How #ABA Took Fun Off the (Little) Table

How #ABA Took Fun Off the (Little) Table


One idea behind many ABA/Discrete Trial type programs is repetition and practice. The more opportunities, the more progress. That’s how we got to 40-hour per week programs for three-year-olds. Yeah, that is crazy, it’s not just you—and it doesn’t have to be this way.

My oldest child was around two when I started to see ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) differently. It’s a shift I am forever grateful, and it took my career on a completely new path.

Around the time of this shift, my mother bought my oldest a little wooden table. It was a $40 steal at a local hardware store. The evening she brought it over, we both watched as my daughter (also her first grandchild) danced in delight around the table, sitting, getting down, switching chairs. She also had a play tea set that she spread all over the table, her little feet still high off the ground. 

The table was new to my daughter that night, but the “little table” was not new to me.

As a tutor, then consultant, later a supervisor of in-home ABA/Discrete Trial programs, I had been cramming my 5’11” self into those little chairs for close to a decade.

But my daughter’s table was different, it looked fun and inviting.

In the evenings after she got home from daycare and my husband and I from work, she would sit and play at her little table in the middle of the living room.

She always went on her own, I never once told her to sit there (that would have been odd), and she was always delighted if we sat and joined her. During my days at work with my three-year-old clients, the table had a different feel. It was somewhere we both didn’t want to sit. It represented work and struggle, definitely not fun.

Fun can’t be forced, it has to be chosen.

So what was happening here? 

It was through the table example and many others that I started to watch my daughter learn through play and wondered, why can’t I do this with my clients? 

Instead, I was writing tantrum/meltdown behavior plans for toddlers who clearly did not want to do the lessons I wrote for them.

I did everything right, at least I thought I did. I worked to find reinforcers they wanted to “work” for, I trained my staff.

What was missing? 

Simple answer: Fun can’t be forced, it has to be chosen.

My daughter was choosing her activities and play, but my clients were not given that luxury. The programs I was running started to feel very unfair, for my clients and their parents, who were often left without much skill to work with their own children, while the “experts” set up in a separate room every afternoon.

If it sounds heartbreaking, it often was, and I think it took me being a parent to really see it. 

Now, these programs were well-intentioned, but we just thought this was the only way, the best way, to give kids with autism as many skills as we could, to help them toward less restrictive learning environments and independence. This was also back in the early 2000’s and luckily I’m not the only one who has developed a new lens.Full-Time Toddlers

One idea behind many ABA/Discrete Trial type programs is repetition and practice. The more opportunities, the more progress. That’s how we got to 40-hour per week programs for three-year-olds.

Yeah, that is crazy, it’s not just you, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

Even 20 hours of repetitive teaching for a three-year-old is a lot, and this is often considered the “light” recommendation. Throw in a pre-school class three hours per day and you have a child who is working a full-time job. A schedule many are realizing is no longer efficient even for adults.

Contrived vs. Captured Opportunities

I often struggle to compare the value of a created, or what we call a “contrived” learning opportunity, versus a “captured” opportunity, but here goes.

High hour/Discrete Trial programs contrive multiple opportunities throughout each learning session, some even have targets to hit, say 100 per hour. All of these contrived opportunities or trials also have to look roughly the same as they do when other staff members run the lessons, this is where the structure and rigidity enter.

If a team of six people have to take the same data on the same skill, they also have to contrive opportunities for that skill in the same way.

Contrast that with a “captured” opportunity.

Captured opportunities are tougher to find, kind of like a hunt in the forest, but when you find them, they are so sweet.

Captured learning opportunities put the oneness on the teacher, professional, or parent. They have to wait and watch the child, offer activities, and wait for the learning opportunities to strike. It takes skill and patience, but when natural learning opportunities are present, progress is swift. 

It’s like if one contrived opportunity was worth a penny, but each captured opportunity was worth $1, which would you want?\

Back to the Table

ABA programs have for years used little tables for structure and control. We use tables in the classroom too, but not until children are much older. If we take developmental age into consideration, some programs may be asking a chronological three-year-old, who is scoring closer to 18 months developmentally, to sit at a table to learn.

Would you make an 18-month old sit at a table? Yeah, no. 

In ABA’s defense, it does not specify using little tables, that’s the provider’s choice and ABA is often used synonymously with Discrete Trial Training — which is incorrect (DTT uses ABA, but ABA is not DTT).

I am still very much a fan of ABA, but the use of ABA with individuals on the autism spectrum has a sordid past, no doubt. I also believe there may sometimes be a good use of Discrete Trial Training or similar approaches, if necessary, but I always believe in a more natural, child-led approach first, especially with our youngest learners. 

I leaned into a Parent-Led and Play-Based approach to ABA when my daughter was a toddler and I spent more time with the Pivotal Response Treatment research from Robert and Lynn Koegel. I opened an in-home services agency and did not hire tutors (today we call them RBT’s). I did not recommend 20-40 hours per week.

Instead, we worked with parents and their children 4-6 hours per week and we trained parents to carry out their child’s goals naturally throughout the week. 

As a result, the skies opened up and I loved my work again. My clients were choosing their activities out of my fun bag of toys, puzzles, and books and it was my job to find opportunities to teach them. They often didn’t even see the fun coming — and we rarely saw an unhappy child. Parents sat on the floor with me, as we all learned how their child best learned.

That was 14 years ago, and my oldest is now going on seventeen. As the oldest of five, she likes to call herself the “test-run,” I prefer to call her the “trailblazer.” She’s always been quick and we’ve struggled to keep up with her, especially as she enters young adulthood. As she blazes new trails, I follow closely behind.

I’m so fortunate she helped me trail-blaze my way into better, happier autism therapy for so many of my clients and their families, and for showing me how important play and choice are to learning, development and finding joy amidst an often perplexing and difficult diagnosis.

For more information about Happy Ladders click here.

By my friend Amy Jacobs Schroeder

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