ABA or DIR?

Understanding the Fundamental Differences

The Developmental, Individual-differences, Relationship-based (DIR) approach is vastly different than Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Parents are often flooded with information and advocacy from professionals and programs and can receive conflicting advice. Parents can feel the pressure of "making the right choice" which can be very stressful. We do not have a quick answer to address these difficult decisions, but we always want parents to be fully informed as they are making important decisions for and about their children. The aim of this short page is to, as simply as possible, outline the fundamental difference between ABA and DIR. There are many more differences and we would be happy to discuss this further in a free virtual consultation, but we hope the below information will be helpful for you in sorting out the information.

DIR is Based on Understanding & Promoting Human Development

There is no greater feeling than being understood. -Dr. Stanley Greenspan

The goal in DIR is to understand each unique child's individual profile and to then promote the developmental process to help the child reach his or her fullest potential. It is a developmental model focused on understanding the biological challenges that may be hindering the developmental process and to implement respectful and joyful strategies that support the development of the child's Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities. This is done through a process that is based on developing an intrinsic desire or motivation to attend, communicate, and learn.

DIR and DIR professionals see behaviors as primarily a manifestation or result of processes that are going on inside the child's mind and body. We work to address the core deficits while strengthening the core capacities of relating, communicating, and thinking.

ABA is Based on Changing Human Behavior

The Behavioral Analyst Certification Board indicates "Behavior analysis is the science of behavior, with a history extending back to the early 20th century. Its guiding philosophy is behaviorism, which is based on the premise that attempts to improve the human condition through behavior change (e.g., education, behavioral health treatment) will be most effective if behavior itself is the primary focus."

The stated goal of ABA, originally developed by Ivar Lovaas, is to "make the autistic child indistinguishable from his non-autistic peers." This is a goal focused on changing observable behaviors to make the child look "normal" and to comply with social norms. It is primarily facilitated through the use of extrinsic motivators such as reinforcement and punishment.

The Scope of Impact

DIR has been shown in research to improve development as well as behaviors. However, ABA has only been shown to improve behaviors.

Improving the developmental process is essential for a meaningful and lasting impact.

Fundamentally Different in Two Ways

Fundamentally different in how humans are understood.

Behaviorist believe humans can be fully understood through our behaviors and our learned responses to the world we live. DIR on the other hand is founded on a developmental model that believes the behaviors we see on the surface are the result of a complex developmental process we all go through as our brains and bodies grow.

Differences in the underlying values and principles of each approach.

ABA values attainment of normal behaviors and compliance with social norms. ABA principles are rooted in making the child look and behave normally. The definition of normal is inherently rooted in a value judgment of what is normal and appropriate. There is a belief that using methods that may cause the child distress or even pain are acceptable if the goal is positive behavioral change or shaping. ABA believes that the behavioral training is rooted in the science of behavioral training and the relationship with the trainer is not as significant as the scientific "analysis" and shaping of behaviors by a trained behavioral analyst.

DIR values individual differences (neurodiversity) and we value helping every person achieve their fullest potential. The vision of ICDL is "A world where individual differences are embraced and everyone achieves their fullest potential." While the outcome of this growth and development process typically includes a stabilizing of behaviors and often times expression of behaviors that are more compliant with social norms, the goal of the treatment is not normalization. We seek to understand, accept, and appreciate every person for who they are in their own unique way of being. Our goals for treatment focus on overall improvement in development and quality of life. Furthermore, we do not believe that promoting development or addressing the challenges of autism needs to be painful (it is often very difficult, but it does not need t o be painful). We value relationships and we understand that relationships fuel development. This is why we focus so much attention on coaching parents to strategically promote their child's development through loving and playful interactions. We want to see stable patterns of behaviors, however we seek to achieve this by developing the core capacities of self-regulation, engagement, communication, and thinking/reasoning.

Eye Contact Example

An ABA approach to autism often includes training to reinforce the child when the child provides eye contact. The goal is to increase the frequency of eye contact behavior. This is a goal because it is a "normal" behavior and there is hope that it will increase meaningful interactions if the child is making eye contact.

A DIR approach to autism will not directly train the child to provide eye contact. Instead we work to develop the capacity for engaging, relating, and communicating from the "bottom up." We work to build this core foundation by developing the child's capacity for social emotional engagement. When we do this, the majority of children will end up increasing their frequency of eye contact with others. So, we get to the same goal for most children, but with two key differences. The first difference is that eye contact is only meaningful if it represents engagement. Training for eye contact may increase the use of eye contact but not necessarily engagement. The learned behavior of eye contact without engagement is utterly useless. So, our goal is more at the core. We seek meaningful engagement and in most cases the eye contact will naturally follow in a meaningful way. Secondly, sometimes children (and adults) do not provide eye contact because it can be overwhelming or confusing to their sensory systems. In these cases, children may be better able to attend, engage, relate, communicate, learn, and complete tasks when they actually avoid eye contact. We respect this individual difference and we can still increase the capacity for engagement without forcing learned eye contact. The engagement is the more foundational developmental goal.