By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Associate Professor, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University
I’ve written previously about autism spectrum disorder. I’ve also described the benefits of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy and how it serves as the gold standard for helping autistic children develop and learn appropriate behaviors and skills. I even recorded a podcast with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) about the positive impacts of ABA therapy for treating children with autism and other developmental disorders.
As I’ve shared in previous articles, my son Carl is autistic, so this topic is close to my heart. When Carl was diagnosed with autism around 18 months old, we immediately retained the help of ABA therapists to assist with his development.
But Carl is now five years old and enrolled in kindergarten. My wife and I are currently looking at options for the rest of his K-12 school career. Disappointingly, one of the things we’ve discovered is that many schools — both public and private — prohibit ABA therapists inside their facilities.
We were really surprised to find this prohibition when we began inquiring at schools around our area. The reasons for banning ABA therapists seem to be due to a combination of safety, security, privacy and classroom decorum concerns. However, none of these reasons make much sense as a justification for prohibiting ABA therapy in schools.
Breaking Down the Safety and Security Concerns against ABA Therapists in Schools
The safety and security concerns regarding ABA therapy in schools stem from paranoid fears that an ABA therapist would have access to other children there — not just the child or children they’re working with but also other children. And if that person acted with malice or even mere negligence, he or she could hurt a child (intentionally or otherwise) and present a liability for the school that permitted the ABA therapist with classroom access.
I use the word “paranoid” because the fact is that ABA therapists are no less vetted in the school setting than any other teacher or staff member a school might have. In fact, there’s an argument that they’re even more thoroughly scrutinized.
First, ABA therapists must take and pass government certification courses for the kind of work they do. This process often involves a background check for fitness to work with children and disabled populations.
Second, an ABA therapist who works for a larger ABA provider (as most do) would typically be vetted by an employer. Another background check is a standard part of the hiring process.
Third, ABA therapists working in schools — especially public institutions — generally go through the same credentialing process that schoolteachers do. This process usually includes fingerprinting, insurance verification and…you guessed it…another background check.
Finally, ABA therapists are very often bonded by their employers so that the integrity of the work they do is insured. So while we can all understand the aim to ensure that children are not exposed to risks in the classroom, there is no greater risk presented by ABA therapists than there is from the teachers who work in those same schools.
The Privacy Concerns with ABA Therapists
Privacy concerns against ABA therapy in schools have two dimensions. First, the presence of an ABA therapist and the therapist’s work with a child reveals some information about that child’s health condition to other children or teachers in the same school. Understandably, that situation would present privacy issues for the school and the child receiving ABA therapy services.
Second, an ABA therapist working in a classroom with other children might — through the therapist’s mere presence in the room — become privy to sensitive information about other children, such as health conditions or academic performance issues. Schools know that parents expect them to hold information about their children in confidence and not share it with anyone who doesn’t have a genuine need to know. Consequently, school administrators worry that a non-school employee in the classroom will be seen as an invasion of privacy and a breach of confidentiality.
Privacy is generally a good concern, but it’s important to keep things in context. First, concerns about the privacy of health information for the child receiving services should be ameliorated by the fact that the parents of those children are almost always the ones who would arrange for ABA therapy in the first place.
If the parents are coordinating the effort to have an ABA therapist accompany their child to school, they naturally understand that the arrangement will bring with it some unavoidable disclosures about their child’s situation. It stands to reason that those parents waive those privacy concerns when they actively orchestrate the circumstances that undermine their child’s privacy.
As for the privacy of other children, I would argue that this concern is vastly overblown. For example, a school’s janitor certainly doesn’t have a need to know any sensitive information about the children who attend that school, yet he or she could be exposed to private health or academic information as well.
Does this situation constitute any less of a privacy breach? One might say that the situation is different is because the janitor is an actual employee of the school, while the ABA therapist would not be considered a school employee.
But this argument brings us back to the thoroughness of vetting a therapist’s qualifications, professionalism and moral character. ABA therapists are professionals in the work they do, and there is no history of incidents or rational reasoning that would suggest ABA therapists would be more of a threat to student privacy than anyone else.
Also, a written safeguard can — and often is — put in place in the form of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) between the school and the therapist, which prohibits the therapist from discussing any private information seen or heard from outsiders while working at a school. This type of private information would include education records and any other sensitive data to which the therapist is exposed during a workday.
Analyzing the Problem of Classroom Decorum
Finally, the decorum concern stems from the idea that therapists working with students in classrooms might be a distraction to other students and could somehow diminish the learning that takes place. Naturally, we all want our kids to have optimal learning environments in the schools they attend.
But as I’ve written previously, ABA therapists don’t generally do any work that is invasive, loud or obstructive to others in any way. They are mere helpers to assist the children they support with staying on task, modeling proper behaviors and listening to instructions.
So in this vein, ABA therapists often are indistinguishable in the classroom from teacher’s aides. Those therapists just happen to be a teacher’s aide dedicated to one student who needs a little more assistance in the learning environment.
There is just no rational reason to think that the presence of an ABA therapist in the classroom would present a material distraction or disruption for other students. In fact, the presence of ABA therapists is often beneficial in that other students can receive more attention from the classroom teacher because the instructor’s attention is not spread quite as thinly.
School Policies Prohibiting ABA Therapists in Schools Are Rampant
But the problem of non-negotiable policies prohibiting ABA therapists in schools is rampant. For example, I live in central Florida and not far from me is an elite private boarding school that charges some of the highest tuition rates in the area.
Incidentally, some of Orlando’s wealthiest residents enroll their children at this school, including politicians, celebrities and professional athletes. However, the school maintains a flat-out ban on ABA therapists assisting students on their campus.
This kind of behavior is not relegated to private schools, either. For example, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), the public school district in my area, has a bureaucratically complex policy that technically allows a pathway for some ABA therapists to potentially be approved to enter schools.
However, the policy also simultaneously prohibits them from working with students in classrooms. So if an ABA therapist wants to help an autistic child, that therapist must remove the child from class and then go find an empty room in the building to work with the child one on one.
With that type of policy, what is the point of having the ABA therapist go to the school if he or she has to remove an autistic child from the classroom to provide their services? The lack of thought and consideration is staggering.
To be fair to OCPS, it is my understanding that the school district employs a handful (roughly seven) behavioral therapists that can assist special needs students in the classrooms as official school district resources. The presence of these behavioral therapists sounds like a viable alternative to private ABA therapists, until you realize that there are more than 200 schools and more than 200,000 students in the OCPS system.
The district resources are laughably undersized to support the needs of this community on their own. And OCPS is not unique in this respect — public schools are notorious for being underfunded and short-staffed to achieve the missions with which they’ve been tasked.
Some Schools Are More Open-Minded Regarding ABA Therapists
Not all schools are so close-minded, however. For example, my son Carl currently attends kindergarten at Kiddie Academy in Winter Garden, Florida. Kiddie Academy is a chain of preschools with a more thoughtful perspective on the benefits that ABA therapists provide and the need to support their work with schoolchildren wherever they can.
So what is the message? ABA therapy is not simply a “nice-to-have” service. In many cases, it is considered “medically necessary” by mental health professionals.
My hope is that parents with autistic children will push back against anti-ABA therapist policies that make it harder for our kids to get the help they need in the classroom. Also, I hope that parents whose children are not autistic will have the courage and the moral clarity to stand with us.
We need to be vocal in letting private schools know this ban on ABA therapists in schools is not OK. Writing letters, speaking out at parent-teacher meetings and voicing opinions in public online forums such as review websites (Yelp, etc.) are all great ways to send this type of message.
And for public schools, our voice can be heard at the ballot box, so consider carefully who you’re electing to your school boards and what their views are on being good stewards for children with special needs. This problem can be fixed if enough social pressure is applied in the right places.
Nearly 2% of all children are diagnosed with autism today, and that amounts to more than half a million autistic children currently enrolled in school. So this is a problem that needs to be fixed fast.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is an Associate Professor with the Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.