Primer: Applied Behaviour Analysis, the therapy at the heart of Ontario’s autism controversy

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Last week, the Ontario government announced it was revamping autism services in an effort to eliminate a waiting list with 23,000 names on it by giving money directly to parents.

The announcement sparked a series of protests across the province, including one in Ottawa on Friday in front of the office of Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod, minister of Children, Community and Social Services.

One of the central issues for parents of children with autism is access to a long-term therapy called Applied Behaviour Analysis, known as ABA. It can cost more than $60,000 a year, but research has shown that it is the most effective treatment for the main characteristics of autism.

We asked Dr. Kendra Thomson, president-elect of the Ontario Association of Behaviour Analysis, about ABA. Thomson is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Disability Studies at Brock University, and a Doctoral-level Board Certified Behaviour Analyst.

Q: What is ABA?

A: The professional practice of ABA involves the design and delivery of interventions that are based on science and have been evaluated in experiments in order to help people develop new skills, such as learning to speak or dress, and to help reduce behaviour that interferes with quality of life, such as self-injury or aggression. ABA involves very close monitoring through direct data collection and the use of data to make treatment decisions on a daily basis.

ABA methods help people with autism spectrum disorders increase behaviours, such as on-task or social behaviours and teach new life skills, communications skills and social skills. The interventions help maintain behaviours, such as self-control. They also help “generalize” or transfer behaviours from one situation to another — for example, to learn the skills necessary to complete an assignment in the resource room, then transfer those skills to completing an assignment in a classroom.

Q: How are ABA therapists trained?

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