A Comparative Look at School-based and Center-based ABA Programs
My 8-year-old son is currently enrolled in a school-based ABA program. We are in the process of moving into a new district and are being presented with an array of options. What are the pros and cons of a school-based ABA program versus a center-based ABA program?
Answered by Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA
President, Autism Special Interest Group of the Association for Behavior Analysis International
Associate Research Professor & Director of Research and Training, Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center
More children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) are being served in community-based public school environments than ever before. This is due to many factors, including increased numbers of children being diagnosed with ASD’s, the inability of specialized programs to serve the numbers of children identified, and the efforts of public schools to develop in-house ABA programs to address the needs of students with ASD’s. For all of these reasons, many parents of children with ASD’s will face the choice of a public vs. a private school placement. Like most choices, there are no clear answers. There are advantages and disadvantages to each placement option. Your decision is best made by matching your son’s needs and characteristics to the setting that can best address them.
Advantages of community-based, public school programs:
A community-based, public school program has several major potential advantages. It provides the child with the opportunity to attend school with other children from their neighborhood and, in some cases, their siblings. They can attend school with children they know from other contexts (e.g., their block, their sports team, etc.) This opportunity for community immersion and integration is a major advantage.
Furthermore, the types of inclusive opportunities that can be offered in a public school environment are limitless. The entire inclusive experience can be fully and individually tailored to a particular child’s needs and preferences. If a young child enjoys music and art, and attends well during these activities, he or she might be included for those special subjects. If they require more individualized instruction for pre-academic or academic activities, they can receive individual instruction for those activities outside of the inclusive experience. Similarly, if an older student with autism enjoys cooking, they may be included in activities involving cooking with typical peers. Such opportunities are often simply unavailable in segregated settings. When inclusion opportunities are available in specialized settings, the array of choices of times and activities is generally far more limited.
The resources that are available in a community-based placement are also generally more extensive than those available in a private school. Many educators with a wide range of knowledge and expertise are available. Special educators may have encountered learners with a wide variety of presenting problems and learning styles. Often, there are many commercially available curricular materials available for learners in all areas of instructional emphasis. In addition, there are often more related service providers available onsite, to provide ancillary services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.
Perhaps the most important available resource is peers. Peer training and peer buddy programs can help to equip peers with the skills they need to successfully interact with the students with ASD’s, and the large numbers of available peers increases the likelihood that interested and motivated peers can serve in mentoring roles. An additional advantage of a large social environment is that it is generally easier to identify individuals with similar interests. In general, it is easier to find another student who may be interested in similar topics or toys in a larger social network. In a small school, there may not be any other child interested in presidential trivia, electrical wiring, or the solar system. However, in a large school, it is much more likely that a similarly minded and motivated student can be found, and that a social connection between students with similar interests can be fostered. This can greatly decrease the isolation often experienced by students with ASD’s, and can be a very effective bridge into friendship relationships.
Disadvantages of community-based, public school programs:
The major disadvantage of a public school program placement is that staff members generally do not possess the same level of expertise regarding autism spectrum disorders or effective treatments for ASD’s that is found in staff members at specialized programs that use ABA. While there may be some understanding of the needs of learners with ASD’s, the breadth and depth of the knowledge is generally far less than among staff members in specialized programs. This deficit can be a problem in understanding the wide variety of learning and behavioral challenges of individuals with ASD’s. Similarly, while staff members may have been trained in some of the instructional strategies of Applied Behavior Analysis, they are often not well versed in the science of ABA. This may lead to circumstances in which staff members’ expertise is inadequate to meet the complex challenges of certain learners (e.g., significant maladaptive behavior.)
In addition, public school environments generally do not allow for the frequency and intensity of training and supervision that are essential for quality programming. Systems may be strained to incorporate essential ongoing training experiences and necessary demonstrations of instructional techniques. Furthermore, some public school staff members may be unfamiliar with the types of data collection and accountability procedures common in ABA programs. It is important to note that considerable variability exists across public school programs that utilize ABA.
Advantages of Center-Based Educational Environments:
Specialized programs generally do possess the special expertise in autism spectrum disorders. There are generally a number of senior clinicians and supervisors who have worked with individuals on the autism spectrum for many years, and who have an in-depth and broad understanding of the many ways in which ASD’s may affect learning, behavior, and communication. Many of these individuals possess certification in behavior analysis and your son would likely have more frequent and intensive contact with these individuals. The presence of such experts ensures that there is always quick access to individuals who possess specialized knowledge of and experience with this population of learners.
Generally speaking, specialized programs also offer more intensive educational programming for learners on the autism spectrum. Often, there is a very low student to teacher ratio, and the day is generally organized to maximize individual and small group instructional experiences. Staff members are well- trained in and comfortable with the special elements of instruction that learners on the spectrum benefit from, including data collection, graphing and visual analysis of data, and data-based decision making.
In addition, staff members are trained to accept feedback in an ongoing manner, to expect continual observation and to have their skills continually honed. This creates an atmosphere in which expert teaching is the norm. It also facilitates consistency between staff and effective and efficient problem solving when teaching problems arise. There may be more abundant supervision and training opportunities available for staff members in specialized programs.
Specialized programs are also often well connected to a network of other autism professionals, and often themselves provide services that are commonly needed by families of children with ASD’s. In general, such programs integrate parents into teams more easily than public programs, and are comfortable with parent requests for sharing data and other information on progress. They may also be better able to orient and connect parents to organizations that provide additional services, training opportunities, and conferences to the broader autism community. Ancillary support services may also be available in-house, such as parent training programs, home programming assistance, and sibling support groups.
Disadvantages of Center-Based Educational Environments:
As previously discussed, inclusion opportunities can be very sparse in specialized environments. It may be difficult to create the types of inclusive experiences that best suit a learner’s needs, given the low numbers of other students, the difficulties in accessing typical students, and logistical constraints.
In addition, while there will be tremendous expertise in ASD’s and in instructional approaches commonly used with children on the spectrum, there may be very little awareness of, experience with interventions that are typically applied to learners with other primary issues but which may be useful for some learners on the spectrum. As mentioned above, there may be less access to related service providers in a center-based setting, although it would be important to acknowledge that related service providers in these settings may be more intergrated into the student’s program and participate more actively on the team (attending monthly meetings for example). Finally, placement in a specialized program may necessitate longer commutes to and from school.
Placement issues are often a source of confusion for parents and for contention between parents and professionals. Opinions are often strong on either side of the debate, in favor of center-based specialized placements or community-based public school placements. It is important to consider placement as another aspect of service delivery that requires complete individualization. As with any other individually determined decision, it is best made through a careful analysis of the characteristics and needs of the individual learner. This process ideally should involve a thorough assessment, the creation of measurable goals and objectives, and the ongoing collection and review of data to measure success and to adjust instruction.