The Son-Rise Program and Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of autism treatment methodologies. The major differences between the philosophies, principles, and techniques of these two treatment modalities can be broken down into the following seven categories:
Understanding of Autism
ABA treats Autism as a behavioral disorder, with behaviors to be either extinguished or promoted. This means that repetitive, exclusive, so-called “stimming” behaviors common to children with Autism is not permitted during learning sessions, “correct” behaviors are rewarded, sometimes with food, and new skills/behaviors are taught through structured repetition referred to as discreet trials. The Son-Rise Program sees autism as a relational, interactivity disorder. The central deficit of children on the autism spectrum is that they have difficulty connecting with and relating to other people. Almost all other difficulties spring from this primary challenge. Therefore, we do not seek to “correct” so-called “inappropriate” behaviors in the absence of a deeply bonded relationship. Rather, we endeavor to build a relationship with each child – a relationship that is the platform for all future education and development. We then help our children learn to connect and build relationships with others, and to genuinely enjoy such interaction. The many other skills we teach (self-care skills, moving beyond “stimming” behaviors) are addressed within the context of our focus on human interaction. We also believe that each child has a reason for every behavior they perform. Rather than forcing children to conform to a world they do not yet understand, we enter their world first. We seek to understand so that we can be most effective in helping the child. In The Son-Rise Program, the children show us the way in, and then we show them the way out.
Area of Focus
The focal points of each program are based upon how we see autism (discussed above). In simple terms, ABA focuses on changing behavior, The Son-Rise Program focuses on creating a relationship. An ABA facilitator might punish, reprimand, or attempt to discourage a repetitive or aggressive behavior. Compliance is seen as very important. Of course, there are a range of ABA-type programs and facilitators out there, some using strong punishments of behaviors, and others using much gentler forms of discouragement, but the overall focus is the same: behavior change and compliance with the requests of the facilitator. New behaviors and skills are often taught using a system based upon repetition and rewards called discreet trials, which will be discussed in more detail below. In The Son-Rise Program, we consistently seek to built rapport and relationships with our children. One critical way in which we do this is called joining. Instead of prohibiting or discouraging repetitive, “autistic” behavior, we actually participate in these activities with the child. Far from reinforcing “autistic” behaviors (a concern voiced by some), we have seen, with thousands of children from around the world, the exact opposite. When children are joined, they tend to look at us more, pay more attention to us, and include us more in their activity. We see such children “stimming” less, and interacting more. After all, we are building a stronger and stronger bond with the child, and, at the same time, by showing genuine interest and participation in what is important to the child, we are actually teaching the very interpersonal skills that many of our children lack. When we have the child’s willing engagement, we then use a variety of motivational and educational techniques (discussed in brief below) to promote learning and skill acquisition.
Repetition vs. Motivation
With ABA, when attempting to teach a particular behavior or skill (such as getting dressed, to use a simple example), discreet trials are often used. With this methodology, a child might be told (or made) to sit in a chair. The facilitator would then say “coat on” and endeavor to train the child to put his/her coat on but doing this over and over again until the child has “mastered” the skill. Each time the child gets it right, they would get praise, a piece of food, or some other reward. While this approach can definitely succeed at getting some children to perform particular activities or skills, a common complaint we hear from parents is that, although their children perform the prescribed activity, they tend to do so in a manner that appear robotic and pre-programmed, rather than displaying any kind of spontaneity or enthusiasm. A second difficulty that we see is that many children, after participating in this program over a period of time, become aggressive and rebellious. In The Son-Rise Program, we want each child to “come back for more.” This means that we want the child’s willing engagement over time, so that we can teach them all that they need to learn, and so that they value and enjoy interaction. We also see the importance of children being able to generalize learned skills to other areas, so that they don’t need prompts, rewards, or our presence to act on what they’ve learned. Therefore, we do not want to continually repeat commands when the child, in all likelihood, does not understand why he/she is being asked to do this. Consistently, we have found that motivation works faster, more powerfully, and promotes greater generalization than repetition does. If a child likes Thomas the Tank Engine, or physical movement, or numbers, then we use this motivation as a teaching tool by combining it with an educational goal. For instance, if a child likes Thomas the Tank Engine, and one of our educational goals is toilet training, we would construct a game that centered around Thomas and involved using the toilet. In this way, we create a desire to learn and use a skill (going to the toilet), and we keep the interaction with the child alive and well (and fun). An additional benefit of this approach is that it does not tend to produce a robotic, pre-programmed response because children get genuinely excited about the learning process. For this reason (as well as because of the joining described above and the attitudinal component described below), we also do not see children becoming aggressive or rebellious from participating in The Son-Rise Program.
Structure vs. Spontaneity
In ABA, a high premium is placed upon structure. It is important for children to sit still in a seat, and to perform activities in a prescribed, regulated fashion. The thought behind this is that children on the autism spectrum need this kind of structure. Also, if they are to ever participate in school, they must learn to sit appropriately, to obey a schedule, and to comply with requests from the teacher. In The Son-Rise Program, we see it differently. If children are to be successful in school and in life, what is most important for them to learn is to interact with others, make their own decisions, and to be flexible (something with which many children with autism have difficulty). Because of this, we spend our time engaging in interactive games (when we aren’t joining, as stated above). In addition to teaching interaction and socialization, these games challenge children to be more flexible (rather than needing things to go a particular way) and to use their imagination to come up with different ideas and directions on the fly. We also keep the games fun, so that our children see that participating in our world (vs. staying in their own) is both enjoyable and useful, rather than rigid and demanding.
Academic vs. Social Development
ABA practitioners tend to focus heavily on academic skills such as reading, writing, and math (in addition to verbal communication and basic “appropriate” behavior). We in The Son-Rise Program would certainly agree that such skills are important. However, if choosing between helping a child to be great at math and or to be great at making friends, we choose the latter every time. In actual fact, academic and social skills are not mutually exclusive, and there are many instances where we do teach reading, writing, and math. When we do, though, it is always in the context of an activity that teaches socialization first. If our children can learn to enjoy people, make friends, laugh at a funny joke, socialize, etc. (which many of our children do), then they have achieved what, for most of us, makes life most meaningful.
The Role of the Parents
ABA has many dedicated practitioners, many of whom often work with children in their own homes. The way the programs generally work, though, is that parents tend to be in a more observational role in their programs. The professionals are seen, in most cases, as the major players in the program, with parents watching on the side so that the practitioners can do their jobs. We in The Son-Rise Program have seen nothing that matches the motivation, love, dedication, and lifelong commitment possessed by parents for their special children. Furthermore, no one has the kind of long-term, day-to-day experience with their own particular child that parents possess. Without question, professionals and other family members can be critically important. At the same time, because of their unique position in their child’s world, parents can positively affect their child’s life in a way no one else can. Therefore, not only do we acknowledge parents as the child’s most important resource, but we seek to empower them to the child’s advantage. This is why we teach them how to design, implement, and take a central role in their children’s programs.
The Role of the Facilitators’ Attitude
ABA focuses heavily on what the facilitator does. The Son-Rise Program not only focuses on what the facilitator does, but also on how the facilitator does what he/she does. We address and provide training in an area that we see as the most overlooked factor of autism treatment: the attitude of the facilitator. We see a non-judgmental and optimistic attitude as crucial to effective child facilitation. What does this mean? First, it means that we don’t label our children’s repetitive and ritualistic behaviors as inappropriate, wrong, or bad. This principle is every bit as practical as it is idealistic. We see time and again that children with autism tend to move away from people they perceive as uncomfortable or judging and toward people they see as comfortable, easy, fun, safe, and non-judgmental. Thus, we can use our attitude to become an interaction magnet. As well, having a sincere sense of optimism – really believing in the child with which one is working – is key to helping that child to break through barriers that previously seemed insurmountable. We do not put limits on any child ahead of time, we do not believe that hope can ever be “false,” and we believe in the potential of every child, regardless of age or diagnosis. Moreover, we believe in the parents who work tirelessly to reach their children. That is why we spend a significant percentage of our time and effort providing parents with attitudinal training. We help them to create and sustain a non-judgmental, optimistic, and hopeful attitude with their children. In this way, they can maximize their children’s progress while finding peace with their children’s diagnosis.