Is The "ABA Warning Letter" For Real?
Soon after the Open Letter went up on our website, we received several emails from a Joseph Morrow, who described himself as a professor of psychology. He told us that the letter was a hoax, and he would be happy to assist us in documenting it. Here, in its entirety, is Dr. Morrow's letter, and Bob King's reply. I circulated the Virgynia King letter and one of the replies I received considered it a hoax and stated the reasons why. I will forward that response to you.
The web page at the bottom of the letter only pulls up the letter itself. However if you go on Google for "Virgynia King" you get the letter plus the web page it appears on. That web page is attached in word to this mail and is titled "You can help stop Psychiatric Oppression."
There are two other references to Virgynia King, one on a Yahoo discussion group that was last posted in 2000 and a reference to Virgynia King in a Canadian group called "The Canadian Pagan Union." All of this plus the anonymity of the "nationally known and high visibility ABA program provider," the twice quoted "well known behaviorist" and the author her/him/themselves, make me suspicious of the authenticity of the document. Nevertheless, I will do my best to address the issues raised.
I have taught Behavior Analysis for 39 years at the University level. I have been the President of Applied Behavior Consultants for 15 years where we have provided ABA services for several hundred children with autism.
Let me state at the outset subject only to privacy rights of the children themselves, we invite anyone to visit any of our schools, in-home programs and records to see for themselves what we do. Our schools have an open door policy where parents may come and go with no advance notice. Visitors are welcome for scheduled tours. Our in home programs are conducted only with the presence of a parent or guardian. We do not hide anything.
In my years in this area, I have never seen a child who failed to benefit from ABA therapy. Sometimes the benefits are small and disappointing and sometimes they are spectacular. But I have never seen the regression spoken of in this letter with the exception of those children diagnosed with Rhetts. The regression in such cases is not due to any therapy but, the nature of the Rhetts disease.
I have been professionally active and know most "well known behaviorists." I have never heard one of them say anything approximating "such total regression is common in children with autism." There are data showing that when some ABA programs are discontinued, there is a decrease in certain social behaviors and an increase in many anti social behaviors. But those same data show that when the ABA program is reinstituted the progress begins again. The situation where "total regression" occurs in the midst of an ongoing ABA program is a fiction.
I have never seen a case whose outcome can be compared to the case described in the letter. Nor, have I ever heard of such a case in the literature or even in discussions with persons who are basically anti ABA in their outlook. The case described by Virgynia King is totally unique. I have worked hard to build a reputation in my field and I would stake that reputation that no other case similar to the one described, exists.
The "spectacular" outcome I spoke of previously is a common one. If intensive (30-40 hours per week) ABA therapy is begun by age four, and if it continues for 1-3 years then over 30% and less than 50% of these children make it back to regular education with same age peers and progress with their peers. With parental permission we can show you these children who have received ABA therapy from our company and our colleagues in other areas can do so as well. But even here, with the strict qualifications mentioned, we are talking about a minority. Thus, no one with a sense of ethics would promise a "recovery." We can and do promise progress.
Any of our employees who verbally attacked a parent or ordered them out of the room would be dismissed. We feel goodwill and parent cooperation is crucial to the progress of the child. There are times that parents may disagree on the procedures. Once a disagreement becomes obvious then it is handled in a professional way and not in the manner described by the letter. We meet outside the therapy session and attempt to reach an amicable solution.
I should point out that parents decide before we are brought in that they want ABA therapy. They decide that themselves when we are not even in the picture. There are rare occasions after we begin that a parent may change their mind and decide they do not want ABA. In those cases there are no hard feelings and we withdraw our services consistent with appropriate transitions.
It is inconceivable to me that ABA therapy should continue for an extended period where the parents had such fundamental disagreements with the basics of ABA science. The letter seems to imply the ABA therapists forced the therapy on the parents for some extended period of time. I have never heard of such a situation.
ABA therapy does involve "extinction" & "reinforcement." And it is true that we learned about these techniques in the laboratory. But it is totally untrue that we are devoid of concern and compassion.
Our methods involve allowing behaviors that interfere with learning such as tantrums and excessive crying to occur without reinforcement (extinction). Our data show that such procedures do not result in panic or anxiety but on the contrary, children learn a better way to control their world. While we are "extinguishing" one behavior we are teaching a more socially acceptable behavior. A child who cries for candy is better off learning to say the word candy since the world is typically not too nice to children who always cry for their wants & needs. We are not--as some would accuse us-- trying to make robots of these kids but instead, helping them to have the same opportunities as our typically developing children.
I should address the issue of sitting in the chair. Perhaps this is the most difficult thing for an anti ABA person to understand at the beginning. Within the field of ABA there is variation in this practice. My company likes to start with learning a task at a table where the therapist and child sit. It is in this situation we can provide the most opportunities for learning. As soon as a task is learned we try to get away from the table and generalize the task to the natural environment.
At the beginning some children resist sitting in the chair. Our practices have varied over the years. We have found that holding the child in the chair for any extended time is counterproductive. The question of restraint is ethically out of the question. Our tact is to reinforce "get ready skills" which -at the beginning-includes sitting in the chair. So, basically we try to make sitting in the chair a positive thing rather than aversive. I do believe that some folks in our field may spend too much time at the table, but the effects of this has been a failure of the child to generalize to the natural environment rather than anything even remotely like the description offered by Virgynia King. I invite anyone to visit our schools or in-home programs and they will see children sitting at tables, moving around and doing other things children do.
Those sitting at tables, will be doing so, busily learning tasks specifically designed for them to increase their ability to meaningfully interact with parents and peers.
Let me validate those persons who have epistemological differences with Behaviorism. There are many knowledge systems that I do not subscribe to. But I do believe in parent choice. The parents whose children we work with have chosen to work with us. If they ever change their mind-and this has happened-we respect that. In our experience this is well less than 1% of the cases we have begun.
Does there exist the possibility that untrained persons direct ABA programs? Of course, like any other poorly regulated field there may be quacks. But Virgynia King spoke of a "nationally- known and high visibility ABA program provider." I know all these folks and what Virgynia King spoke of does not apply to any of these providers.
As I have spent the time to draft this response I have come to the conclusion that the King letter describes a fiction. Let me put my money where my mouth is: I will pledge to put $10,000 in a trust fund for the parents of the boy in the King letter to receive as compensation or as a treatment fund. All I ask is that the facts of the letter be validated by objective persons.
I, like Virgynia King, will try to circulate this letter where her letter has been circulated.
Joseph E. Morrow, Ph.D., President, Applied Behavior Consultants, 4540 Harlin Drive, Sacramento CA 95826, (916) 364-7800.
Bob King's ReplyDear Sir;
First, "Virgynia King" exists. It's not her legal name, it's an Internet handle like mine; "Bob King."
As we are married, I believe I am qualified to tell you that her existence is not in doubt. If you wish to know more about us, you may go to http://www.wampi.org for her and http://www.graphictruth.com for me.
[NOTE: Today, go to GraphicTruth on Reddit, send a private message.
Second, she's not the author of the "open letter." Note that the attribution is "courtesy of", not "BY."
It took me less than a second to find 1 the letter hosted here, at http://users.1st.net/cibra/testimonyindex.htm with a second part to the letter providing more details. It may or may not be authored by the website owner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps you should inquire of them. As there are ONLY two results, and I know that Astraea's copy is not the original, it seems likely that this one is.
If so, I'm sure they will welcome your $10,000 pledge.
I agree the lack of an identifiable author reference raises serious questions that should be asked aloud. However, the answer may well be "gag order," a not-uncommon condition of an out-of-court settlement.
Considering your cited position, it's not unreasonable to entertain the possibility that you may know better than I who is being spoken of. I mean, how many "nationally known" persons of your position and stature could there be?
If that IS the case, well, the offer itself takes on a bit of cruel irony, does it not?
As you raise the question of motives in spreading the letter, it seems reasonable to question your motives behind questioning them. Neither my wife nor Astraea have profit motive in passing such things on, nor does there seem to be any for CIBRA.
But your position (Joseph E. Morrow, Ph.D., President, Applied Behavior Consultants) makes questions as to financial motivations unavoidable and a search for your credentials and publications possible.
There are rather few results courtesy of Google, based on a name search; though of course the company comes up right at the top. But not one precis of a paper published in a major journal. Well, perhaps google doesn't index them.
There was more than enough grist for my mill in your site, so I didn't dig further.
Claims of 100% results should always raise concern about what's been done to the data. That would be within the ream of actual science; when speaking of psychology and medicine, honest results are much lower.
We have succeeded in transitioning 42 of our students to a less restrictive environment usually their neighborhood school.I feel that this claim would also need to be strongly supported in context before it rises to significance beyond "NOW 30% MORE STAIN-FIGHTING POWER!!!"
I would want their diagnoses, what is meant by "less restrictive" and most importantly, how many students were those 42 drawn from?
And of that population, what is the percentage of persistence? It would seem to me that the ideal goal would be mainstreaming, and Asperger if not profoundly autistic children can certainly be mainstreamed, so why is that number so low?
The degree of intervention you advocate, the disruption of family life and the impact on the child as an individual would seem to require a much greater degree of informed consent. Instead you present a sales pitch that in some aspects reminds me of EST brochures, particularly the usage of the word "technology" to refer to an empirical procedure.
And then there is this;
Some results can only be described as spectacular. Consistent with the findings of Ivar Lovaas, Patricia Krantz, Lynn McClannahan and others, we find that some of our students can attend regular education classrooms with same age peers.That's not you, that's the law. BY LAW, the school has to demonstrate that they have tried the least restrictive interventions without success before placement in something like a self-contained class.
Unless their behavior is truly appalling, most autistic-spectrum children don't fall into functional equivalence with profound MH or behavior- disorder. Of course, you could be dealing exclusively with those, but that doesn't seem to be the case. But given your claims, compared with your apparent standards for employees, you may be generating some who will need a more restrictive environment.
In the first four years of providing school services ABC had nine students who came to us before the age of four years and one month who reached this criterion and were placed in regular education programs without supports.They continue to succeed in those placements.
Yes; that would seem appropriate.
Our son (my stepson, but a distinction that makes little difference) has Asperger's and Virgynia rejected such approaches with him.
He gets A's and B's, excels in track, and is well liked, though he hasn't the faintest idea why. He stunned us in choosing a regular middle school because of the social opportunities!!!
The secret was to accept that he has his own pace, had some nonnegotiable needs and given that, he felt safe enough to cooperate with the duties of parenting on a peer to peer level.
He exhibited significant language delays, late toilet training and has limited social skills - but nonetheless, has never required even an aide, though he has an IEP primarily to force the school to treat him as he needs, rather than as many "experts" thought more appropriate.
Yes, she considers the ABA approach abusive. I note in passing that according to your own site, your own teachers are not even required to have teaching credentials, much less the additional special education credential.
She's been concerned with practical application as a special educator for nearly thirty years, one of the few to devote her entire career to it. She is not published on the topic, other than as owner and occasional moderator of the Asperger's Circle mailing list.
But she's had more then enough experience to come to an informed opinion on the topic.
Pardon me for being a little amused at the idea that lack of publication is evidence of nonexistence!
The letter itself reads as an orthodox criticism of Behavoristic approaches.If it is a hoax, it's cribbed from the usual critics and says what critics of behavioral approaches usually say, with the results one would expect (PTSD) based on their studies and evidence that you should certainly be familiar with.
In that light, it would seem more appropriate to discuss why these criticisms do not apply to what you do.
That you instead try to discredit my wife rather than revisit the fundamental assumptions makes me suspect the possibility that you'd rather not expose the debate itself to those who are seeking help for their children.
Now, I am willing to grant the likelihood that the system varies from practitioner to practitioner, and results vary from child to child. I would certainly never suggest that it be abusive by definition -merely that when I've had such approaches applied to me, I felt abused. This practical experience agrees with that of my wife. I note, however, that I have no direct exposure to your program.
I would state further that from an external view, in some cases, behavioristic approaches appeared to work - I modified my behavior in order to avoid negative stimuli. This did not make me value the positive behavior, it merely substituted mute compliance for a behavior I would have preferred, nor was it easy to generalize from specific circumstantial reflex to more generally intuitively appropriate behavior.
Even so, I'm unwilling to rule out using such approaches entirely, especially in cases where a particular behavior in a particular circumstance is a survival issue. Some behaviors need to occur on a reflexive level and creating such survival level reflexes is the particular strength of behavioristic
approaches. However, there are people who seem unable to understand that any person is more than a collection of reflexive behaviors. In my experience this tends to go with a general lack of empathy.
Behavioristic approaches seem to appeal to such persons and I think it obvious that people trained in ABA should be screened and trained to mitigate this possibility. Again, I refer with raised eyebrows to what you ask of the personnel you hire.
Is even a high school diploma required?
My wife's responsibility for this issue begins and ends with forwarding it to Astraea, and of course, considering it plausible to begin with. I find it plausible as well - which is not to say that it is therefore factual.
The letter should be attributed to the actual source, or the lack of identifiable source and appropriate caveats made clear. But hoax or not; it raises issues that your response does nothing to discount; indeed, your response tends to give it a credibility it did not have before.
It would seem more appropriate to me to address the issues raised rather than attempting to discredit those who apparently raise them.
At the very least, at least try to discredit those actually responsible.
Oh, and you may take this response as a comment in itself about the limitations of aversive conditioning in gaining desirable results when applied to persons on the autistic spectrum.
The ABA Letter, part 1
One of these ABA "therapists" finally realized the irreparable harm she was doing to children, and wrote Why I Left ABA.
If this story is true, Applied Behavior Analysis is a cult.
Ballastexistenz Thoughtful and passionate blog about autism and disability.