evaluate this therapy and don’t particularly want to wade into all the controversy around it. But I am struck by how Charlotte Mason’s principles do (or don’t) play out.  Whether it is true or not (I can’t judge), the article I read paints an extreme picture, but I think it points to some very real underlying issues, not just in dealing with special needs kids but in education today. [Disclaimer: I know some object to the term “special needs.” I don’t know what else to use — challenged? handicapped? — so if I am offending, I am sorry in advance.]

Charlotte Mason’s first principle is “Children are born persons.” I have written recently on what that means and won’t rehash it now, but I think we can see that a respect  personhood is not what is described here:

“To ABA, an autistic person is nothing more than the unruly embodiment of behaviors to be reinforced, shaped, or extinguished, a list of  ‘excesses’ and ‘deficits’ to be tallied and managed. A defiant child to be made compliant. Basically, I was a glorified dog trainer.” (Birdmadgrrl, “I Abused Children for a Living,” from Mad as Bird Blog, April 3, 2017)

If you are looking for a contrary understanding of what it means to have an atypical child, A Delectable Education, a Charlotte Mason method podcast, has a wonderful program on Special Needs which makes clear above all that the special needs child is a person just as any other and that for every deficit they may have, there is likely some other area in which they are advantaged or can excel. But even if a child is severely challenged, they are still a whole person and can benefit from what Miss Mason calls the feast — a broad curriculum that feeds the whole person.

ABA (according to its critics), in contrast, presents an ideal to which the child must conform and concentrates very intensely (up to 40 hours per week of therapy) on getting the child to meet those goals:

“The ultimate objective of ABA is to make the child “indistinguishable from peers.” This in itself is abuse because you are teaching the child that the only way that they will be tolerated is if they pretend to be like everyone else. They must sacrifice 40 hours a week instead of playing because there is something “wrong” with them which they have to spend all day everyday trying to fix.” (Ibid.)

Charlotte warns us against using the child’s natural desires — his need for acceptance, his desire for praise — against him. These are tools that are easily employed and produce a result but they are manipulative and again do not respect the child as person. Adults are apt to turn to these tools because they are easy to use and, in the short-term, they achieve a goal.  Our ABA critic again tells us:

“I don’t doubt that Timmy is having fun in the moment. The kids I worked with often seemed to be having fun. But the thing is, a lot of this abuse takes place on a subconscious level. The child might not even realize he’s being abused because he’s distracted by candy, or balloons. But there is a power imbalance. And little Timmy’s brain is picking up on all of this and filing it away.” (Ibid.)

ABA is the only scientifically backed treatment for autism and thus is the one that insurance is likely to pay for. It achieves its goals, though we may question whether those are the right goals. If the child also seems to be enjoying it, that seems like a win-win, right?

As I said at the start, ABA and autism are not my area of expertise by any means. I understand that there are probably deeper issues here and that I have really only looked at one side of the argument. But I think the argument itself raises some questions which all of us parents, whether our children are “normal” or not, should be asking ourselves.

The biggest question, and the one out of which all the others flow, is: Am I valuing the child as a person? Do I see and appreciate the good alongside the challenges? As that ADE podcast I referenced suggests, do I see that there can be value even in the challenges? Or am I trying to fit a person into a mold that maybe not all of us need to fit? I’m not trying to say that we need to just let every child be as they are. Charlotte Mason did advocate for habit-training, a practice which acknowledges that we all need some  guidance in how we develop. And certainly, it helps to be able to get along in society. If there are behaviors that others will view as inappropriate, we may need to address them. But there is at the least a balance here. Because the norm in our society is institutional schooling and because dealing with large groups of students doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility, we tend to try to fit children into an ideal mold, whether it’s the very active child who is expected to sit still all day or the child who maybe needs to wait to learn to read bit is pushed to do so in kindergarten or first grade.

If we do acknowledge the personhood of the child, we also need to look at what tools we are using in education. Rewards in the form of prizes and grades and praise are easy solutions. Children seem to like them and many are motivated by them so we get what seems to be a good result. But Charlotte would say that we are taking a natural desire and feeding it out of proportion and thereby allowing it to take over. The child who gets rewards for learning stops learning for any other reason. We get immediate results but warp the personality in the long-term. The immediate effect and even the child’s own pleasure in the moment cannot be our guide if we are on the right track.

Which leads us to the big question: What is our goal and what should it be? If we begin with the personhood of the child, then our goals must also fit this vision. A goal that presents a model and fits the individual to it does not respect one’s personhood. If we aim for academic or career success but warp the personality along the way we are also not truly valuing that individual. We need to care more about who each child is, not what they become or how much they know or whether they get into college or whether they can hold a job or even whether they can function in society.

I will say once more that I cannot judge ABA or any other particular therapy. But I think the problems that its critics see are not isolated to this one approach; they are problems that arise from a much broader misconception in our society that views the child as something to be molded rather than a person to be guided.

Nebby

 

 

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