(Inside: What’s the big deal with ABA Therapy? Can ABA Therapy really be harmful to autistics? Why do autistic adults hate ABA therapy? We answer all of that and more in this helpful guide!)
When your child is diagnosed autistic, ABA is one of the first things recommended.
ABA stands for ‘applied behavior analysis’ and is seen as a behavioral therapy specifically designed for autistic children.
Now, spend any time around the autistic community and you’ll know, there’s a LOT of controversy surrounding ABA therapy.
See, many autistic adults speak out passionately against the therapy, while professionals and parents hail ABA as a miracle and the next best thing since sliced bread.
Why the big divide? What’s the big deal with ABA Therapy?
What’s the Big Deal With ABA Therapy?
Before I dive into the current ABA issues being debated, let’s get an idea for the history of ABA therapy.
ABA therapy was developed by a man named Dr. Ivar Lovaas.
The premise was to use behaviorism, which you probably learned about in school with Dr. Skinner and Pavlov training dogs, to ‘treat’ autistic individuals.
ABA focuses purely on behaviors, and sets the goal to make the autistic child ‘indistinguishable from peers’.
And when Dr. Lovaas was practicing ABA therapy, he included rewards for desired behaviors as well as abusive punishments (including electric shock) for undesired behaviors.
Throughout this post, I’ll highlight some text from his book. While ABA therapists today are certainly not the same as this man, there is much to be said about the origins of ABA therapy.
#1 ABA is Compliance-Based Therapy
ABA uses behavioral techniques to either reward desired behaviors or punish undesired behaviors.
Autistic children are taught that when they put their own feelings and desires aside to do what someone else wants of them, they are rewarded.
When they stand up for their own feelings and desired, they get punished (or get something withheld).
The subconscious lesson doesn’t stay in the therapy session, however.
Many autistic adults have shared how they struggle with compliance, consent, and body autonomy even as adults.
It’s hard to be taught for 20-40 hours a week that your body is in someone else’s control, only to then shut that off and take control of your own body.
#2 ABA Teaches Autistics to Act Neurotypical
ABA’s original goal was to make autistics ‘indistinguishable from peers’.
Basically, the premise of ABA therapy is to teach autistics to act more neurotypical.
The thing is… There’s no reason to make us act neurotypical. We’re fine just as we are.
I believe that therapies for autistic people are incredibly valuable, but the goal should be to help the autistic person… Not their parents, teachers, or others.
Teaching a non-speaking autistic child to use an adaptive communication device to prevent frustration? Fair game.
Teaching an autistic child not to flap their arms because it embarrasses mom in the grocery store? No bueno.
A therapy with the primary goal to make a person change who they are at the deepest level should never be acceptable.
In fact, many autistic adults have started calling ABA ‘Autistic Conversion Therapy’ because it bears a strong resemblence to conversion therapy that the LGBTQ+ community has faced.
#3 ABA has Given Autistics PTSD
I’ve heard a few times that the autistic adults speaking out about ABA are the minority. They had bad therapists. Their parents didn’t do the therapy right…
But here’s the thing: Autistic adults are literally suffering from PTSD after the ABA therapy they had as children.
And according to this research, “Respondents of all ages who were exposed to ABA were 86 percent more likely to meet the PTSD criteria than respondents who were not exposed to ABA.”
Eighty. Six. Percent.
This isn’t a few one-off bad therapists… This is a serious issue in the autism community, and we can’t keep pretending we don’t see it.
#4 ABA is a Part to Full-Time Job for Autistics
When my son’s neurodevelopmental pediatrician recommended ABA, she said 20-40 hours would do, but we couldn’t go below 20.
We didn’t do any hours, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around that…
We don’t even make children do forty hours of school each week, why in the world would they need forty hours of therapy?
Or twenty hours of therapy on top of school?
I started digging to find out why it was thought that autistics needed so much time to learn to act neurotypical and found this, from Lovaas’s book…
“The ideal teaching team probably numbers between four and eight people, each working about four to eight hours per week. If your child gets from 20 to 60 hours of one-on-one teaching per week, he will probably get as much instruction as he can handle.”
So parents and teachers should only be able to handle four to eight hours a week to avoid burn out, but autistic children should get 20-60 hours a week and handle it fine?
Let’s be real… ABA therapy is hard work for autistic children. You have to be ‘on’ all the time, even if it’s play-based.
You have someone challenging you mentally, physically, and constantly pushing you to improve.
For forty hours a week?
Children should not work forty hours a week, in any capacity.
#5 ABA Doesn’t Treat Autistics Like Humans
The biggest problem, ultimately, with ABA is that it doesn’t treat autistics like humans.
We’re treated as sub-human until we can prove our worth by putting ourselves aside to act neurotypical enough.
Don’t believe me? Here are two more quotes from Lovaas…
“With responsibility, the developmentally disabled individual takes on dignity and “acquires” certain basic rights as a person. No one has the right to be taken care of, no matter how retarded he is. So, put your child to work; his work is to learn.”
“Before you begin teaching, make your child look as normal as possible. For example, don’t let him get too fat. Many disabled persons look like big balloons and just the sight of them invites ridicule and isolation.”
ABA was never designed to help autistic people.
It was designed to suppress a person’s autism and try to make them compliant, neurotypical-acting robots.
I may have offended some with this post. I tried my very best not to make it a big long rant, and I shared facts and sources wherever possible.
I do understand that many ABA therapists today are not practicing in the traditional manner and don’t share the same hateful beliefs that Lovaas had, but the history of ABA is too problematic to ignore.
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I don’t know much about ABA but to its an outdated therapy for autistic kids.
Thank you for your post. I am an autistic woman who has never been subjected to aba therapy, probably due to a later diagnosis at 8. I am trying to discontinue the aba class that is being offered at my school and I will be sharing this resource with our psychology department. It is an uphill battle but I am in it for the long haul. Thanks again!
Is there a certain therapy that you would recommend? I agree 110% with your post and I’m at a cross roads in regards to my career choice….I love working with individuals diagnosed with ASD; I just cannot face ABA any longer!!!
I highly recommend Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, and RDI Therapy. :)
Thank you for these suggestions!
Have you ever thought of music therapy? ☺️🎶 Certainly treats autistic individuals as humans! Love your writing, by the way. Thank you for sharing.
I’m really struggling here and not sure how to fix it. ABA is an extremely divisive topic, understandably, but it makes it difficult to have genuine conversations. I’ve seen people try in groups I’m in and be met with “ it’s abusive, if you don’t agree you’re an awful human being”. I’m fearful to speak up and ask questions, but I also need to. I just need a willing other half of the discussion. Do you have any suggestions?
For context, I’m an autistic adult, no family or kids. I’m curious if people feel there is any difference in ABA for adults that the autistic adult themselves has specifically asked for. I received no treatment whatsoever for any difficulties as a child. I found an ot at 27 years old and after the assessment, all she said was, how have you never had ot before? I tested in the 4-5 year old range for gross and fine motor skills, bilateral coordination, etc.
I have fought all of my adult life for appropriate treatment. It’s difficult, and I’ve been alone in it, and I do the best I can. I sought out, at the age of 32, a provider for ABA therapy. I have tried so many things to help myself, but there are some very specific behaviors that I can’t seem to change that I need help with. This isn’t intended to make me more “normal”. This is meant to keep me safe, alive, and living in society. This is behavior that feels awful and gut-wrenching to me. Behavior that I haven’t been able to change on my own. It isn’t my only treatment and it isn’t something I’m compelled to continue if I don’t want to.
I start ABA next week.
I can’t mention this to any autistic friends/supports.
It just breaks me down to have the community I’ve found for support condemn me for desperately trying to help myself feel better.
The alternatives right now aren’t better. Medication that really does change me, that takes the joy and color out of life, that keeps me alive but desperately wishing it didn’t, just wanting to end my misery. Being placed in a hospital or facility that takes away my freedom, my quality of life. Irreversible damage to my brain and body. Arrest and legal consequences. Breaking down my parents. Death. When those are my options, how could I not choose to give aba a try?
I’m not saying I’m in favor of aba. I need to see it from all sides. I read research articles, listen to Bcba’s, read other autistic adults experiences, started coursework in aba to see from that angle. And I’m going to experience it myself.
I don’t want to convince people that aba is good or the answer. I just want somebody to talk to me about it. To challenge each other’s thoughts. That’s how we learn. Not by yelling at each other that they’re wrong.
Thank you for your writing. I really appreciate the way you approach things!
It was lovely to hear what you said and I cannot stop thinking about aba and my child’s future although all I have been noticing is improvement in his approaches, skills with ABA. But he is only 4, slightly verbal post ABA but I am not sure whether it may be affecting him emotionally?
I wonder what you experienced with ABa, it would be so good to hear what you thought of it.
She states in the article that she never had any hours. I think ABA is wonderful and have experienced it with a very well rounded ABA therapist as a preschool teacher and have experienced MAJOR changes in the child that has Autism. I guess to each their own.
You should not be allowed near children you sick individual praising a therapy that actually meets the requirements of torture in human rights.Lets see how you would like being treated like that.
I had a honeymoon period when I was able to work in ABA without using physical “prompting” (forcing the child physically to do what you “demand”) or momentum (behavioral momentum as a concept is legitimate, but momentum in the ABA world implies that you are shutting down all communication except for demands until you gain “compliance”). I’ve had great progress with a really difficult case and felt like I was really helping this kid, but now they’re trying to make me revert to full momentum for up to 6.5 hours in a row if there is any instance of “noncompliance”. How on earth is that sane or okay? I get that these people have Master’s degrees and all, but everything I know about psychology screams that this is NOT the way to raise a healthy adult human being. They just want compliance, not any kind of mutual respectful relationship. It’s making me sick to think that these poor kids are subjected to this for so many hours until they just comply with everything and don’t view their bodies as their own anymore. It’s not okay.
I work as an ABA tech in a treatment center, and would like to offer some insight from a different perspective. I 100% believe everything that is said here and I do know that many centers and especially in home services can be traumatizing. I think my center takes a completely different approach and I hope others begin to follow suit. First and foremost, we recognize the importance of stimming for autistic people and we only try to lessen self injurious behaviors or behaviors that would be distracting to an entire class of students (because we want to get them in school if they aren’t already). So things like walking on tip-toes, hand flapping, rubbing fabric, clapping, tapping, or even humming, are mostly just ignored. We also have a huge focus and many programs aimed at self advocacy. We do seek compliance, but our goal is if a child is struggling or needs a break, for them to somehow communicate that in a way that others can understand. You would teach this concept to any child, autistic or not. Throwing a tantrum or running away doesn’t get anyone what they want. But tapping “break” on their talker is communicating in a way that is appropriate, and we always try to accommodate them, or especially prevent them from being in a situation that gets them worked up in the first place. For example, kids usually start out at 30 seconds for tolerating a group activity. We also never treat a non-verbal child as dumb or inferior in any way. The goal is for them to gain speech or to learn to use a “talker.” It is amazing to see a child light up when they are finally able to communicate their thoughts, after maybe 10 years of never being able to. Our kids also go to speech, occupational, physical, music, art, and even hyperbaric therapy. And as we are a center, where there are many kids, there is a big push for peer interaction, which I think is invaluable. I’ve seen kids go from screaming as soon as they see another child, to laughing and playing and asking friends to sit with them at lunch. And maybe you read this and are disgusted, because yes, the main goal is to teach a child how to conform to a neurotypical world. But I believe that if it’s done right, then that is not a bad thing. Humans are social creatures who need other people to survive. I know what it’s like to be totally isolated and feel different from everyone else. Most people do. I like to think that we are giving these kids the tools they need to be able to function alongside others and to not feel so alone, while never devaluing them, their feelings, or experiences. I hope for the kids’ sake that that is true.
Excellent piece. I spent so long trying to advise parents against opting for overpriced special schools offering ABA. Our borough offered Attention Autism and SALT. Thank you for this article.
As someone diagnosed later in life, I WISH I could have been made more normal as a kid when I had the neuroplasticity. I hate how hard it is to be atypical and just want to be normal.
Hello. Thanks for the post…. Lovaas said some F*ed up things! Will you please cite this quote, I can’t seem to find it anywhere: “Before you begin teaching, make your child look as normal as possible. For example, don’t let him get too fat. Many disabled persons look like big balloons and just the sight of them invites ridicule and isolation.”
Thanks so much for this article. I am a para educator in a a school for autistic students and this is the type of info I need when thinking about what type of grad program might be best for me to stay in this field. I really enjoy working with kids with so called “problem behaviors” and am struggling with figuring out how to do that without becoming a BCBA, as it seems like that is who is most often working with those kids. It seems like with really challenging issues like self injury etc behaviorism is still the go to.