Opinion: Affinity Theory and ABA

Opinion: Affinity Theory and ABA

Recently there’s been a lot of press about Affinity Theory. It was spurred by a great piece in the NY Times, Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney. The results that Ron Suskind was able to achieve with his son are incredible, and his story is an important one for both parents and professionals working with individuals with autism. But I am concerned about the huge amount of press for the “new” Affinity Theory. It doesn’t acknowledge that the Affinity Theory actually utilizes well-researched behavioral methodologies such as suskindpairing and using motivating operations in teaching. It also complicates the already complicated process parents must manage as they try to find appropriate services for their child.

Why is it important?

When children are first diagnosed with autism, parents and caregivers are faced with a maze of information and misinformation. There’s ABA, a host of other potential therapies, and many, many fad treatments that do more harm than good. Moreover, there are ABA providers out there who seem to be splintering our field by insisting on dividing into other “treatments” such as VB or naturalistic ABA. All of this causes confusion with parents, right at the moment they are being told that the sooner they find appropriate intervention, the better it is for their child’s prognosis.

At the end of the day, if what you’re doing addresses challenging behavior in an effective and sustainable way, I don’t care what it’s called. Except for the fact that continually adding new names for old theories perpetuates confusion and allows a fad-treatment culture around autism. What I do care about is that no matter what parents and providers choose to do, that they ask themselves these questions:

  • Is it of value to the individual with autism?
  • Is it the most efficient way to teach a skill?
  • Why is it necessary to address this skill right now?
  • Is the teaching method aversive to the individual? or better yet Does the individual enjoy your teaching method?
  • Are your methods evidence-based?

While Suskind’s description of Affinity Theory appropriately responds to all of these questions, it has created a situation in which  something that actually uses well-researched behavioral technologies is categorized as a brand new theory. But instead of utilizing all aspects of ABA, it hones in on one skill set and how it was developed with one student. It sounds like a new way to potentially address challenging behaviors, but it doesn’t acknowledge the underlying functions of behavior and understanding of motivation. And it further splinters our field, increasing the confusion I discussed above.

The takeaway? 

Behavior analysts need to get better at sharing information in a relatable, easy-to-understand fashion. We are often so focused on the fact that we use evidence-based, scientific strategies for improving the lives of individuals with autism that we fail to connect in a meaningful way with the very people we want to help. While data and precise language are important, they lose their value if they serve to alienate parents, caregivers, and other professionals. Ron Suskind has connected with people in a meaningful way, and we need to take a lesson from that.

We need to get better about educating the public about what we do, putting our terminology into understandable and dare I say “media-friendly” language. We know that we can have huge impacts on the individuals we work with, but it is irresponsible of us not to spread the word in the most accessible way possible.

For reliable information about treatments for autism, refer to the Association for Science in Autism Treatment

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