History of Autism Diagnosis and Treatment
The diagnostic criteria, descriptions of autism, and treatment of autism have widely changed since its origins in the 1940s. Historically, autism was described as a form of childhood schizophrenia versus a set of related developmental disorders. Autism being classified as an emotional disturbance led to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defining autism as a psychiatric condition in the 1950s. Therefore, the treatments for autism by psychologists during this time were harsh, unethical, and typically involved institutionalization. A diagnosis of autism placed individuals in a box of low expectations regarding their future and quality of life.
In the 1970s, research methods improved, and autism was found to be rooted in brain development. Later in the 1980s, the DSM revised its description of autism as a “pervasive developmental disorder” very much separate from schizophrenia in terms of descriptions and treatment. Autism at this time became defined by behavioral characteristics and research on how to improve critical behaviors lead to treatments such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.
Based on the notion that behaviors can be observed, analyzed, and changed, ABA therapy became the gold standard of autism treatment and methods have only improved over time. ABA therapy does not look to change who a child is at their core, but to increase critical skills and behaviors that will improve the quality of life for individuals on the autism spectrum. Therefore, when autism began being defined as a behavioral and/or developmental disorder, it opened the doors for behavior analysts to begin helping children with this diagnosis obtain critical skills.
Why ABA Therapy is the Best Weapon Against Low Expectations
Historically, when autism was seen as emotional disturbances and psychiatric disorders, the culture had extremely low expectations of an individual with autism. It was assumed a child with autism would forever be nonverbal, display problematic behaviors, and lack social skills and independence.
This idea has greatly changed, especially since ABA therapy began developing procedures and methods to help individuals with autism increase skills. It is now more widely accepted that a person with autism can acquire skills necessary to live independently and with the highest quality of life. More importantly, it has been accepted that individuals with autism can learn, especially when accessing quality ABA therapy at a young age.
ABA therapy is the best weapon against low expectations because the focus of ABA is to increase the following skills when working with an individual with autism:
The most important goal during ABA therapy is to give individuals with autism a way to communicate their wants and needs. A plethora of research has supported ABA as being effective in increasing verbal repertoires. In cases where verbal skills do not increase, ABA therapy works on giving children with autism a way to communicate their desires through sign language or augmented communication devices. The goal of increasing communication is to give individuals with autism a voice to express more than just wants and needs, but their opinions, dreams, and goals.
Another important goal of ABA therapy is to increase social skills. For some individuals with autism, social skills may not come naturally and might need to be taught. Some individuals with autism grow into adults that prefer to be alone or may prefer not to make eye contact. However, for some individuals with autism, they very much want to be social but might not have the tools to know how. Therefore, the goal of ABA therapy is to teach these foundational skills but then give individuals on the spectrum the communication to express what they do and do not want to engage in.
Independent Living Skills
Skills such as toileting, dressing, feeding, toothbrushing and daily household chores are paramount for any individual’s independence. ABA therapy works diligently to ensure children can grow into adults which possess the skills needed to live on their own and to be an independent member in society.
For ABA therapists, increasing communication, social and independent living skills is the best weapon against low expectations. ABA therapists do not accept the notion that a person with autism cannot learn and be independent. True acceptance involves embracing the strengths of an individual with autism and giving them the skills to break through the box that they are put in.