Alhamdulillah for ABA

One of the reasons why I am so grateful for Khalid’s autism is ABA- Applied Behavior Analysis.  In the context of teaching a child with autism, ABA can be broken down in to two core concepts:

1)      The teaching of tasks from simple to complex

2)      The reinforcement of correct behavior and extinction of incorrect (or maladaptive) behavior

This seems simple enough, but let’s talk about what happened yesterday at Jummah.

A three year old boy was entertaining himself during the Jummah khutba by loudly and aggressively kicking a box of drinking water. The noise (as well as the imminent danger of being hit by a fast-moving box of water bottles) was tremendously distracting to the ladies in masjid.   Because no one was asking the boy to stop, I am going to assume that either his mother was too embarrassed or frustrated to do anything about it, or that he was an orphan who drove himself to the masjid expressly to kick the box around.

I didn’t get to see whether anyone asked him to stop, because Khalid- being overwhelmed by khateeb’s voice over the loudspeaker- actually ran out of the masjid in a panic- barefoot onto the hot tiles, and I had to run after him with Musfira tucked under my arm like a football.  I got him to come back and come into the masjid as far as the foyer, since it was only 114 degrees outside, and we waited there together for the prayer to be over.  I held Musfira, Khalid held his ears closed.

The khutba ended, the jamaat was prayed, and as soon as the salah was finished- the door burst open and that same little boy emerged whining and yelling as his mother dragged him angrily through the doors.

She turned to him, as soon as the door was closed and slapped him across the face- five times, very hard. “Why do you make so much noise! What’s wrong with you!”

Khalid was horrified, he grabbed my arm and said “Momma, why is she hitting him? That’s bad! It’s not good to hit!”

And the little boy bawled and the mother continued to scold him as she searched for him shoes and tried to cram his feet into them.  The little boy’s wailing was echoing off the marble walls in the close, high-ceiling foyer and Khalid was becoming distressed.  The mother was obviously embarrassed and wanted the noise to stop, so she suddenly hugged and kissed the boy and said “There there- good boy- don’t cry- shhh shh…”

And what did the boy do?  He smacked her face.  Several times, and he was swatting at her with both hands, so she hugged him more- and other ladies came into the foyer and tried to soothe him- it’s ok, good boy- don’t cry- there there-

Khalid and I were less than three feet away from the situation the entire time, and I think he and I shared the same sort of confusion.  Wait- I thought he was in trouble for making noise? So she smacked him, but then she said he was a good boy, so he smacked her? But he’s still a good boy? But actually- he’s making even more noise now…

I feel very sorry for that mother- she was embarrassed, frustrated, guilty, and I’m pretty sure she was doing the best she knew how to.  I wished I could have sat down with her and shared what little I’ve picked up about ABA, because from a behavioral point of view, her intervention was a disaster.

First, the boy’s bad behavior is ignored, and since the mother said nothing, kicking the box must’ve been perfectly acceptable masjid behavior, right? All of a sudden, the boy is jerked out of the mosque and given quite a smacking.  So he’s in trouble, but does he know why? Then, his mother apologizes for disciplining him, and in return, he smacks her.  So she hugs him more, and other ladies tell him he’s a good boy for crying loudly and smacking his mother’s face.

How is this connected to the two main principles of ABA?  Point two: The reinforcement of correct behavior and extinction of incorrect (or maladaptive) behavior. Reinforcement is a reward- it’s a thumbs up or a nod or a gold star- it is a response that contributes to an increase of behavior.  It’s not always positive- if a child is bugging you for attention, and you turn and yell at them- then you attended to them in response to being bugged.  You reinforced their behavior.

If a child is screaming for a cookie, and you give them a cookie, then the cookie is reinforcing the cookie.  If a child screams and slaps you, and you give them a hug, then you are reinforcing being slapped and screamed at.

There are, in a nutshell, really only four reasons why people do things.  Seriously- I love this about ABA- only four major ones anyway- and they work for kids, adults, and children with autism as well.  They are:

Escape: I don’t wanna ______________, so I’m gonna _________________. 

Kid: I don’t want to do my homework, so I’m going to cry.

Adult: I don’t want to go to pay taxes, so I’m going to cheat on my forms.

Child with autism: I don’t want to do my flashcards, so I’m going to bang my head on the table.

Access to tangible: I want ________________, so I’m going to _______________ until I get it.

Kid: I want a new toy, so I’m going to whine until I get it.

Adult: I want a new car, so I’m going to steal one off the lot.

Child with autism: I want to go to the park, so I’m going to kick the door until you let me out.

Attention: You’re not looking at me, so I’m going to _______________________ until you do.

Kid: You’re not listening to me, so I’m going to talk incessantly until you do.

Adult: You’re not noticing me, so I’m going to dye my hair green, pierce both nostrils and wear a feather boa to work.

Child with autism: You’re not laughing with me, so if you laugh with someone else, I will cry until you stop laughing and come cheer me up instead.

(True story- Khalid used to sob and bang his head on the floor if we laughed.  So we stopped laughing and would soothe him until his Case Manager told us it was likely to be attention seeking behavior, and instead of not laughing, we should laugh harder.  It worked, Alhamdulillah.)

Automatic: I don’t care what’s going on, I just gotta ____________________.

Kid: It doesn’t matter whether or not anyone can see me, I just gotta pick my nose!

Adult: I don’t care whether you mind, my butt itches.

Child with autism: I don’t care whether or not anyone is watching, I just need to spin in circles.

The appropriate way to respond to behavior is based entirely on its function- or purpose.  Attention seeking behavior is ignored or stopped with as minimal reinforcement possible, and then the child is taught to seek attention in more appropriate ways, and you make sure that child receives all the attention for good behavior and none of the attention for inappropriate attention-seeking behavior.

Escape-motivated behavior is ignored or blocked, and the child is made to follow through with the task that they were initially trying to escape from, and then rewarded for completion and moved on to a more reinforcing task.  You can shorten the demand, but never give up on the demand.

Inappropriate access-oriented behavior is met with blocking access to the desired item, redirecting to calm the child if necessary, modeling of appropriate manding technique (if you want a cookie, say “May I have a cookie please?) and then reinforcement of appropriate manding.  (Good asking, here’s your cookie!)

Automatic behaviors are more complicated to address, and how you respond depends on whether or not the behavior is harmful, destructive, or disruptive- whether it fulfills a vital sensory need, or whether it may be a response to pain or some other internal stimulus.  It also depends on the frequency and intensity, and whether it can be reshaped, replaced, or even successfully eliminated.  This depends on the individual behavior as well as the individual child.

But yeah.  That’s ABA 101- and sometimes I wish all parents were taught ABA, because knowing it has made me a far, far better parent to Khalid (as well as Iman and Musfira) as well as a less frustrated person in general.  I would also like to think that it makes my childrens’ lives easier as well, because the lines are clearly drawn.  If it’s bad, you will know it’s bad- if it’s good, you’ll gets hugs and cookies and hearts and rainbows.  The rest of the world may be confusing and ambiguous and complicated, but Momma is simple.  She doesn’t ignore you for being bad, give you a slap ambush, apologize for punishing you, and then kiss you for smacking her back.

So yeah, I’m not a parenting genius, but I am grateful to Allah that people have sat down and put their big heads together to make a flowchart that any person can understand, and I am grateful to Allah for making me have to understand it.

Please make dua for all parents and all frustrated mothers everywhere.  May that lady’s son grow to be a righteous, well-mannered, loving man who is a comfort to his parents, and coolness to their eyes and a sadqa jaariya for them after their deaths.  Ameen.


Abez is a 50% white, 50% Pakistani, and 100% Muslim. She is also chronically ill and terminally awesome. She is the ever-lovin Momma of: - Khalid, a special little boy with autism - Iman, a special little girl with especially big hair -Musfira, an especially devious baby Spoiler, Abez is also Zeba Khan on

  1. Mali

    Thank you for sharing.

    I’m not a mother (so far, surgery permitting), so I tend to run out of patience with the kids a lot more than I should. I have a lot to learn and this article does help.

    You win one package of Unicorn glitter.

  2. Sabiha

    ABA rocks. That’s all there is to it. It can be used with anyone, whether they’re on the spectrum or not. I’m glad someone else agrees:)

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