ABA and Difficult Situations

My husband had a disturbing experience the other day. He was shopping in a big box store with Bug and they were looking at a few toys while I got my glasses fixed. While they were doing so, a young man came into the aisle with an adult female. It became clear to my husband fairly quickly that the young man had autism and the female was not his mother, but probably his 'section 24' worker. The young man than asked to buy something and was promptly told no. This prompted him to go into a huge tantrum that seemed more of a statement and attention seeking and less of out of control behavior. The worker's reaction was extraordinary. She immediately became livid- absolutely unreasonably angry and it was clear very quickly that she was so angry that the situation would possibly go out of control for both of them. She was clearly so angry that she would be unable to help in any de-escalation of the situation. What was her next step? She looked at the young man and said “ Well, you just lost three stars, young man!”

I am so confused by ABA sometimes. In this situation, the worker allowing herself to get angry and then telling the child that due to his behavior he has lost a privilege, etc.. really seems to send the wrong message. For one thing, it feels pretty hypocritical to punish someone else for not controlling their behavior while you have lost control of your emotions/behavior. It was clear to my husband that the child's response was not “oh I should stop”. It resembled more of “Well, nothing left to lose now-already lost my privileges.” My husband quickly moved my son out of the aisle and they left as the situation did continue to rapidly spiral out of control. I was once told that anyone using behaviorism has to be very, very careful because often, the lesson that they are trying to teach is not the lesson that the other individual is picking up. And ABA is so rigid and doesn't take a lot of factors into account for the individuals involved. In some ways (and this worker expressed this) it is more about expressing and exerting control over someone else.

Now, it is possible that the worker was having a bad day and this wasn't her typical behavior. It is also possible that this is the worker's typical behavior and the child was having a bad day. Of course, we could have misunderstood the whole situation. And it is possible that the parents are either OK with this behavior or have no idea that the behavior by the worker is going on. It is also possible the the parent's know, but are so desperate for the break that they are willing to accept the worker's behavior. It is also possible that the worker is not really trained at all and is just struggling to figure out what she is supposed to do. There are probably several options that I haven't even thought of yet.

But that whole situation shouldn't have happened. In the end, it wasn't fair to the child. Sure his fake tantrum was silly, but he probably just learned to keep doing the tantrum by the worker's behavior. And the worker will probably get even more angry and quit, leaving the family in a bad spot, and leaving the child with more adverse behavior that the new worker will have to deal with. The whole situation just makes me sad.

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