Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a popular therapy for children and young adults on the autism spectrum. Despite the scientific data supporting the effectiveness of ABA, this therapy has been scrutinized by the autistic community for its widespread unethical administration. The ABA debate can be confusing to parents who are trying to find the best resources and supports for their autistic children. For parents skeptical of ABA therapy, the natural environment training (or teaching) (NET) branch may offer a compromise.
What’s Wrong with ABA?
Not every center that offers ABA therapy will look the same. But many autistic advocates as well as neurotypical parents who condemn ABA therapy for autism will do so because of one or more of the following reasons:
- It requires intensive training of 32-40 hours a week, subjecting clients to long hours of behavior correction.
- Some parents are encouraged to enroll their children in these programs as early as age 2, denying them the opportunity to just be kids.
- It makes individuals feel bad about being autistic.
- It can be incredibly stressful for autistic people, especially those who are nonverbal and have limited opportunities to have their desires understood by therapists.
- It focuses more on trying to make autistic people look less autistic rather than teach them environmental supports.
- ABA has a history of abuse.
It isn’t the philosophy of behavior correction that many take issue with, but rather, the uncertainty of how it will be implemented.
In other words, a plan for behavior modification isn’t anything out of the ordinary; it is the emphasis on removing the “autism look” and the intensity with which it is administered that begins to raise ethical questions. The articles below examine the ethical controversy of ABA in detail, and I encourage all parents who are considering this therapy to read them. Autistics are speaking out against some of the unethical practices surrounding ABA centers, and parents have a responsibility to do their research before signing their children off to 40 hours a week of therapy.
What is Natural Environment Training?
But another form of ABA, natural environment training (NET), resolves some of the ethical issues surrounding ABA and offers families a number of benefits.
Natural environment training applies the principles of ABA to a more natural setting. NET therapy does not take place in a clinic, instead, the services can be held in the child’s home or in a public space (such as a library, church, park, or grocery store). The goal of natural environment training is to help individuals learn skills in the setting where they will use them to ensure the skill has been mastered for practical applications. The NET therapist uses the child’s interests as a guide for instruction and naturally incorporates lessons into the child’s regular activities.
Advantages of Natural Environment Training
Some parents may prefer natural environment training to ABA administered in a clinical setting for the following reasons:
- It is not as structured and exhaustive. Natural environment training can take place for one or two hours each day or week.
- Children learn skills in the environment where you want them to occur so you can ensure skill transfer is more successful and that your child isn’t merely “putting on a show” in the clinic to receive a non-related reward.
- NET therapy engagement is based on a child’s natural interests and uses natural reinforcement based on whatever the child is participating in at that time. There are less contrived situations (although some will still occur), which is more in line with how parents would correct any child’s behavior.
- Because the therapist lets your child be the guide, your child will be more interested and engaged in learning and exhibit fewer negative behaviors or general resistance to a new person’s presence.
- You can monitor how the therapist interacts with your child.
- You can play a more interactive role in your child’s therapy and guide the therapists to develop activities you believe are healthy and safe for your child and that address only the behaviors you’ve determined are necessary.
- You can learn to implement specific behavior plans on your own and reduce therapy sessions over time.
Suggestions for Parents Implementing a Natural Environment Training Program
If you have the opportunity to try a natural environment training program in your home or community, consider the following suggestions to establish a program you are comfortable with and ensures success for your child:
- Make sure you (and your child, if possible) are able to determine what the program goals will be and where the services will take place.
- Try your best to align the goals with skills that will help your child live more independently.
- Ask what your role will be during each session.
- Ask how the therapist will interact with your child and incorporate play to engage him or her.
- Clarify any rules you expect the therapist to follow when interacting with your child.
An important part of any therapy hinges on the attitudes and methods of the person working with your child. The key benefit to natural environment training is that parents can watch over the therapy and lead it themselves at times, rather than submitting their child to a system they may have reservations about.