IOWA — Drew Foster has been working with kids on the autism spectrum for years. As a Special Education teacher, he noticed that challenging behavior was getting in the way of learning.

“I wanted to get those behaviors out of the way so they wouldn’t be a barrier, but I didn’t really know what that looked like.”

What he eventually found was ABA Therapy or ‘Applied Behavioral Analysis.’ It’s a science-based approach that uses positive reinforcement to build skills.

“I’ve seen the most amazing growth in social interactions,” Drew said. “Kids just learning to enjoy day-to-day life and play skills.”

ABA has been around for more than 50 years and is one of the most commonly recommended therapies for kids with autism. It has evolved over the last five decades and is not without its critics.

“I’m not going to say all ABA is inherently bad but the principle behind it is the concern,” said Cari Ebert. “This idea that autism is a behavior disorder. It is NOT a behavior disorder.”

Ebert is a pediatric speech-language pathologist who’s passionate about her work and has concerns about ABA therapy.

“One of the issues, in general, with any type of behaviorist approach is that if we can figure out what you love the most and withhold it from you and get you to work for it and incentivize you to act better, or more neurotypical, that’s the goal,” she claimed. “What we should really be trying to understand is what is this behavior trying to communicate. When an autistic child is pushing things away or banging their head or ripping papers or whatever the behavior is, because behavior is communication.”

Ebert emphasizes that autistic children are not naughty but that they are often mislabeled as the “bad kids” who oftentimes are put in specific programs for kids with behavior issues. That’s exactly what happened to Drew Foster. He was diagnosed with autism when he was in second grade.

“I was academically proficient for the most part, but needed help with social skills,” he explained. “Then, due to pretty severe behavioral challenges, I was expelled when I was in the seventh grade.”

Drew knows what it’s like to live with autism. That’s why he wanted to help kids on the spectrum, and he knows behavioral therapy has made mistakes along the way.

“As the field has evolved we’ve really looked at what’s best for kids so it’s not behavior modification like it used to be. It’s really about helping kids thrive and succeed where they’re at.”

That approach is what Cari wants to see more of. Not just because she’s a therapist herself, but because she’s also a mom.

“We don’t wish we had a different son and we don’t view autism as some sort of tragic diagnosis.”

Her son Aaron is graduating from high school. When he was three he was non-speaking. His life has changed the way his mom does her job.

“What we used to do, all of us as therapists, is we tried to get them to act more normal, or neurotypical. Now we know autistic children are wired differently, they learn differently, they play differently, they communicate differently, they process sensory input differently, and they experience the world differently.”

These two different therapists have different approaches, but very similar goals.

Drew smiles as he describes it.

“It’s the most amazing thing to see. Every day I get to see these kids who share my diagnosis learn new skills and reduce behaviors that create barriers for them. It makes me so happy to see that growth in each of them.”