March 15, 2017

448_bbc4Reaction to “Autism: Challenging Behaviour” on BBC is strong and mixed.

Airdate: Tuesday 5th November. The documentary focused upon the use of Applied Behaviour Analysis) and how it is used as an intervention for Autistic children. The programme information on the BBC website is as follows:

The film follows three-year-old Jack and four-year-old Jeremiah through their first term at Treetops School in Essex – the only state school in the UK which offers a full ABA programme. Neither boy has any language, Jeremiah finds it hard to engage with the world around him and Jack has severe issues with food. Both their parents have high hopes of the ‘tough love’ support that Treetops offers, but will struggle with their child’s progress.

We also meet Gunnar Frederiksen, a passionate and charismatic ABA consultant who works with families all over Europe. His view of autism – that it is a condition that can be cured and that families must work with their child as intensively and as early as possible if they want to take the child ‘out of the condition’ – is at odds with the way that many view autism today.

Gunnar is working with three-year-old Tobias in Norway and has trained the parents so that they can work with him at home as his ABA tutors. He also introduces us to Richard, a 16-year-old from Sweden who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and whose parents were told that he would be unlikely ever to speak. Today, Richard is ‘indistinguishable from his peers’ and plays badminton for the Swedish national team. In an emotional scene, Richard and his family look back at video recordings of the early ABA treatment and we are confronted both by the harshness of the method and the result of the intervention.

These and other stories are intercut with the views and experiences from those who oppose ABA and who argue that at the heart of ABA is a drive to make children with autism as normal as possible, rather than accepting and celebrating their difference. Lee, an autistic mother of a son who has Aspergers, describes how the drive to make her behave and act like a ‘normal’ child broke her, and how she was determined to accept her son for who he was.

The question of how far we accept autistic difference and how much should we push people with autism to fit into society’s norms raises wider questions that affect us all – how do we achieve compliance in our children, how much should we expect children to conform and how far should parents push children to fit in with their own expectations?’

After the programme there were many comments and discussions over on twitter about the programme and the use of ABA therapy for autistic children. There were many comments for and against. Autism Daily Newscast followed the debate on Twitter and also sought input from leaders within the autism community in Britain.

Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society tweeted.

“Balanced Prog, v uncomfortable in parts, but for people with autism to thrive attitudes have to change and difference needs to be accepted”

Kevin Healey leading autism campaigner who has Aspergers Syndrome asked his followers to share their views and tweeted the following:

“Mixed debate lots are against #aba and some saying it’s worked for there child mixed views”

Kevin exclusively told Autism Daily Newscast,

“I think things like ABA may only work for certain people on the spectrum, even like other therapies like TEACH, these are all tools, therapies, but there is no such things as a quick fix or a cure for autism. Having watched the BBC4 programme, my twitter feed showed lots of parents against ABA and the techniques used. Many people were angry about it and how they used it etc., and an odd few saying that it worked for their child.

I think that intense programs like ABA and other systems can highly frustrate the individual with autism and cause even more anxiety and frustrations, similar to CBT and mindfulness therapy and again sometimes it can work and sometimes the person with autism can’t process and use the tools for even these systems. I think in general it’s up to the parent whether they want to perceive these avenues to see if it works for their child or adult but as a person with autism I personally don’t think they work and that’s my opinion.”

Dimensions, a non for profit organisation that supports people with learning disabilities and autism tweeted:

“Interesting programme on #autism on #BBC4Autism with views on both sides about #ABA. Will they talk about person centred approaches too?”

Jannike Ive has over 11 years in the special educational needs sector, and is founder of ‘A Family’s Best Friend’ specialist respite care and babysitting service for children with special needs. Jannike who is ABA trained told Autism Daily Newscast the following,

“My biggest observation is that a lot of people’s opinions of ABA are still from the early days and there is a misnomer that is it still like that today. Sadly the Norwegian man reinforces that!!! What a shame that is who they used on the program.One thing that really bothered me was the non ABA school…how is it preferable that a child should be tube fed as opposed to trying any method you can to encourage them to eat!!! That seems ridiculous to me! A few tears and fights are totally worth it if they then eat!! Look at the little boy jack…the result surely is worth it! It would be to me.The American consultant hit the nail on the head to me, it is not about taking away the autism or the essence of the child but about enabling them to live in society and get more reinforcement from it.

In my opinion the school represented it fairly well and the results were obvious. I’ve seen it myself. It will never work for everyone, nothing does. It also has to be right for the parents. But don’t be so against it until you have seen it in progress or learnt more about it”.

Olley Edwards who is an author and filmmaker and is campaigning at the moment for a diagnostic criterion for females on the autistic spectrum shared her views about the programme with Autism Daily Newscast. Olley has Aspergers Syndrome.

“I only saw a small clip as I couldn’t bear to watch a distressed child ignored -I feel that asking for help when a child has ASD is a major improvement in itself? ASD means one has a lack of theory of mind – the understanding that another person has independent agenda and thought process -therefore why cry? Why react? If you don’t understand a cry will trigger another person to help why bother? My youngest was born silent -I thought she had died- she didn’t babble and I had to teach her the word “help” before mum dad cat ball etc. – when an ASD child cries the parents should be praised – they have nurtured their child to understand someone will help them – aba for that reason seems rather cruel – you’re not improving their behaviour -your making their behaviour more suitable to the neurotypical who finds it challenging and forcing an autistic child to suppress who they are or be mentally isolated even further?

Also what inappropriate behaviour may look like to an NT may be perfectly understandable to an ASD? What if the school lights are so bright that the sensory overload has led to a major meltdown migraine and agony? The NT would not have this sensory issue and view it as “challenging behaviour” well I’m sure the ASD children find the ABA teachers behaviour highly challenging also? Perhaps the ASD child should expose the teacher to a deafening loud room with UV lighting make them teach and ignore them when they can’t improve their grades? It’s not challenging behaviour its different behaviour to be respected and learnt – just because it’s different doesn’t make it wrong and just because it isn’t the majority doesn’t make it less”

TOTKO which ‘is the UK’s only organisation that works with schools to support young people affected by all learning differences, difficulties and disabilities. We work with all students from those who have an official diagnosis to those who are at the start of their special educational needs journey, as well as working with all students to create a supportive and understanding learning environment.’posted the following tweets,

“We aren’t anti-ABa, but what we are against is the way autism is being spoken about. We’re people. Not conditions. #ABa #bbc4autism”

“vitally important to acknowledge the positives of #autism. Problem solving. visualisation. Wider sensory tracts. Determination. #ABA”

Allison Cuthbertson , SEN teacher with over 20 years of working with both children and adults on the autistic spectrum told Autism Daily Newscast

“I think that ABA can work well for some children in some situations but to use it as the only form of support is not always the right thing. It depends on the age of the child and the balance of factors; outcome, distress, need to change and understanding of the child. Once all of these have been considered you may find more appropriate methods and therapies. Autism is too wide to think that only one method works.”

Talk About Autism which is ‘an online community and discussion forum for everyone interested in autism, including parents, people on the spectrum, professionals’, hosted a discussion on its Facebook page today were a range of emotions and viewpoints were shared. You can read the discussions here.

More about ABA therapy can be read over on the Research Autism website.

If you are in the UK, ‘Autism: Challenging Behaviour’ can be viewed on BBC IPlayer by following this link.

This article is open for comments.


We embrace our readership and your varied opinions, but would ask our readers and commenter’s to appreciate that these are people’s real experiences and not to attack the contributors of the posts. We appreciate feedback and your opinion, but comments that are negative and attacking in nature will be deleted.

About the author 

Jo Worgan

Jo Worgan is a published author, writer and blogger. She has a degree in English Literature. She writes about life with her youngest son who is on the autistic spectrum. Jo tweets (@mummyworgan) and is also a freelance columnist for the Lancaster Guardian. ‘My Life with Tom, Living With Autism‘ is her second book and a culmination of her blog posts, and available on Kindle now, along with her first book, Life on the Spectrum. The Preschool years.

  • For an article regarding ‘mixed’ reactions there was a surprisingly one sided representation of views.

    • An interesting point. We sought out people of influence in the community in the UK that we were able to reach in a short period of time. This is the result.

  • I agree with Darragh; this article represents a sadly one sided and negative view of ABA. I also doubt the sincerity of Roberta’s response given that my own google search on the matter the morning after the programme aired led me straight to Professor Richard Hastings’ article on ‘The Conversation’ website. There he provides a critique of the BBC4 programme along with a much more balanced view of the merits of ABA… I wonder why none of his thoughts made it into the article above?

    I also wonder if I might be permitted to share my own experiences with the readers of this site? Applying a home-based ABA programme under the guidance of UKYAP in just four months our 3 year old boy has developed from having virtually no language skills to being able to hold mini-conversations on choice of food and play etc. His behaviour has also improved dramatically. I therefore have no doubt that this is the best approach for his development and would encourage any parent of an autistic child to look into ABA as a potential therapy option.

    • Andy, while we, individually, at Autism Daily Newscast may have personal views on ABA, one of our writers is trained in ABA – I actually do not. I am very happy to have others share their experiences and I am glad that you took the time to write to us. It appears that the negativity around ABA in the UK clouds the discussion around how it might be useful. There are many issues surrounding ABA even in the USA and that is why I have asked one of our US journalists to do a series on ABA today in the US.

      Let me also say that I did not see the documentary as I am not in the UK and could not access the program. I am the Editor-in-Chief. Our report was on the reactions by people who either are personally on the autism spectrum and / or advocates in some manner with family members on the spectrum. The report was in no way a critique of the program; simply a follow-up on how people felt about the documentary. Naturally, the reactions to ABA are strong. This was not an article on ABA specifically and that is not our primary role. We don’t do a “Google search” and curate what other have to say we try whenever possible to go to the source. As a news site our job is to report what is happening and quite frankly the response to the documentary within the ASD community was generally negative. However, upon reading the comments again, I feel that no one we quoted actually trashed ABA. Many pointed to specific things in the documentary that they found disturbing but in almost all cases the sentiment was “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

      Professor Hastings’ article goes into this a little more deeply and objectively it is true. The same “objectivity” can not be said of our readers or those we spoke to about the program. Each one is quite biased… they live with it every day. Professor Hastings’ appears to have been published around the same time as the public showing of the documentary on BBC4. His is an article on how some of what was presented in the documentary was misleading and he makes many valid points. ( I liked his article – the closing paragraph is perhaps the most profound. I encourage others to read it.

      I doubt that the controversy will go away as long as ABA is being used. And it will be used because depending on the type of ABA being used and the training of the professionals it has proven effective for some ASD children – like your own.

      • Thanks for the reply, Roberta.

        It was actually your new series on ABA in the US that prompted me to write here (as there was no comment option on that new article by Janet Meydam). Again I found it to adopt a quite negative tone. Just the title ‘Limitations apparent in ABA Research’ sets one’s mind up to think it should be dismissed as a treatment option. it goes on to describe the research designs as flawed while offering little by way of counterargument.

        As a scientist, I can see some flawed statements in Janet’s article itself also. It dismisses the Lovaas paper for utilizing a small sample size, but sample size should be related to the strength of the signal being measured – a strong signal requires a smaller sample size – so unless the statistics in the Lovaas paper are flawed (which was not a critiicsm made by Janet) then the sample size is fine for the conclusions drawn.

        I also felt Janet could have made some mention that although no one paper can be pointed to as categoric proof of the benefits of the ABA technique, such papers are rare in any branch of science and meanwhile there is a body of evidence amassed in support of ABA benefits that does not exist for other autism interventions.

        I await the rest of the series with keen interest.

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