(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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