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Another day, another post about ABA Therapy.

For real, though, ABA therapy is one of the most widely debated topics in the autism community, and I’m here (AGAIN) adding my thoughts to the pile.

See, the other day there was a post in my Embracing Autism Community where a parent saw ABA therapy as their last resort, and they were asking about how to keep their child safe in that situation.

And, as I’m sure you can imagine, all hell broke loose.

I went live to share my thoughts, and you can watch that full live below, or if reading is your thing I’ve turned my thoughts into a fully organized blog post here. :)

So yeah, let’s talk about ABA therapy (AGAIN).

And in this post, I’m going to cover:

  • A Brief Overview of What ABA Is
  • Why the Autistic Community is Largely Anti-ABA
  • The New Nuanced Conversation Around Anti-ABA Advocacy
  • 3 Steps to Mitigate Harm if ABA is Your Only Option
At the top, Young boy sits at a table with his therapist. He is pulling his hair and has an angry expression on his face. He is holding a card with the number seven on it. Beneath that image, text reads: "Let's talk about ABA Therapy. Yes... Again" on a white background. Beneath that, there's another image of a young boy stands in a therapy clinic throwing a ball with a therapist who is kneeling and facing the boy.

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Let’s Talk About ABA Therapy (AGAIN)

If we haven’t met yet, hey friend, I’m Kaylene!

I’m an Autistic advocate and parent coach, and I empower parents of neurodivergent kids to develop the unique flavor of parenting strategies that actually work for your neurodivergent child, your values, and your entire neurofamily.

If you want some information on setting (and sticking to) boundaries WITHOUT ABA, click here and watch my free masterclass: 5 Shifts to Effective Boundaries for Neurodivergent Kids!

Watch the video version of this blog post here:

A Brief Overview of What ABA Therapy Is

ABA stands for applied behavior analysis, and it is a behavioral therapy that is primarily used for Autistic children.

Though sometimes it’s used for other neurodivergent kids, there’s been a lot more push lately for it to be used for other diagnoses.

Primarily, though, it’s used to change the behaviors of autistic children. And in theory, it is designed to “help autistic children thrive”. At least, that’s the company line.

The reality is that ABA is designed to help Autistic children comply and act more neurotypical.

Why the Autistic Community is Largely Anti-ABA

The Autistic community has been largely against ABA for many years for tons of reasons. And I have written several blog posts here on this blog that outline the details.

Click here to read about the history of ABA therapy.

Click here to read about why even new ABA is problematic.

But for the brief overview in this post, ABA has an incredibly problematic history.

It was created by the same man that created gay conversion therapy, and it uses the same methodology and goal.

Take something that is a part of a human, even though there’s nothing wrong with it, and destroy who that person is.

Not to mention the fact that the creator of ABA didn’t consider Autistic people to be humans, and it used really torturous methods.

So that’s where the Autistic community’s issues with ABA began.

Now there is a newer, more gentle form of ABA. And pro-ABA folks tell Autistics that “new ABA” is different, so we should be accepting of it.

And here’s the thing, “new ABA” is different. They’re no longer actively torturing autistic children.

However, “new ABA” is still problematic for several reasons, including the fact that it is being compliance-based and it’s still designed to train autistic children to mask and act neurotypical.

Bottom line: ABA therapy is harmful, and it’s been proven to increase trauma and PTSD in Autistics.

Young boy sits at a table with his therapist. He is pulling his hair and has an angry expression on his face. He is holding a card with the number seven on it.

The New Nuanced Conversation Around Anti-ABA Advocacy

I want to talk about the current climate when it comes to advocating for ABA because we’ve started to add in more nuance to the conversation.

And I want to be clear I am not the first and not the only person talking about nuanced issues like this.

I continue to listen to, learn from, and amplify others who are talking about the issue of ABA (and life as Autistics in general) from different perspectives.

Intersectionality is real, friends!

I continually encourage that you follow Autistics of color like Unmasked, Fidgets and Fries, and Autistic, Typing.

With that said, advocates have added a lot more nuance to this conversation around ABA, so let’s talk about that!

For years, the conversation was: ABA is abuse, period.

When we have the stance that ABA is abuse, period, it shuts down any and all conversation.

And for a while that made sense and was necessary.

The Autistic community was going through a lot of healing, and anything beyond “ABA is abuse” often brought up a trauma response.

But it seems that many of us in the community are ready to have more spoons to allow more space and nuance into the ABA debate.

We’ve started to shift to a conversation more like: ABA is abuse, AND.

Because the truth is: I am a middle-class white woman, and I can’t in good conscience sit from my privileged space and coach Black families who are saying, “okay, but if I don’t teach my son to comply, he could get killed”.

Because I know that’s accurate. And so who am I as a middle-class white woman to say, “I know that that’s true, but still, compliance is bad”?

It’s not okay for me to hold so strongly to the view that makes sense in my world, that ABA is abuse, therefore nothing else should matter.

Because the reality is, ABA is abuse, AND the world is not always as black and white as my autistic brain wants it to be.

A young boy is playing with blocks at a table and his therapist is sitting next to him. They're both smiling.

We live in a world where sometimes if children aren’t taught to comply, they are at risk in every interaction with the police because of the color of their skin.

We live in a world where some parents are legally bound to enroll their children into ABA because of the court system.

And who am I to tell parents that they should defy a court order?

In what world should I sit in my privileged position and advise them to risk jail time and have their children then go to foster care where they will still be placed in ABA?

In what world does that make sense?

We also live in a world where we don’t have guaranteed health care that covers OT and speech, but we do often have ABA guaranteed once your child is diagnosed Autistic.

And this doesn’t even take into account families in poverty who rely on ABA as their only form of childcare (and without it their children would be taken by social services), or families who are dealing with dangerous behaviors and were given the choice of ABA or a residential facility.

What I’m saying is, it makes sense that parents who are in desperate situations…

Who don’t have the resources, or the education, or the access that other people have…

It makes sense that those parents take the resource that is handed to every single parent at the diagnosis meeting.

  • And in some cases, there aren’t other resources available to them.
  • And in some cases, they are legally bound to take ABA.
  • And in some cases, if they didn’t do ABA, they could face serious repercussions.

But I want to be very, very explicit and very clear:

Acknowledging that there’s more nuance to this conversation is in no way, shape, or form saying that ABA is not harmful and abusive.

And it’s not saying that this is a free pass for anyone to say that ABA is fine.

Or to even say, “see, she’s autistic. And she says it’s okay.” No, I don’t. I sure as heck don’t.

What I’m saying is that it’s a nuanced conversation.

What I’m saying is that you can acknowledge that ABA is harmful, AND acknowledge that there is privilege in being able to keep your kids out of ABA.

A young child is playing with toys at a table with their mom and dad sitting on a couch behind them. The parents are talking to a therapist who has their back to the camera. The mom has her hands on the child's head.

3 Steps to Mitigate Harm if ABA is Your Only Option

Here’s the deal: the overwhelming majority of parents are not in the situation where they are backed into a corner and have to use ABA.

So for the very, very small number of people who are in a situation where they truly have no choice but to use ABA for their kids…

Many have asked things like: “How do I do this and keep my child safe? How do I do this mitigate the harm?”

So I’m going to share my thoughts, if one of my coaching clients came to me and said, “Kaylene my partner and I are divorcing, and part of our legal agreement is I have to have my kid in ABA. What do I do?”

And I know someone’s gonna take this blog post and say, “Kaylene says that everyone can do ABA therapy as long as they do these things” which is not what I’m saying.

I just know that some of you are out there in this truly difficult situation, and I wanted you to get this advice.

So if you are backed into a corner and needing to do ABA therapy, here are the things that I think are going to make a really big difference for you.

Young boy stands in a therapy clinic throwing a ball with a therapist who is kneeling and facing the boy.

The first is making an empowered choice.

Now my clients laugh at me, because empowered choice is one of my core values, and every single coaching call I tell people like 100 times to come back to an empowered choice.

Because everything is better when we do it with an empowered choice.

And it seems counterintuitive because we’re talking about being backed into a corner which is the opposite of being empowered.

But taking back our power in this situation is vital.

So here’s the deal: If we’re going to make an empowered choice about ABA, you need to know all of the information about ABA, including the fact that it’s harmful, including the fact that like it causes trauma to Autistics.

That’s hard because when you are forced to engage in ABA, the temptation is to bury your head in the sand and believe it’s not that bad and hide from reality a little bit.

But you cannot make an empowered choice from a place of denial.

You will continually be in a defensive manner when you didn’t make this from an empowered choice.

So every time you see a post that says ABA is harmful, which is all the time in autistic circles, you will feel defensive and guilty, and that’s not a good place to be.

Instead, you have to take in that information about ABA being harmful, and weigh that truth against the other factors that are impacting your family.

Because yeah, ABA is harmful and it increases trauma for our for Autistics. But do you know what else increases trauma for Autistics and all children? Their parent going to jail.

So if you are going to be held in contempt of court and go to jail if your child doesn’t go to ABA, and then they are going to go live with their other parent who’s going to put them in ABA therapy anyway…

That is going to give you the empowered choice.

You are looking at both (admittedly shitty) options, and you’re saying “I’m making the right choice, the empowered choice for my family, that’s going to cause the least amount of harm.”

Because now, when you see that post that says ABA is awful, you can be like, “yeah I know, but I made the right choice for my family.”

See how different that feels?

Even if you are backed into a corner, making an empowered choice is going to make such a difference in how you approach this situation.

Secondly you’re going to want to use unwavering advocacy.

Now, in my programs, I teach about two types of advocacy.

Collaborative advocacy is where you and the other person you’re advocating with come together and you make a plan together.

But sometimes there’s another type of advocacy that’s needed, and most people don’t really teach you about it.

I call it unwavering advocacy.

Unwavering Advocacy is when you’re on one side and they need to come all the way over to your side and if they don’t come all the way over to your side, no deal.

Sometimes that type of advocacy is needed, and one of those times when you are dealing with ABA.

So I have an entire module on advocacy, and like several lessons on this, but I’m going to do my best to share some of the basics.

You’re going to want to get really clear on what your non-negotiables are, and just be your child’s strongest advocate.

As a starting place, click here to check out these Autism Therapy Red Flags to Watch For.

My ninja tip here is when you’re thinking about non-negotiables, avoid saying no ABA or no behaviorism because those are way too vague.

Instead try to get really specific, like no stopping my child from stimming, no expected compliance, or no token economy.

The last part about Unwavering Advocacy is that for something to actually be unwavering, you have to know when you will actually pull out.

If they’re not coming over to where you are, you have to know when you’re going to cut your losses.

Now if you are backed into a corner and forced into ABA, that might mean, looking for a new therapist, it might mean going to a supervisor.

But think about what exactly is the plan, if they won’t come over to your side on this.

Young girl lays on her tummy on the floor next to her therapist who is also laying on her tummy on the floor. They are playing with blocks that are in front of them.

Finally, you want to center your Autistic child

Because it is super tempting, especially in the world of therapy, to center yourself, your other kids, your child’s therapist, their teacher, or any number of other humans, when you are setting goals or changing behavior.

It’s really tempting to have the focus shift off of your child and onto the other people that your child impacts.

Rather than having them learn coping strategies, and change behaviors that harm them, or learn skills that help them, therapists tend to focus on what benefits others or what makes it easier for others to deal with your child.

So instead, be sure to center your child through the entire process.

Because the truth is, every single step in every therapy should center on your child and not the other humans around them.

If you are setting a goal with your child’s therapist, and there’s no benefit to your child, question why that goal is there in the first place.

Because the therapist is supposed to be there for your child, right? Anything they do should have a clear benefit to your child.

As long as you are continually centering your child, and practicing that unwavering advocacy, it’s going to help you to keep your child as safe as possible in this less than ideal circumstance.

So those are my like practical tactical strategies if you are in a situation where you are forced to use an ABA therapist when you are against it.

But let’s be real, even using these strategies…

  • ABA is likely going to cause trauma to your child
  • ABA is likely going to cause harm
  • ABA is likely going to increase aggression rather than decrease it

That being said, these are the strategies that I would use to try to limit that harm as much as I could.

And if your family is backed in a corner, I hope these strategies help you keep your child as safe as possible.

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