(Inside: When autistics speak out against ABA, many people say that “new ABA” is different, but here are 5 important reasons even “New ABA” is problematic…)
Every time I speak out against ABA therapy, without fail, a well-meaning parent or therapist chimes in with the same thing…
“New ABA is different!”
“ABA therapists haven’t done that in YEARS.”
“You’re talking about OLD ABA. We do NEW ABA, and it’s the best thing ever.”
And I get it, I really do.
When your child is in therapy, or when you are a therapist doing a specific therapy, and someone says that your therapy is harmful or problematic, it can be your first instinct to defend yourself and explain why that criticism doesn’t apply to you.
But if that’s you, I encourage you to step through that defensiveness just for a little while to see why many autistics are against ABA in all forms… Even “New ABA”.
With all of that said, I’m going to share 5 important reasons that even “New ABA” is problematic.
(Image description: Young boy sits at a table with letters and other manipulatives next to an older woman. Teal and coral text on a white background reads: “Yes, Even “New ABA” is Problematic” at the bottom of the image. White Autistic Mama infinity logo in the top left corner.)
5 Important Reasons Even “New ABA” is Problematic
Now, if this is the first you’re hearing about ABA and why it may be harmful, I highly recommend you check out my previous post: What’s the big deal with ABA therapy?
That post outlines the history of ABA and includes several reasons why autistics advocate against ABA therapy for autistic children.
You can also learn a lot from this post: Autism Therapy Red Flags All Parents Should Know and Watch For.
It outlines tons of red flags that will help you determine if your autistic child’s therapy is harmful, whether it’s ABA or not.
And with all of that out of the way, let’s dive into why even “New ABA” is problematic.
#1 Changing Behavior as the Primary Goal
Whether you’re talking about old ABA or new ABA, the primary goal of the therapy is to change the autistic person’s behavior.
But behavior is communication, and when the primary goal is to change that behavior, there’s a LOT of communication that gets missed.
In fact, I’ve written before about the three vital steps to take BEFORE you address your autistic child’s behaviors, and ABA therapy, in the majority of cases, skips over those steps.
Beyond that, when therapy is focused on changing autistic behaviors, it implies that autistic behaviors are bad.
Autistic children should not have their behavior changed simply because it isn’t the way a neurotypical child behaves.
And training a child to sit still instead of wiggling while at the table or forcing them to practice scripts so that they communicate like a neurotypical child, isn’t fair to the autistic child at all.
#2 Compliance-Based Therapies & Issues of Consent
Another major reason that even new ABA is problematic is that it is a compliance-based therapy.
That means that it’s considered a success when autistic children comply with what the therapist says to do.
In many cases, autistic children have their favorite toys or snacks withheld until they comply with the therapist’s demands.
People think that because most new ABA therapists aren’t actively punishing children who refuse to comply it isn’t harmful, but withholding something the autistic child needs or wants, whether it’s food, an object, or even attention is really problematic.
Imagine for a moment if your spouse wanted you to change one of your behaviors… Maybe you forget to do the dishes or you talk during movies without pausing.
Now imagine that your spouse refused to acknowledge you if you didn’t do the behavior they wanted you to do. Or if they refused to hug you, or talk with you, or stopped you from watching tv until you followed through with their “target behavior”.
Wouldn’t that just be awful? Wouldn’t it make you feel like you were being manipulated? Like you didn’t matter, all that mattered was complying with whatever someone else wanted?
And beyond that, focusing heavily on compliance for children, especially autistic children, is actually really dangerous.
Because when autistic children are forced into hours and hours of compliance-based therapies from a young age, they are taught that their body doesn’t belong to them.
They are taught that when someone tells them to do something with their body, they need to comply.
And what do you think happens when it isn’t a therapist telling them they need to sit at the table, but a peer pressuring them to have sex?
Bottom line: compliance-based therapies are extremely problematic, and even New ABA is a compliance-based therapy.
#3 Focusing on Positive Rewards Instead of Intrinsic Motivation
Okay, after the last point this might seem minor, but it’s still worth noting.
New ABA focuses heavily on giving positive rewards for target behavior.
And while most people agree that’s better than focusing on punishments, it’s still actually a negative thing.
See, research has shown that positive rewards actually decrease the likelihood that children will do that behavior in the future when a reward isn’t immediately present.
Basically, if you reward a child for a specific behavior, that behavior may increase in the short term.
But if you stop rewarding that behavior, or if you expect the child to do that behavior in a different setting than they originally were rewarded, it isn’t very effective.
This is especially true for autistic children who tend to cling to routines and rules.
In their mind, if you give them an m&m for sitting at the table, you should always give them an m&m for sitting at the table.
And if you stop giving them m&ms to sit at the table, why in the world would they continue sitting at the table?
It’s so much better if you help the autistic child understand the reason you want to change their behavior and get them involved in creating a plan to change that behavior.
But in order to do that, you first need to understand why you want to change the behavior and why the behavior is happening.
(Again, I cover this in detail in the three vital steps to take before addressing your autistic child’s behavior).
#4 Extreme Hours of Therapy Limits Autistic Children’s Free Time
Okay, so this is true with both old and new ABA.
The fact is most ABA therapists recommend between 20-40 hours of therapy a week for autistic children as young as toddlerhood.
Put another way, autistic children as young as two years old are expected to keep a part time to full time job being trained to comply with therapists and act neurotypical.
In an age when children are being encouraged to spend more time in unstructured play, autistic children aren’t given that same luxury.
In fact, even outside of therapy hours, parents are encouraged to continue therapy activities and strategies almost all the time.
When does that leave autistic children a chance to play in their own autistic way?
When does that allow for downtime that is so needed by autistic kids?
Why should autistic children have to be “on” for so many hours?
I don’t think any child should have to work 20-40 hours at changing who they are, period.
#5 Promoting the Idea That Autistic Children Must Change to Fit In
And the final reason why even new ABA is problematic is that it promotes the idea that autistic children are broken and need to change in order to fit in.
As long as we subject autistic children to intensive therapies that train them out of their autistic behaviors, we are telling those children and society as a whole that autistic behaviors must be changed.
I would much rather see a world where stimming and meltdowns were understood and accommodated instead of trained away and shamed.
But that won’t happen as long as autistic children are spending hours and hours being made to feel like they have to change who they are in order to be accepted by their peers, their teachers, and pretty much everyone in their life.
And there you have it. 5 important reasons that even new ABA is problematic.
So before you dismiss the concerns of autistics who are speaking out against ABA, remember the points in this post.
Remember that even if your experience with ABA wasn’t the torturous punishment-based therapy that you’ve heard about in other articles, that doesn’t mean that it’s a safe or respectful therapy option.
If you loved this post, you might also enjoy…
What’s the Big Deal With ABA Therapy?
Autism Therapy Red Flags All Parents Should Know & Watch For