Undoing operant conditioning trauma with autistic piano students

ABA for autistics is based on Pavlov’s operant conditioning for dogs. In this video, you can see the lone dog waiting for permission to have fun. Watching this clip, I can almost hear the ABA kid saying, “Miss Ashley–what am I working for? After I swim for 5 minutes, can I have 15 minutes of iPad time?”

Many of my autistic piano students are ABA survivors. They have been led to believe that they have no original thoughts, intentions, or free will. Everything they do is scripted, and everything they don’t do is conditioned. It takes us weeks to begin undoing the damage. In the worst cases, it takes months or years, depending on their age and the length of the ABA-induced trauma.

To investigate child development, 19th century behaviorist Ivan Pavlov experimented on dogs. Back in the days before ethics banned such experiments, he assumed that dogs will comply with the training because they are motivated by food. Operant conditioning is a way to manipulate (condition) the environment (operation) to produce an outcome. If the behavior is rewarded with a good consequence, more of that good behavior will keep coming. Likewise, if a behavior is negatively reinforced, the behavior will dissolve.

Standard ABA reward chart

Standard ABA reward chart

ABA (applied behavior analysis) is considered an ‘evidence-based treatment’ for autism, only because the evidence is based on Pavlov’s dogs. When applied to humans, the parent who prefers a favorable outcome will be delighted that their child finally learned to go potty. The problem extends into the ethics of those in position of power who determine the goals. The therapist and parent get to decide on a list of behaviors to enforce, and a list of behaviors to diminish. This can include much-needed self regulatory stimming (Also read: Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View). As in child sexual abuse*, the victim will lifelessly comply if they are groomed with compliments and treats. Just like Pavlov speculated, we are more likely to repeat a behavior once we learn that it produces positive consequences.

In this video, you can see a non-speaking autistic piano student who was kicking and screaming straight through his first lesson. By the second week, he was playing and reading independently. By the third week, he was happy to follow my guidance to correct his fingering. One month later, this student is now playing with two hands and waits all week for his lesson time, ready to shine. In the first lesson, he had to be convinced to read and play only after the dreaded reward chart was shown to him. After the first month of lessons, he is happily seated at the piano without any rewards mentioned.

With my autistic piano students, the work starts from the first lesson when the student realizes that playing the piano is the ‘reward’ and not the ‘task’ with which to work on for a reward. Rather than dumbing the material down to rehearsing Twinkle-Twinkle, I start the first lesson with sophisticated music so they can hear the the sound of their own intelligence. This no-fail approach always leads to lightbulb moments where the kids begin to come back to life. For the parent witnessing their child’s strengths, the lessons are a dramatic change from the rest of the week’s structure.


* While I recognize the complexity of the psychology around sexual abuse, I am in no way implying that ABA is comparable to sexual abuse. Rather, I am troubled by the way in which they are similar: both are adult-imposed manipulation on a vulnerable person for producing an pre-planned outcome.

More Articles: A Dog’s Life: Pedagogical Flaws in Repetitive Piano Practice for Autistic Students

One thought on “Undoing operant conditioning trauma with autistic piano students

  1. As with any strategy for teaching one with specific developmental disabilities/other abilities, one ‘size’ will never fit all. Decades of research related to the use of ABA not only with those with autism (especially severe) and ADHD, amongst other disorders, have had a solid record of effectiveness. That such procedures are ‘mechanistic’ in nature has been and continues to be discussed today. My Goddaughter benefited greatly from ABA, as have many throughout the country and the world. I’ve seen amazing progress using similar strategies with both the most involved and more capable people with similar and other disabilities. Regardless of what method is utilized, and today there are many more we know and use that one can choose, focusing on what is most important to learn at any given time is part of the process for any methodology.

    We cannot forget as well that for many, some decision making is available to the person through whatever means (spoken word, communication board/device, computer, etc.) the person is able to utilize. I have to disagree with the comparison between ABA and child abuse; there are numerous different factors that come into play between both scenarios. Children who are abused are often threatened with harm, or harm to others, if the tell about ‘their little secret’. There are no positive outcomes whatsoever when one is abused sexually; there are many positive outcomes for many who have chosen ABA as the preferred treatment over others.

    Conversely, that you and others are discovering new treatment strategies that are turning out to be highly effective for others can only lead to a better understanding and therapeutic treatments for those who have an ASD or Asperger’s. The greater the number of choices, the better the chances for positive outcomes for all those who require such interventions.

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