My Evolution from Applied Behavior Analysis to Embracing Individual Differences and Neurodiversity
Following my instincts, I learned to prioritize connections with neuro-divergent
children instead of focusing on reducing their behaviors, giving my clients the
tools they need to feel understood, safe and seen.
I work as a testing psychologist with a specialization in facilitating a more clear and comprehensive understanding of what neuro-divergent children need to thrive. My aim is to help them recognize their own strengths (and differences) so that they know they are great just as they are, and like all of us, they have areas where they need more help or more practice. I focus on helping parents understand and embrace their children’s unique profiles and partner with educators to properly support neuro-divergent learners. However, as I have become more firmly rooted in my identity as a neurodiversity affirming practitioner, I am aware of the paradox of this stance when considering my beginnings in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is now viewed as oppressive or even harmful by the autistic community. It has been compared to trying to cure left-handedness or homosexuality in that ABA was essentially used to train autistic individuals to act and look like neurotypicals. I know that many of us who started in this field began with training in ABA and are now having to grapple with this past and its implications for whether we helped or harmed vulnerable individuals in our care. It felt right to be open and forthright about my own journey and evolving beliefs.
I first began working with autistic children as an undergraduate at UCLA where I learned a lot about the principles of behavior intervention. At the time, implementing Discrete Trial Training (DTT) was the highest level of training you could get when it came to autism. The two main goals of DTT were to reduce behaviors that interfered with learning and to increase skills in play, self-help, and communication. The aim was to teach autistic children how to look and behave like typical children, or to get as close to that as possible.
Ten years later, I was a Clinical Director at an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) agency where I went against the norm and used my education to train my staff to see the whole child and to not just focus on their behaviors. This was new to many people and sometimes put me at odds with those who were deeply entrenched in ABA being a one-size-fits-all type of therapy. Nevertheless, I persisted, directing the staff to meet each autistic child where they were currently at, build upon their interests, engage them in a way that felt meaningful to them, and ensure any goals we developed were only for the best interest of the child. Of course, I didn't know about all the changes that were to come to our field in the near future, but what I did know at the time was that ABA was far too simplistic for the complexity of who we were as human beings. I also knew that if something didn’t feel right to me as an adult, then I didn’t feel right imposing it on a child who didn’t have the voice to ask for something different. My ongoing training in clinical psychology gave me the opportunity to look beyond behaviorism and see that there was so much more I could do to help these wonderful kiddos and their families. I was fortunate to have mentors leading the way in developing new understandings of autism, like Dr. Gwen Palafox who helped me focus on really connecting with my clients to understand and empower them; she is the reason I teach all of my clients today how to advocate for their own needs and wants. Dr. Mona Delahooke was the first person to introduce me to polyvagal theory (developed by Dr. Stephen Porges), which helped me understand how behaviors are the nervous system's response to coping with sensory differences and needs. Dr. Delahooke’s work is truly a guiding light changing our field for the better.
It took over two years of studying to earn my BCBA-D degree, but despite all the work I had put into it, I let go of this certification because my goals were not about reducing behaviors, but rather about developing children’s ability to access the tools they needed to feel better. When a child feels safe and regulated in their body, they will naturally do their best. Our job is to create a supportive environment that respects their individual differences and offer tools that helps them feel safe and seen.
It has been 25 years since I first worked with an autistic child. I'm beyond grateful to still know some of the kiddos I once worked with who are now amazing adults. I feel like I did the best with what I knew when I first entered this field, and feel satisfied knowing that I followed my instincts to prioritize connection and understanding above all else. It is incredible to look back on how far we've come as a society on understanding, and finally embracing, neurodiversity. We still have a long way to go and we need to continue to listen to the voices of the autistic community to guide us.
These days, my very favorite thing is when parents come to me asking for an evaluation and they say, “I don't want to change my child if you end up diagnosing them with autism. I just want him/her to really understand who they are and what they need to thrive. I want the school to support them based on understanding how their neurodivergence impacts how they learn and socialize.”
That is a goal I can truly get behind.