Trauma Informed ABA

 Recommended Reading: What is the ABA Reform Movement (ABA Haters Pt. II)?


 


You may be a caregiver, professional, teacher, or someone simply interested in ABA as you read this.

 

Regardless of how connected you are to the ABA community, you might not be aware of ABA Reform, what it is, why it is needed, and changes that are being made, right now, in both large and small ways.

 

In case you are unaware, let me walk you through the ongoing conversation a bit. It will help shed some light on why "Trauma Informed ABA" is a thing, and why it’s a much-needed thing:

 

Both within and outside of the professional ABA community, there are people who want to see ABA adapt, listen more to the very populations we serve, reflect on our past (and sometimes current) practices, grow, learn, and in general: Evolve. The way to bring about this change does differ, with some people wanting ABA therapy to end/be abolished, some people wanting to see wide, sweeping change at the top levels of the field, and other people believing that practitioners doing their job differently everyday, in small and impactful ways is how we accomplish change. Different people have different perspectives, so it makes perfect sense to me that although many people are talking about changing and improving ABA therapy, there is little consensus on just how to do that.

 

So how does this connect to trauma informed ABA?

 

Trauma Informed ABA can be operationally defined as recognizing that someone's history, lived experience through their own eyes, and mistreatment or microaggressions has a direct impact on how they behave. It is viewing someone through the context of who they are in the world, and how they self-identify OR are identified or labeled by others (Source). For example, a history of abuse, crisis event, significant illness or injury, neglect, mistreatment, prejudice, misjudgment, or social rejection, are all traumatic events that should influence how any intervention or therapy is applied and carried out.

 

In a nutshell, trauma informed ABA is an intentional decision to provide services and care in a highly personalized, unique, person-respecting manner, and to recognize that we are all products of our environment. For good, or for bad.

 

If you are an ABA professional, you may be thinking "Well....obviously. I already do this in my practice". I'd invite you to dig a little deeper and consider some of the strategies and techniques you implement through the lens of your client (put yourself in their shoes).

For example, I've worked with many young children who have been kicked out/asked to leave multiple daycares or preschool settings before I ever met them. How did those experiences affect them? What must it have felt like to be in a setting where you are excluded, not wanted, misjudged, and your needs weren't met? What kind of interventions and consequences to problem behavior were attempted before the facility realized they could not meet the child's needs? How did those failed attempts at consequences make that child feel? But here is the problem: for most of the clients I serve, I cannot just ask them these questions. Even if they communicate by speaking, they don't always have the vocabulary, cognitive understanding, or desire/motivation to answer these kind of questions. And of course, asking someone's caregiver or parent to speak on the client’s traumatic experience is not quite the same as asking the person who lived through it. Is it starting to sink in now??

 

As ABA professionals, we must approach each client uniquely and specifically, meaning we make little assumption from one client to the next. We modify and tailor intervention to what the client needs and prefers, not what we think is best or should happen. We collaborate with caregivers, parents, and other professionals working with that client, and we design intervention in a way that respects client dignity, autonomy, choice, and again: preferences. If my client hates washing dishes, is it unethical to utilize reinforcement to teach them this skill because their parents want them to wash dishes? If my client has a meltdown in a public space, should I immediately take them out to respect their dignity in that moment or is that "reinforcing escape behaviors"? If my client is non-compliant, is physical prompting necessary? How do I respond during a session when my client revokes their assent? What about a client who is older or able to communicate, and tells me they don’t want to receive ABA therapy. How should I respond? How do I select treatment goals for a client who has no means to communicate? How do I make sure I am embedding client choice? Is it ethical to create a Behavior Plan for stereotypy? What about teaching play skills? Is this ethical or not?

 

These are not easy questions to answer, which is the whole point.

For client A who has a very specific background, I may answer these questions one way. But then with client B who has a history of trauma, school refusal/aversion to authority figures, or past experiences with a low-quality ABA provider, my answers could be completely different. And that is how this should work, with the intervention package looking quite different from one person to the next. That’s a GOOD thing.

 If the care being provided is individualized, focused on what is best for that individual (and not just their caregivers/parents), and trauma informed, then the intervention will ultimately be far more helpful, impactful, and SAFER/less harmful to the individual receiving therapy services.

 

There's tons of valuable information, research, and resources about trauma informed ABA (here is a massive list of resources). I urge any ABA professional reading this to dig into this methodology and embed it into the way you do your job. Listen to Autistics who speak about their life experiences, meltdowns, sensory issues, and their daily challenges. I have worked with many Autistic RBTs or BCBAs, and learned so much from them talking about their own experiences as a child, in school, in therapy, as an adult, etc.

 In order to gain new perspective, you have to be willing to be wrong. Be willing to say "Wow, I didn't know that", “I don’t know/I need to research that further”, or "I never thought it about that way". This how we learn.

 

There is a movement happening all around us, and while it may have many differing voices, that does not negate the need for change. We CAN do better at how we help our clients, how we listen to our clients (especially those who do not communicate by speaking), and how we serve the disabled community.


*Check out these great resources to learn more:


Trauma Informed Behaviorism 

Trauma Informed Care for Behavior Analysts 

'What is Trauma Informed ABA?'

A Perspective on Today's ABA (Dr Hanley)

ABA Provider Listening Pledge (video)

The Compatibility of ABA & Trauma Informed Practice

Examining Challenging Behaviors from a Trauma Lens

Parent perspective on the importance of listening to Autistic voices




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