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ABA-VB (Verbal Behaviour): Dispelling the myth that all types of ABA therapies are rigid

ABA-VB (Verbal Behaviour) uses a naturalistic approach to help the child learn more effectively

ABA-VB is based on the view that language is a behaviour which is learnt and acquired, in the same way as any other skills. The role of a therapist is to help children overcome the barriers preventing them from acquiring language. In case you’ve heard that therapy might be rigid or hard on your child, we hope that reading this article on VB therapy will help relieve some of your concerns!

Firstly, how is ABA-VB not rigid? We practice drills with the child till they have mastered it, and at the same time make it a point to insert variations of the same requests/ instructions so that the child is able to see that there are many ways to phrase one thing, and to understand that language is not static. In other words, to reduce the likelihood of them getting used to a standard phrase for a specific request because it’s what they have memorised or conditioned to look out for.

Natural Environment Teaching (NET) within the VB program refers to teaching VB using the real world. By integrating learning into the child’s natural environment, we encourage the child to generalise. This allows them to develop the ability to apply skills they’ve learnt to a totally new situation. For example, not just teaching them about colours from a colour chart but also integrating it into their immediate environment, identifying the colours of objects around them.

Although we start off with establishing patterns to facilitate learning, we eventually introduce variations and changes to avoid rigidity. We are constantly on the lookout for whether the child is forming patterns, for instance, answering questions in a particular order just because he expects the therapist to ask in that order. We counter it by breaking that pattern.

(Tip: take notice if your child is forming patterns!)

Contrary to what some may contend, ABA-VB is not cruel. We do not try to force a child to completely eradicate behaviors (e.g. hand flapping), but instead teach them to cope in the presence of a trigger. Rather than making the child suppress their behaviors, we teach them when it is appropriate to do certain things.

Just like adults, we may have the natural tendency of shaking our leg or tapping a pen against the table, but have learnt to do it only in the comforts of our home and not when in the library, for example, which may disturb others. Such behaviors are specific to circumstance. We may also feel frustrated by the incessant drilling from a construction site, but have learnt to cope with it and regulate our mental state, rather than yell in response to it. The ABA-VB approach helps by tackling the behaviours strategically rather than just trying to bury things under the carpet!

One very important key aspect is that the ABA-VB program also incorporates empathy, not just learning skills for daily functioning. We believe that empathy can be taught. Empathy refers to one’s sensitivity towards others’ feelings. By modelling empathy, a child can learn by example. We first begin with the labeling of feelings to help them recognise and gain more awareness of their emotional state, so that they will be better able to handle their emotions. After they are familiar with these, we can then start to insert feeling-related questions at the right time, like “how would I feel if you snatch my toy?” so that they are constantly reminded to consider other perspectives. This is similar to the theory of mind in psychology, where children slowly gain the ability to attribute mental states to others when they were previously unable to.

At the same time, we continuously encourage and reward eye contact because avoiding eye contact could also be a contributing factor in the difficulty identifying others’ emotions through facial expressions.

A child with autism can definitely be empathetic but may just lack the ability to identify and manage whatever emotion they are feeling. Or they may not know how to express it in an appropriate manner, for example, laughing at a wrong time not because they actually find something funny but because that is how they cope with or release what they are feeling. This is where we can help them correct it and improve.

Finally, what sets ABA-VB apart is that it focuses on one’s intrinsic motivation to learn things and to build relationships. A child will start to use speech on his own accord when he recognises how useful and effective words are in conveying his needs.

VB is a much more humanistic approach and serves better purposes in the long run when a child is self-motivated and eager to learn, not just completing a series of tasks because they are conditioned to expect a reinforcement at the end. If you had the chance to sit in for a session, you’ll get to see how lively and dynamic it is.

The plasticity of the human brain is indisputable, even more so at a tender age. Hence, with early intervention using the right therapy, you can arm your child with a skill that they can carry with them for a long time -- a curiosity-driven learning.

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