Why is ABA so awkward?
Updated: Mar 7, 2019
As you may know, I have worked for many years in the field as a Clinical Supervisor for an ABA company. (ABA = Applied Behavior Analysis... a therapeutic technique used to teach children with developmental disabilities social & emotional skills)
So, why is ABA so awkward? Many parents aren't sure what to expect when it starts and find themselves wondering - why is this so awkward? Is it me & my family? Is this the right company? Do we have the right tutor?
Well, let me tell you. First of all - yes, it is awkward in the beginning. Almost every time.
There are many factors, but one of the main ones that I'd like to focus on is the therapeutic stage of attunement and rapport building.
In the beginning of not just ABA but also MOST therapies, rapport must be established.
What is rapport? A sense of trust. A sense between both therapist and client that they "get" each other. A mutual language. A mutual agreement. Frankly, just a sense that they like each other.
It is believed (and proven in many scientific studies) that without rapport, the therapeutic relationship will have a hard time being effective.
The beginning of ABA is not when you, as parents & family, will see results. First - for weeks or sometimes, yes, even months, rapport is being established before ABA tutors/therapists/technicians (there are many names for the people helping your child; it depends on the company what term is used) start really running programs and making changes.
They are not just going to walk into your home and tell your child "new rules" right off the bat - why would your child listen to them? They need to trust them first.
So the therapist (or at least a good one) will use toys that they already know and like - your toys - before bringing in new toys or play ideas. This process is called joining. The therapist will join with your child to essentially say, only in fewer words - hey, I get you and I like the things you like, too! We have some things in common. This creates a working basis.
The stronger the attunement, the stronger the work that can be done in the future.
There is also the issue of identity and culture.
When an ABA team comes into your home, they are trying to be respectful. Everyone's family operates in a different way - has different norms, different systems, and different preferences. ABA teams - again, if they are doing it well - are assessing the spoken and unspoken cultural norms of your family. Not to judge you and your family, but so they can make sure they are helping your family and not imposing the team's cultural values onto you. Going into a home is incredibly personal. Until the team gets to know you, they will be taking it all in. What is totally normal and standard to you in your home is all new to them.
It is also standard to spend a week to two weeks creating a "reinforcer list" - tracking all of the things your child enjoys from strong preferences to neutral to negative. The team slowly introduces new things to get to know your child - how they react to new items, and which items they prefer. The team is observing what your child's strengths are. From there, outside of session, they develop programs to see what they can build upon and "reinforce" to help shape behaviors.
So at first, the families (you) are really hopeful and wanting to know they can trust the team coming into their home. At the same time, the team is trying to build rapport and earn trust. Families and the team are working together in a very personal way. There can be a lot of pressure. And at the same time, it is important that the child is having FUN!
So, yes, it is awkward. Not to mention that of course different people have different chemistry and life experiences that can shape their personality.
When it is too awkward.
If you and your family are feeling frozen or like you can't be yourselves, be frank with the team. Maybe they can get new team members with a better personality fit. But I say hang in there for at least a few weeks. It takes time to get used to it for you, your child, and the team. We are all people after all. There's bound to be an adjustment period. If, after two weeks to a month it is still feeling unbearable then it is probably time to have a conversation with the director or supervisor.
Please note that this blog does not constitute medical advice. You should talk with your ABA team if you have concerns, not get advice from a blog. This is meant for entertainment and informative purposes only.