SLP or ABA   Recently updated !


There is some well deserved confusion between the field of SLP and ABA.
 
Communication in general is such an innate part of our being that the majority of people pick up as a natural course, that we don’t fully appreciate how complicated it is until we meet people who are not able to communicate effectively.  For this reason, it can make people with communication disorders seem less intelligent.    
 
ABA: applied behavior analysis.  Basic premise is that through observation, we can see what triggers certain behaviors, and then manipulate the environment to change those behaviors.  This technique can be used with any observable behavior.  Speech is an observable behavior.  Is often known due to a term called: DTT (discrete trial training).   Can be extremely successful with communicating fundamental, tangible/observable wants and needs and often relies on scripts that clients can use to navigate certain social situations.  This can often lead to overly rigid and literal thinking.  The goal of an ABA therapist is behavior modification.
 
SLP: speech language pathology.  Recognizes that successful communication is complicated, even for people who do not have communication problems.  Conversations for social interaction tend to be more than simply following superficial scripts.  SLPs often use ABA techniques in their work (including DTT) and expand on clarifying communication issues from there.  Frustration tends to occur when people want to communicate something, but have an inadequate ability of doing so.  The goal of an SLP is communication. 
 
 
So what does this mean?
 
First off, in practice, there is often a lot of muddy ground where communication via ABA vs SLP is concerned.  Take any given conversation, and you can probably categorize what is speech, what is language, and what is behaviour.  Or can you?  There are a lot of characteristics to a conversation that encompass all of those categories.  
Thus, there is often some scope creep on both sides when it comes to teasing out which professional should take charge of what concerns.  Many SLPs get frustrated that an ABA professional has told families that the SLP is not needed because ABA covers speech.  Or that the kids work with the ABA and play with the SLP.   On the flip side, ABA professionals are often not allowed in the schools, the place where kids spend the majority of their day and can exhibit the majority of their behaviour issues.  If they are allowed to go ‘observe’ a class, they are not allowed to be working with the child in that environment.   Thus one professional is making 1 set of suggestions in 1 context; while a second professional is contradicting it in a different context.  In an ideal world, both ABA and SLP would be able to work together comfortably, each providing their expertise in their fields with respect to each other.  The titles of each profession say a lot:  ABA is focused on changing behaviour and should be the recognized professional when it comes to helping people obtain/maintain good/safe behaviours.  However, the SLP is focused on providing speech/language/communication support, and should be the recognized specialist in those areas.  
 

Let’s use a music metaphor: Assume that you are learning to play violin.

In this context, we could assume that an ABA therapist might play piano or violin.   Their education in behavior, might include a course or two on how to play the piano, but the nature of their education is not specific to music, let along the violin.  It’s possible that they are a great singer or dancer.  However, it is also possible they are not musically inclined at all, but are wonderful cooks or painters and know just enough about music to get by.  You could expect that they would be able to teach names of notes, scales, a few simple chords,  possibly a few introductory songs.  If you had a specific song that you wanted to learn how to play, an ABA therapist could very likely teach you that song through tons of repetition.
 
An SLP could be compared to a trained musical instructor.  They have spent years learning how to play different instruments, musical theory, composition, and acoustics; and as a result they play a variety of instruments.  It is possible that they are also great singers, dancers, artists or chefs, but that is not what their formal education was in.  For our violin student, an SLP can do all of the things that the ABA can… and may do them the same or differently.  Additionally, they can also teach proper hand placement, how the notes on the music correspond with the strings on the violin, how to tune the violin, show how one set of notes can can interact with another to create new music and learn more advanced songs, help teach how to bring emotion to music with more complicated arrangements, music theory, ability to teach how to compose arrangements.  While there may still be a lot of repetition in practicing songs, a trained musical instructor can help you take this knowledge to the next level. 
 
Next, let’s look at the difference between a motivated learner and an unmotivated one.
 
Motivated learner:
May learn the fundamentals on their own, in some cases may surpass these fundamentals due to their interest and motivation to do so.  With an untrained musician, they may learn quickly, and surpass them… alternately they may get frustrated with the lack of additional progress being made and lose motivation.  Will likely make more impressive gains with a trained instructor, will learn more about theory and be able to apply it quicker. Progress will make them more likely to practice in order to master skills and use what they have learned.
 
Unmotivated learner:
Will likely not practice outside of lessons.  An untrained musician will be able to show them the names of notes, scales, chords, and some simple introductory songs.  They can practice these over and over until playing them becomes automatic, but without practice the skills will be lost and without additional instruction, the skills will not expand beyond the few songs memorized.  A skilled musical instructor will also be able to teach the fundamentals, meet the client on his/her level of skill and build their skills accordingly.  If the client is not motivated to practice on their own, skills may still be lost or not maintained; but the level of instruction will likely mean that picking it back up at a later date is possible and that lessons have pushed the learner to a higher level.
 

Using my metaphor, you can see that in most cases, if your goal is simply to learn the basic fundamental skill of music playing, it does not really matter who teaches you.  If you are motivated, you can learn how to play the same songs whether you are taught by a trained instructor or an untrained one.  However, if you want to take those fundamental skills and learn how to create music as opposed to simply repeat a handful of songs; most people will be better served by seeing a professional music instructor at some point in your journey and not relying solely on you tube videos.

In this context, an ABA therapist would be the untrained music instructor.   While their education in behavior might include a module or two on verbal behaviour, the nature of their education is not specific to language development.  It’s possible that they have a background in language, but it’s just as possible that they do not.  You could expect that they would be able to teach words, phrases, and scripted language through tons of repetition.  However, you may or may not see any new language happen… or see people be able to deviate from the scripts to create a proper conversation.
 

An SLP could be compared to a trained musical instructor.  They have spent years learning about verbal and non-verbal language acquisition, neurology/neuroanatomy associated with the language centers of the brain, and techniques to help different populations of people reach their best communicative potential.   An SLP can do all of the things that the ABA can… and may do them the same or differently.  While behavior is an important and integrated part of communication… communication is the behaviour that an SLP is 100% interested in.  In many environments, an SLP will focus on pragmatic language, encouraging people to use their language in ways that they will be interacting with people who are not therapists.     

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