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A Child's Voice

The history of applied behavior analysis (ABA) is not a history to be proud of, yet, like so many parts of the human experience, the ugly truths of history should not be repeated. Yet, we wish to have guidance from history and it may be that our history mostly teaches what not to do. For example, in the 1970's, according Jon S. Bailey and Mary R. Burch (2016)in their book entitled, "Ethics for Behavior Analysts, 3rd Edition," a recount of the Sunland Training institute tragedy. From this history of abuse, neglect, and unfathomable of the treatment of human beings, we must learn what not to do. The field did learn, and became regulated.

In Dr. M. L. Barbera's (2007) book, "The Verbal Behavior Approach," she helps to shed light on advancements in the field of ABA, namely the verbal approach, that focuses on child-led treatment. This method was far less robotic being grounded in natural environment teaching (NET) rather than an exclusively discrete trial training (DTT) method. The difference between DTT and NET is an important one, in that, DTT is a clean clinical style of teaching, like flashcards. Each trial or teaching moment has a clear beginning, middle, and end. With NET teaching the therapist follows the lead of the child staying vigilant to opportunities in the natural play environment when a trail can be inserted into the play. It's a little more messy.

Now, ABA, for some has been revolutionized by some behavior analysts, the most outspoken of which is Dr. Mark Hanley. Dr. Hanley was instrumental in changing how people with a diagnosis of autism or other developmental disability are treated right from the start. His focus is on first understanding behavior. While all behavior analysts are taught to first seek understanding of behavior, Dr. Hanley takes it further. He focuses on, in my opinion, giving a child their voice and letting the child know their voice has power. This is revolutionizing the way ABA is practiced and protects the child's voice. The focus is not on changing problem behavior but rather on replacing the problem behavior with effective communication that is listened to, respected, and that child's voice is honored.

If this brings tears to your eyes, you are not alone. My first experience with Dr. Hanley's method was profound. I watched a child go through communication training for a few days. The child started to use the communication device and then it was taken away due to lack of experience by the clinicians. The day after the device was taken the child made about 5 attempts per hour to communicate that were recorded as aggression instead of attempts to communicate. I tell you this story to say that in the field of ABA new research brings new understanding and methods.

If you are looking for ABA services and you want to ensure your child receives the very best that ABA currently has to offer, ask , "does your company use the IISCA?" The IISCA is an interview informed synthesized contingency analysis. Dr. Hanley was instrumental in creating and implementing the IISCA and getting the information out the ABA field. He continues to do so as fast as he can. You can also ask if the company you are interviewing uses the "my way" method. This is also Dr. Hanley's work and the "my way" method is a way to honor the voice of someone who is currently using problem behavior as a means of communication. If the child uses or words or does not use words, the "my way" method can be used. This is the method for allowing your child's voice to be heard and have power!


Barbera, M. L., & Rasmussen, T. (2007). The verbal behavior approach: How to teach children with autism and related disorders. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Bailey, J., & Burch, M. (2016). Ethics for Behavior Analysts, 3rd Edition. Florence: Taylor and Francis.

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