On Wednesday last in Leinster House, Jonathan O’Brien TD (Sinn Fein) hosted an all-party briefing on Applied Behaviour Analysis and Autism. The meeting, well attended by members of the Oireachtas Education Committee and other interested parties, was address by Professor Julian Leslie, Chair Division of Behaviour Analysis Psychological Society of Ireland, Dr Neil Martin of the European Association of Behaviour Analysis, and Professor Mickey Keenan, University of Ulster.
All three speakers stressed the sound scientific basis of the methods of ABA and their well-established effectiveness in improving the quality of life of and educational progress of children of children with autism. This contrasts with the unproven effectiveness of the eclectic approach currently favoured by the Department of Education. The outcome of scientific studies comparing the Department of Education’s preferred eclectic approach and ABA indicate that children with autism learn significantly better when they receive ABA.
Professor Keenan stressed the difficulty in Ireland, North and South, of getting policy makers to consider the scientific evidence for ABA and move away from supporting methods which have no scientific basis. Dr Martin spoke of the importance of ABA programmes being managed by properly trained ABA professionals, with qualifications in ABA at Masters level at least. Currently, the Department of Education does not provide teachers with access to Masters level training in applied behaviour analysis and while the NCSE has recommended that teachers using ABA should always be regularly supervised by qualified behaviour analysts, the DES only provides teachers with access to optional introductory level courses.
While the Division of Behaviour Analysis recognises the value of introductory courses in ABA, Professor Leslie summed up the feelings of many present when he said “ You can’t deliver a 5 day workshop and expect teachers to have the necessary skills to work with autism. A parent wouldn’t do a 5 day workshop on dentistry and then pull out their own child’s tooth”.
Professor Leslie concluded by saying, “ABA is an over-arching approach, not one technique, and it is the only intervention which has been shown to work [in improving educational attainment and social functioning in children with autism] when used systematically. A few years ago, Ireland was in the fortunate position of having 13 ABA schools that had been set up and staffed in a way that made possible comprehensive programmes for children with autism. However, the changes implemented from 2010 mean this is far from being the case now. This seems like wanton destruction of opportunities for children in this community.”
Following the briefing, those attending were afforded the opportunity to ask questions of the professionals It was clear from the questions asked, that people are concerned that the minister does not have access to the correct information in relation to ABA and that there appears to be a difficulty in getting this information to him. The Division of Behaviour Analysis has offered to meet directly with the minister and his officials to help in any way to provide a more accurate understanding of ABA and it’s outcomes for individuals with ASD.