When everybody cares: Case studies of ABA with people with autism

By Bobby Newman, PhD, BCBA

Published by Dove and Orca, 1999

Review by Catherine Maurice

When Everybody CaresThe popular stereotype of the behavior analyst is that of the cold intellectual who is interested only in controlling others…Everyone… would prefer that the behavior analyst would just stay in his or her coffin until a student is throwing furniture through the window. When all else has failed, reluctantly, someone knocks on the coffin and the behavior analyst rises up like Dracula to supply a behavior treatment plan. Having served his or her purpose, the behavior analyst returns to his or her coffin until called on again. (p.112).

With humor, honesty and a good deal of caring, Dr. Bobby Newman, Director of Training at the Association in Manhattan for Autistic Children, Inc., takes the reader through a score of “case studies” – illustrative vignettes about the children and adults he has worked with over the years. Case studies, of course, do not constitute experimental or controlled research, and the field of autism intervention has suffered because both the providers and the recipients of many such intervention services have often muddled the two classes of information. (How many “case studies” abound about the effectiveness of bogus treatments?) But Dr. Newman’s work does not fall into this trap. He clearly presents these real-life stories as examples, each exploring how a principle of behavior analysis (a field that has produced over five hundred controlled studies), or an aspect of autism happened to play out in the case of particular individuals, in particular times, places and families. He encourages readers to draw what they can from these case histories, while emphasizing a guiding principle of any behavioral approach: Each child is different. Each program must, of necessity, be tailored to each individual child. Thus we can read about real children and young adults who may have struggled with perseveration, obsessions, direction following, appropriate greetings, self injury, lack of play skills, social avoidance, self-care, appropriate conversational skills, and the like, and learn about the trial and error approach that eventually helped these individuals to achieve a greater degree of self management and independence.

What I find particularly appealing about this little book is not only the “real-life” aspect of the stories (Dr. Newman truly cares about these kids, and most likely you will, too), but the author’s often self-deprecating humor, his willingness to share his pride, joy, frustration and mistakes, warts and all. I also appreciate his attitude toward parents: he appears to assume throughout his discussions that parents are intelligent and loving – a welcome assumption, set against the historical tendency of many professionals to portray parents as incompetent, uncaring, or just plain dumb.

Are there any non-success stories? Frankly, no, but of course, that brings up the question of what constitutes “success.” Newman is careful to do two things: One, to actually admit the reality of recovery, a word that gets certain members of the old guard into a sputtering rage (“Impossible! Never never never!”). Two, to emphasize that even where recovery has not occurred and may never occur, these children and young adults do achieve significant success, if success is defined as step by step progress towards independence; as maximum possible integration into a social community; as an ability to communicate one’s wants, needs, and desires. In each of these case studies, the child or teenager inspires us with hope, because even while the road is long, and there may be many hurdles yet to overcome, we see these young ones mastering particular challenges, one at a time, and we rejoice for them.

Problems? Maybe a few, non-essential. The author tries to speak in plain English, translating that ponderous behavioral jargon as best he can, and for the most part, he succeeds. This work can actually function as a neat little primer on some basic behavioral principles. On more than one occasion, however, the text cries out for a higher degree of professional editing than it may have received. At times, the syntax is convoluted, the grammar flat out wrong, (“who” for “whom,” “lay” for “lie,” etc.) and the meaning murky. “The commodities from the menu, it turned out, did not occasion inappropriate behavior the way the reinforcers that the staff had selected, including verbal praise, had.” (p.47). Sometimes, the text is too wordy, sometimes a bit too elliptical. For instance, we are told to use “telegraphic speech” at the beginning of a child’s learning, but Dr. Newman does not go into any rationale for this recommendation. Since the anti ABA folks just love to jump on telegraphic speech as an example of how cold and mechanical behavior analysts are, it may have been wise to include a sentence or two of explanation here. But never mind. For what I think this text can bring to anyone who cares about people with autism, these decoding challenges are a small price to pay. I would have drawn much hope and help from this book, had it been available to me when my children were in treatment.

Please use the following format to cite this article:

Maurice, C. (2001). Book review: When everybody cares: Case studies of ABA with people with autism. [Review of the book When everybody cares: Case studies of ABA with people with autism,by B. Newman].Science in Autism Treatment, 3(1), 6-7.