Normalising autistic behaviour – US techniques adopted in the UK

CC BY-NC by swan-t

It’s a controversial early intervention technique that has been used in the USA for a few years now, but parents in the UK are lining up to enroll their children in schools that are implementing normalisation therapy on children with autism.

Applied Behavioural Analysis or ABA is better known as a behaviour modification technique, that re-trains the young and developing brain to ‘forget’ autistic mannerisms. It uses observational and intervention techniques to quash aggression anti social and social isolation in those with an autism or ASD diagnosis.

UK parents are going as far as actually relocating so that their children can attend the handful of schools offering ABA. The Guardian Newspaper talked to one such mother, Julie Barber, who changed her life completely so her son could attend Treetops School in Essex.

Ms Barber, who came very close to having a nervous breakdown last year due to trying to manage her son’s behaviour now lives in Thurrock in Essex with her son Jack, who is four. She told the paper:

“He was having two-hour meltdowns nearly every day. I’ve got a bad back just from trying to manage him.”

Her greatest worry was that, since the age of three, he had regularly refused to eat anything except baby food and custard, and it had to be a particular brown colour.

“It was horrendous – if I tried anything else he would be sick. Even if a drink was too cold, it would make him gag. I was scared that he’d deteriorate because he wouldn’t get the right nutrients. He eats pretty much everything now. I can take him out to a restaurant, or a party. You have no idea what that means.”

Jack started attending Treetops school last year, and it is one of only a handful of schools in the UK that use the ‘normalising’ technique on younger children with an early diagnosis.

ABA was developed in the late sixties by psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas  for reconditioning behaviours by rewarding and changing the reactions to certain reactions. It was deemed controversial at the time as bad behaviours would be immediately punished with electric shocks when the recipient did not comply. Some programmes of the time were intensive and required up to 40 hours of one to one contact for a patient.

The treatment has had a resurgence in past years, but has not been without it’s negative media. It has been widely available in private sector schools but has been recently introduced in the UK at county level schools, which has caused schools like Treetops in Essex to become oversubscribed.

Headteacher Paul Smith told the Guardian:

“We are at absolute capacity.Families are moving from all over the country to get their child in. They are desperate. We know that the earlier a child starts on the programme, the better their outcome will be, but, unfortunately, we’re getting log jams, which means families are left waiting.”

At Treetops, which uses a type of ABA known as verbal behaviour or VB, each child is “paired” with an assistant who carries a bag of “rewards” – toys or props the child enjoys using. Whenever they perform a task correctly, or behave as they are being taught to, they get a few minutes with their reward. In one of the older year groups, a teenage boy is treated to five minutes on the Nintendo DS, while another runs a wooden toy up and down his arm. In the nursery, a teaching assistant simply blows bubbles around the room as a reward for her pupil correctly saying his numbers.

Although no one uses the word “punishment”, there are “consequences” for bad behaviour. These could be the denial of access to a reward or an activity a child does not enjoy. In Jack’s case, to tackle his issues with eating, his teaching assistant would give him a tiny spoonful of regular food, and if he ate it he’d immediately get a spoonful of the baby food he liked, as a reward. Slowly, he stopped gagging so much, but his mother admits she came close to stopping the programme.

“I found it upsetting to see him crying and being sick. And if he was sick, he wasn’t allowed to have his custard afterwards. I found it very harsh and questioned whether it was going to work. Something told me to keep going with it, and after about six months he was starting to eat.”




  1. Caroline Cristina November 6, 2013
  2. Tammy Graham November 6, 2013
  3. Alex Lowery November 9, 2013