Friday, October 02, 2009

Autism and ABA - Edward K. Morris Accuses Morton Ann Gernsbacher of Misrepresenting ABA

WOW! I am not a fan of Morton Ann Gernsbacher and her positions on ABA and autism but I have never seen anyone thoroughly, systematically and candidly dissect and demolish her criticisms of ABA as Edward K. Morris of the University of Kansas has done in an article published in The Behavior Analyst and posted at Paul Coyne's site. The title of the article gets right to the point: A Case Study in the Misrepresentation of Applied Behavior Analysis in Autism: The Gernsbacher Lectures. Morris pulls no punches and states with respect to Gernsbacher's ABA criticisms that :

Sentiment against applied behavior analysis is not, of course, necessarily anti science. No matter what Gernsbacher’s sentiments may be, her achievements are anything but anti science.What stunned me, then, was how she reached her conclusions: She inaccurately represented research reviews, wrongly characterized applied behavior-analytic interventions, misleadingly appealed to history, inaccurately conveyed research designs, selectively omitted research results, and incorrectly interpreted intervention outcomes. Although misrepresentations often only a minor nuisance in science, they can have harmful consequences, which I believe hers did (and do), both locally and more broadly.

The local consequences included misinforming KU’s community members about ABA-EIBI; hundreds of KU students about a science of behavior and its application; current and prospective ABS majors about course of study at KU (and careers); and KU staff, faculty, and administrators about scholarship in a department renowned for its research in applied behavior analysis. The broader consequences include Gernsbacher’s probable influence on behavioral, social, and cognitive scientists who teach, conduct research, and provide services in autism; funding agencies and foundations who set priorities and allocate resources for autism research and applications; and state and federal agencies that set standards for autism services and funding. She has standing and stature in most, if not all, of these venues: in APS, of course, but also in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where she is a psychology section member at large, and in the National Science Foundation (NSF), where she is on the Advisory Committee for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Although Gernsbacher surely gained these highly respected positions by conducting first-rate science, the hallmarks of her science were largely absent in this section of her lecture.

Morris sent a copy of his critique of her ABA positions to Gernsbacher before publishing the article. Morris reports that after she received the article Gersnbacher continued to make the same misrepresentations of ABA which ... if she read the article ... might suggest that she did so knowingly. He invited her to participate in a symposium on the evidence for the efficacy of ABA- EIBI. She declined.

Morris offers his primary rationale for his devastating critique of Gernsbacher's ABA criticisms:

Mainly, though, I wrote it for the families of children with autism and, ultimately, for those children who need and deserve evidence-based treatments, of which ABA-EIBI so far has the best support. Unfortunately, many parents are dissuaded from using it by misinformed, misguided, or misleading advocates of other approaches. As a result, they often use these approaches until they see their children’s poor progress. When they begin using ABA-EIBI to good effect, they speak of their great regret and guilt for not having used it earlier, when their children had the most to gain and the most time to make those gains. The opportunity cost of not using ABA-EIBI, or any equally effective intervention, is that their children will be delayed in achieving their full potential or never achieve it at all. As a result, their children will need more supportive services and institutionalization later into their lives and perhaps for the rest of their lives at significant personal and social costs to them, and financial costs to us all. This is a crime.

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Penny said...

I wish I'd heard Morton Ann Gernsbacher sooner (I've known about her for several years) -- maybe we would have abandoned ABA more quickly and not have so much bad-ABA-damage to undo.

ABA does work. Our child learned everything we taught her via ABA. But we taught her skills without foundations, skipped important steps in development, and created more problems than we solved.

My child *flew* through her ABA programs. It worked. She learned what we programmed into her. The science is correct--children do learn what you teach them in ABA.

But what we programmed into her was not meaningful.

Definitely wish I'd learned about Morton Ann Gernsbacher before we abandoned ABA, not after.

A developmental approach has been so much better for us. (Relationship Development Intervention, to be specific)

Unknown said...

Penny have you considered the possibility that you didn't "do" ABA correctly?

I ask because you have stated here your personal negative experience with ABA several times.

As I said in my comment I am also "aware of" Morton Ann Gernsbacher. If ABA was not done properly with your child I am sure her words would have seemed very informative.

Unfortunately, as Professor Morris states, she has had much influence and many parents that heard her might not realize that no other intervention is supported as an effective autism intervention by anywhere near the same degree of evidence and study as ABA.

I hope someday Professor Gernsbacher takes Professor Morris up on his offer to discuss ABA on a public platform so she can explain what Morris calls her misrepresentations of ABA and the science behind it.

Anonymous said...

Penny-it's not that ABA "didn't work", it's that your ABA supervisor did not bother to program for generalization which is a HUGE problem with many providers, even the well known ones. It takes a great deal of knowledge and time and so many just "teach the program" so to speak. That's what it sounds like they did with your child. Additionally, good ABA providers spend a great deal of time teaching joint attention, theory of mind and executive functioning skills. These are all part of ABA. RDI is nothing new or separate. Any good ABA provider incorporates all of those skills into a good program. The fact that people call it a separate methodology is just wrong. Don't blame ABA, blame the bad oversight of your ABA program by a supervisor who had no real clue.

Penny said...

We had FOUR BCBAs that came and went, and all of them were the same. A hospital in a big city near me was developing an ABA "clinic" and kept taking our BCBAs for the clinic and giving us a new one. They came from four different universities in three states. None of them came in and changed anything. Are you telling me we had "bad" ABA with four BCBA's?

If that could happen to us, it could happen to thousands of other families as the "norm".

Buyer, beware.

Penny said...

PS: Where ARE all the indistinguishable kids from ABA? They're not around me. I can name two out of all the families I know.

Unknown said...

Penny I understand that YOUR child did not do well with ABA. I get it.

Your anecdotal evidence is evidence but it is outweighed by the hundreds of studies,and credible reviews, reporting successful outcomes from ABA intervention.

This comment thread is not about whether Penny's child did or did not do well with ABA. it is about Professor Morris's published allegations that the scientific literature on ABA is being misrepresented by Morton Ann Gernsbacher to the detriment of some with autism and their families.

Personally I hope that parents of newly diagnosed autistic children read Professor Morris on this subject, along with the credible reviews such as the AAP, the MADSEC, the NYSDOH, the US Surgeon General's office all of which have noted the strong evidentiary basis supporting ABA intervention for autistic children.

I hope that parents of newly diagnosed autistic children are not dissuaded by Morton Ann Gernsbacher, or by your personal experience, from seeking ABA for their autistic children.

Penny said...

Harold, ABA works. If Morton Ann says it does not, she's wrong. I don't dispute the fact that it does what it says it does. It did work for us -- but it wasn't meaningful. It didn't translate into competency in a classroom or reciprocity or interaction.

I want others to learn from my mistakes. I don't want another family to go through what we've gone through because they trusted the science that says ABA does what it says it does.

Anonymous said...

Here's another recovered child for you Penny. Therapy by CARD. Intensive ABA with an emphasis on theory of mind and executive function.