Martin went to church today and had fairly good behavior. He has not been to church in weeks because he knocked someone over and regularly yelled and hit. Although school was a nightmare for him back in April and May, he now says he’s looking forward to its start tomorrow. Although he sometimes still struggles with following the social rules of the world, he has been going to places like the pool and the YMCA without much incident. It feels like a miracle.
To be more scientific, that miracle has been realized through ABA therapy. You can find a good synopsis of this once-controversial, and now generally accepted therapy, as part of this article. Most basically, ABA involves breaking down daily tasks and behavioral expectations into tiny chunks. When children perform one of these small acts correctly, they receive rewards. When Martin had ABA therapy as a 4-year-old, he was rewarded for answering yes-or-no questions and making two-word sentences. He was then motivated to work for the rewards offered for three words and four and so on. With ABA, Martin learned to talk.
Martin’s current ABA therapy is focused on behavior. It establishes a set of expected (or good) behaviors as well as unexpected (or bad) behaviors. As part of the therapy, we check in with Martin every 15 minutes of the day. He gets checkmarks for every 15 minutes of expected behavior. When a certain number of checkmarks add up, Martin gets a reward. On the flip side, we ignore bad behavior. Even if Martin screams at us or hits or kicks, we pay no attention to it. The goal is that Martin learns that bad behavior does not get him what he wants. Good behavior does.
Martin is currently at the lego store because he made it through church this morning. I know that some of you might think, “Wow, buying kids legos to fulfill basic family obligations? No way.” If I didn’t have a kid with autism, I’d feel the same way. If a kid can apprehend the rules parents can and should create the expectation that these rules be followed. But what if your kid can’t apprehend the rules? What if no amount of explanation gets through? What if the only way to learn it is to do it BEFORE understanding it?
Since Martin got through church today and received a reward for it, it will most likely be easier for him to go next week. And we won’t need as big a reward as incentive. Perhaps some ice cream after lunch. The hope is that rewards will no longer be necessary within a few weeks. And then we’ll have a kid who understands that he’s capable of going to (and maybe even enjoying) church.
Right now, we’re still breaking down our days into 15-minuteblocks. But soon it will be 30 minutes. And then hours. If I really let myself dream, I think about a time in the near future when there are no charts and checks necessary. And Martin is happy. And I’m happy. I will buy a lot of legos now in order to have the chance of such a day in the future.