Intro to ABA
After we hired our behavior analyst, things changed. Patrice Hay observed Ridge at home and interviewed us about his history. By this time, Ridge was showing aggressive and violent behaviors at home , had stopped talking and spent a lot of time hiding under the cabinets and banging his head on the floor. He growled and attacked. It was a terrible thing to see.
When he did talk, he spoke in curse words with anger and hate.
His melt downs were terrifying because he seem possessed in a rage state that he had no control of that left nothing but destruction in his path.
I knew that if we did not get some answers soon, he would have to go to a residential home. He stabbed our furniture with knifes, cut the curtains with scissors and would find ways to destroy things no matter what.
The expelling from school was hard because I got no sympathy as a teacher to stay home with him. I was torn between my work responsibilities and taking care of Ridge. No one wanted to sub for my class and I felt I was failing all the way around.
One of my worst behaved students asked to speak with me after class. He had heard of why I was absent and he wanted me to know that he too had learning difficulties but his mother refused to allow him to be tested many years before. He had terrible grades and said that he went to a gang to find the support he never got at home. He cried and told me that he wished I had been his mother and that I should do everything I could to help Ridge now before it was too late.
All those little problems that we see in elementary school just get bigger and bigger and by the time a child is in high school, the problems and the workload have each grown into a deep crevasse that few can cross. I was horrified when my students would drop out and no one cared. I was told by an administrator to let them go because they were just trouble.
I had already decided to quit as we were moving to Virginia anyway but finishing those last few weeks was very difficult.
Ridge went back to the school where he was suddenly a monster and was treated differently by his teacher as well as the students. He was shunned and shamed. Finally , they were ready to accept his testing results as well as do their own. Their three years of RTI showed no progress and after countless meetings we finally got an IEP in the summer after the school year.
The meetings were hostile and they tried to bully me. Patrice Hay went with me and asked important questions. We challenged stupidity and they did not like it. I recorded them and they got really paranoid. I was getting ready for due process. No matter what, it was a terrible time. I was rejected and scorned and my son was now seen as a threat.
By the summer, we finalized the IEP and I saw several ugly reports in his file. They spent a lot of time back tracking to paint him out as a dangerous person. I guess they were afraid and wanted to project on him and cover up their oversights.
Patrice started fresh by pairing herself with positive reinforcement and we began setting a goal to reduce cursing. Compliance to do almost anything was very low.
We could find no reinforcers that he wanted besides his dog. So, she became his reason to do anything.
That poor dog was the best therapy dog on earth. She rescued him after many melt downs and was always willing to be held by the angry energy until it released into sobs. Occasionally she would hide in her kennel and I knew she had to take a break.
School was out and we spent the summer balancing activities with free time. Patrice was an expert at meeting Ridge where he was and yet gently coaxing him out of his shut down into a little movement forward. I had some trouble at first with the reinforcement for every little thing. It seemed ridiculous to reward him so often because he was still difficult to deal with.
Patrice had a very positive attitude and she became my beacon of hope. Therapy is never just for the child but for the entire family. At this point I realized that my husband actually shared many of the same characteristics of Aspergers that Ridge had. She had many years of experience and she also had a spiritual presence that lifted all of us. She helped me to see how the school situation had been reinforcing his noncompliance and triggering his melt downs.
At one point he was so angry with me that he started to punch me in the face. I remember just giving up and staring into his cold eyes of hate and I what I saw changed me. It was fear. He was like an irate crazy wounded animal that had no choice when cornered but to fight. I felt so overwhelmed and offered nothing but compassion even if I was about to be attacked. Amazingly, he put his fist down and ran away . Something deep and primal connected and I knew that I was going to have to crawl into that scary dark world with him to ever lead him back out. I really didn’t want to but I knew I had to. Without Patrice’s assurance and calling on the side of sanity, I am not sure if I could have done any of this.
He was taking several medications since his diagnosis. After school was out he said, “Mom, you know this is poison. But I will take it if you want me to.” I couldn’t any more. I threw them all away. He got better within a couple of weeks and most of his ticks (Scratching inside his ears and nose) were gone! So much for that crap as well!
I decided to take the college courses needed to become a behavior analyst myself. The terminology threw me into brain exhaustion but I learned things that every teacher should have been taught .
Just the concept of reinforcement was a new paradigm. As teachers, we are taught that praise, tokens, parties, etc are positive reinforcement. This may or may not be true.
In the field of ABA, reinforcement is something that you add or take away that strengthens or increases the behavior you want. The definition is based on the consequential effects of behavioral change. So, if you give someone praise and they increase that behavior it is positive reinforcement. If you give praise and there is no difference in the behavior then it is not positive reinforcement. Positive means something is added. Negative means something is taken away. This is mathematical not ethical. If you tell students that if they pass their practice test that they get to opt out of their final and they do, this is negative reinforcement.
So many teachers set up their behavior plans however they want and if the student doesn’t follow along, it is the child’s fault and they go to their planned punishments. That too is something I never felt right about in education.
I remember various examples of teachers writing referrals, sending their kids to the office or other rooms for time out, and endless benching at recess. The same kids would be there time and time again. The true definition of punishment is that it is something added or taken away that decreases the behavior. So, these punishments were never punishment! Obviously, many of our techniques were not working but as teachers we blamed the child rather than ourselves when the plan didn’t work.
As a behavior analyst, it is your job to find the reinforcers that the client will work for. This can be anything but it changes often too. There is no one size fits all. Punishment can be used but it harder to implement and rarely shows as much success. These concepts alone take some time to adjust to.
I had to change everything about the way we were interacting with Ridge. Patrice helped me to see this other way and to take data on where we were. I continued with my ABA classes and by the time summer was over, Ridge had started talking again and melt downs were less frequent. He had heard Dr. Jose Martinez Diaz (My ABA instructor at FIT) so often that he could write his own functional analysis plans. I had no idea at the time that his learning these ideas along with me would eventually help him to self manage his behavior.
We moved to Virginia armed with the protection of an IEP and my learning as much as I could about ABA. Unfortunately, I could not find another therapist like Patrice there. So I was the only Patrice…weird.
As soon as we drove up to see the new elementary school, Ridge urinated in his pants. It was PTSD. I felt so sad that he had been so mistreated and hurt for years. I had to help him no matter what. I could never afford to trust the system. I had to put all my efforts into being his therapist and mother.
The next year was a time of rebuilding for Ridge. His 3rd grade teachers were kind but he was very much afraid and anxious. He had stopped most of his aggressive acts and was accepted by the new students. I went to the school to have lunch with his class one day and a little girl with ribbons and bows was sort of in charge at the table. I was very careful not to say too much that might embarrass Ridge but at one point she noticed us and said, “Is this YOUR son? Do you know that he GROWLS?” I said, “Really? That is great. He hasn’t bitten you yet has he?” She looked aghast and gave me a disapproving “hmph.” I was at a new low of being judged unworthy by a third grader.
His speech teacher (that I never met) was a godsend. She worked with him in small groups and taught conversation skills. Ridge would come home and tell me about what he learned.
I had never really understood that Ridge didn’t know how. It became my new understanding that everything had to be explicitly taught to Ridge about social rules. He had no empathy not because of being a monster but because he didn’t see or understand other’s points of view. Some experts call this mind blindness.
This could be taught however and I had a big assignment ahead of me. John Elder Robison’s book Look Me In the Eye was helpful to understand why these skills were so greatly needed.
I read lots and lots of books and talked to many specialists in many treatments. ABA combined with CBA (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)seemed to be my best bet.Relationship Development Intervention sounded good but was too expensive for us.
Homework was a daily battle for 2-3 hours. I took data and eventually it shifted to a 1-2 hour block. A few months later, it was nonexistence of any fighting and was completed within 10 minutes. The same behavior plan was in place. The difference was that he chose to accept it.
I would listen to my ABA professors online and Ridge learned the concepts along with me. He was more of a behavior analyst than me! He wanted to start taking a counter to school to take data on his teacher of how many times she would say “be quiet” and get no response. I told him that it would be a great thing to study but that she would not like to be evaluated by him. Instead we took data on our dogs and trained them to do tricks. I would chart my data, created token systems and even used celerations charts like crazy!
I was on task with him when he was home from school and the rest of the day I spent watching ABA videos and homework. I was becoming more and more depressed as well. My life seemed to have no meaning except for charts and data and continued focus on saving Ridge.
My oldest son had started college at the University of Florida and stayed in Florida when we had moved. Maddie was at the middle school and our community was not friendly. I had no outside contacts and lost my personal identity completely.
We found that Maddie had a very severe scoliosis curvature and needed surgery, Ridge had a seizure at school and Tim didn’t get the promotion he expected all in one week. I truly felt that God had turned his back on me. I was trying so hard and felt totally forsaken.
I began to have dreams that I believe were divine messages of guidance. I was told that things are not as they appear and this gave me newfound hope to dig deeper. On that day, Ridge came home from school and looked and acted different. He was making eye contact with me and smiled . He said that he had had an awakening at school. He started chatting away like I had never seen before in a pleasant voice asking personal questions to Maddie and me. She wanted to know what was going on and I was terrified that a seizure was about to happen.I almost wrecked the car trying to watch him in the rear view mirror but somehow got home and to focus my complete attention to this.
More about his awakening in the next blog….