Services to Diverse Abilities throughout
British Columbia


Why Does ABA Teach Sitting at the Table?

June 10, 2021

By: Alex Delange, M.Sc., BCBA
ABA Program Manager, Behaviour Consultant & CSup.

Why Does ABA Teach Sitting at the Table?

You may have heard negative things about ABA as a treatment option for persons with diverse abilities and neurological profile, including Autisitics.  Unfortunately, sometimes what is talked about is misleading and based on practices which we at Pivot Point do not do. So we wanted to talk a little bit about what we DO do!


Realistic ABA Expectations

Some say that ABA focuses too much on teaching very young children to sit still at a table. Now, there are a variety of ways that this skill can be addressed, and yes, there are some practitioners out there who may have a very rigid view of what ‘sitting at the table’ needs to look like – such as sitting with your hands folded and not moving, for 5 seconds, before the child gets a treat. As a mom, and a long time practitioner in the field, I can tell you that this is probably not the best way to teach this skill! And it’s probably not very realistic as an expectation either. 


Fidgeting and movement are typical in all children, and in our programs we do not try to force a child to sit perfectly still in order to earn something and learn to attend to tasks. In our practice, we teach sitting at a table in a natural way, where fun toys are laid out, and the child is encouraged to come and see the neat things for them there. If they don’t want to come over, we bring the toys to them! Slowly, we make our way over to the table over time by pairing our fun interventionists with fun activities with the table, and using gentle encouragement and play. Play and learning happens just as well on a floor or in the backyard and for some children, this is a more appropriate skill to focus on, until we are ready to try the table again. 


Sitting at a table is an important goal, because this is an appropriate behaviour for ALL children – regardless of what neurological developmental label they may or may not have. Sitting at a table for 5 to 20 minutes (depending on age, appropriateness of the skill for their level of function, among other factors) is expected to learn in school, eat a meal, complete desk work, play a game with others, make crafts, build with Lego, and countless other activities which involve sitting relatively still. We stand by this skill as being socially important (in ABA we call these ‘socially significant skills’) and vital to everyday learning. 


Positive Social Skills

Some people have said that some techniques, such as teaching scripts, are an insult to the neurodiverse person’s way of communicating. Scripts are much like rehearsing what you might say on the phone prior to making an important phone call or business presentation in order to ensure you come across as competent with all the information at hand. Many of our autistic adults use scripts to learn how to ace a job interview, and they are also taught how to personalize that script for themselves. Good ABA ensures that therapies are individualized, and this is an example of how we do that.


When it comes to social skills, teaching an appropriate way to gain other people’s attention to be able to communicate socially, might involve using a short “script” such as teaching a child to say, “wanna play?”  We feel it is better to teach initiation that others in the person’s environment (i.e their peers) will recognize and respond to positively. When a child comes up to a peer and starts scripting a movie plot, peers do not know what to do with that, and end up ignoring the child. We feel that teaching an initiation or greeting is a more socially significant skill, and thus stand by this technique. Scripts are generally very short, include personalization, and are faded quickly so that natural interaction can blossom from the first crucial point of connection. ABA teaching strategies which may include scripts fading, proximity fading, and behaviour skills training are all valid and important tools to help autistic persons make deep and meaningful connections with those they want to connect with.


Understanding Boundaries of Compliance 

You may also have heard that ABA is based on compliance training and uses external rewards to foster compliance (we will address motivation and rewards in a future post). Compliance is a tricky concept in that, one one hand,  ALL of us as humans comply with a whole lot of things – laws for example to prevent people from breaking into houses, or harming each other. Driving behaviour is very much governed by sets of rules and laws that, for the most part, most of us follow. We are also rule-bound in many other aspects of life, for example BCBAs (Board Certified Behaviour Analysts) comply with regulations around our certification, such as ensuring our training is up to date, adhering to regulations designed to protect privacy, and that we carry appropriate insurance. All of us comply with different rules, so this is a part of modern life that is quite “regular.” 


We have also been “trained” to follow these rules, as this is part of our own social conditioning and acceptance that these are rules for the greater good to ensure safety, fairness, and consumer protection. So compliance itself is not a “bad” thing. But it can be misused and be overtaught. This makes compliance training controversial, because while it is a life skill, it must also not be overused to change a person’s behaviour to the point where they will comply with everything asked of them. One point that has been made, is that teaching a young child with diverse abilities to comply with all demands, sets them up so that they lose the ability to make decisions that might protect them, and be able to say “no” when someone tries to to harm them, take advantage of them, or worse, abuse them. This is why it is so important to focus on communication so that children can learn to say “no, stop”, or “I don’t like that” and be allowed to walk away when they are not enjoying an interaction. In our view, compliance training just so that the child will sit and do what you ask, regardless of the task’s functionality to their life, has no place in a well-thought out, person-centred behaviour support plan. 


At Pivot Point, our approach to compliance is that when activities are fun and engaging, and tailored to the person’s interest, there is no need for formal compliance training, as the person is willing to participate. Their staying in the learning environment suggests that they are ‘assenting’ to treatment, and that we can continue to build upon their skills by teaching functional skills in a way that works for them. 

To learn more about Pivot Point and our Services, visit us here at: https://pivotpoint.ca/about-us/