what is Applied Behavior Analysis, and why is it so terrible?

what is Applied Behavior Analysis, and why is it so terrible?

Applied Behavior Analysis is considered the “gold standard” of care for autistic people in the United States and many other countries globally, but many people feel that ABA is abusive and harmful.

Based on theories of operant conditioning and radical behaviorism, ABA techniques are aimed at changing behaviors through reward and punishment.

“ABA therapists enforce behavior modification with a rewards-based model and systemically encourage social behaviors that have been deemed appropriate by the caregivers and intervention team.”

Henny Kupferstein

Behavior analysts begin by consulting with the parents and interacting with the child, determining which behaviors should be stopped or diminished and which behaviors should be taught or increased. Then, they make a plan to teach the desired behaviors by reinforcing them while also punishing undesired behaviors.

With goals like teaching children to play, socialize, and generally behave “correctly”, parents and caregivers may be drawn to ABA’s promises of normalcy. Do not be fooled, changing your child’s autistic behavior is harmful to everyone involved.

The list of reasons why ABA is considered harmful is extensive, but the key points are as follows:

  • ABA is expensive and not accessible for many people
  • ABA is intensive therapy, with children often being prescribed 40 hours per week of active learning behavior modification
  • The origins of ABA are extremely disturbing
  • ABA is closely related to and originated alongside gay conversion therapy
  • Many people feel that ABA is akin to dog training, but for humans (while others feel that dog training is more humane)
  • ABA teaches children to stop their self-regulating behaviors
  • ABA teaches children that their feelings will be ignored and do not have value
  • ABA forces children to endure painful and upsetting stimuli without complaining or attempting to comfort themselves
  • While in ABA, children are not allowed to say “no” or refuse any part of the program, which raises concerns about the importance of teaching children consent
  • ABA therapy uses aversives ranging from disapproval and rejection to spanking and slapping all the way to electric shocks
  • ABA has been linked to PTSD, and studies show an increased rate of PTSD in autistics that have been involved in ABA
Anonymous Submission: how do I help my child organize daily chores?

Anonymous Submission: how do I help my child organize daily chores?

Anonymous Submission:

Q: “I’m wondering how to help my daughter with organising daily chores. I don’t like the idea of a rigid list eg. Monday put washing in the machine etc. My daughter has been asking for some time now for a list as a result of me being frustrated that I don’t get enough help. My main concern though isn’t about me feeling like ‘Cinderella’ I really want to support her for the future because I am worried that she may not cope well with independent living. I’ve been struggling to write a list because I don’t want to come across as dictatorial. If anyone has any ideas for how I can best support her, I would be very grateful.”

A: If your child is telling you what will help them, listen. Your child has asked for a list, so give them a list. This is your child telling you exactly what you can do to help!

The most important thing about parenting is to listen to your children telling you what they need… and provide it for them. If your child is explicitly stating that a list would help them do chores, they actually do mean to make an actual, physical list.

I would list the chores that need to be performed and the timeframe they should be done within, and the order of importance. Make sure that these tasks are all reasonable for your child’s age and capabilities, though! Asking a toddler to vaccuum isn’t reasonable and asking a disabled person to do laundry might not be feasible.

A list of chores can be really helpful for an autistic person people who need explicit instructions for tasks or have difficulty remembering things. Many autistic people struggle with non-direct instructions, such as “can you please do the dishes?” which may read as optional or a question of capability; or “I need some help around here” that has no specific and distinct directions.

Other tips:

  • Do not phrase something as a question if it is an expectation. If there is no option to say no, and the child is required to perform the task, don’t ask them to do it. Tell them to do it.
  • Do not use language like “I’d like” or “I want” because that can often read as optional as well.
  • Don’t raise your voice or express your frustration. We know it’s sometimes infuriating when people don’t “pull their weight” so to speak, but yelling at an autistic person because they don’t do chores will only backfire.
  • Make sure there is no uncertainty about the task. Don’t say “clean the living room”- say instead “In the living room: pick up the books/toys and put them away and sweep the floor. In the kitchen, wash the dishes and put them away.” That type of thing. Say exactly what you mean.

Now, do address the portion of this question wherein you express concern about your child’s ability to live independently- your child is already showing signs of this capability! By telling you how you can help them, they are self-advocating, which is arguably the most important skill for an autistic person to learn before living on their own!

The best way to help your child be successful independently is by teaching them how to do what they cannot do. For example, an autistic person given a list of directions for how to complete a task will help them learn to do the task in the future. Let’s say you want your child to do two loads of laundry. Specify what can go in each load (maybe you want one load of clothes and one of towels) and how to wash them (clothes on delicate, towels on regular, perhaps) and dry them (clothes on low, separate out bras and hang dry those, towels on high, perhaps). Having a written set of directions can help them learn and remember how to wash those things! And there’s no reason they can’t some day have a list on the wall of how to do chores.

Independent living isn’t only about knowing how to do things for yourself, the entire process of transitioning from living with others to living on your own is a learning experience. Let your child learn and grow!

Some other suggestions from members in our group:

  • ‘”It’s not dictatorial if the person asks for it. To make it more democratic, you could also build the list together, if she is willing, and it can be open to modifications if she has troubles with it. Also invite her to talk about her needs, sometimes she may need to recharge and chores would get in the way, for example.”
  • “When I was a child my mother provided a list of expectations and it made my life so much easier. We need expectations spelt out thoroughly.”
  • ” I agree, she’s asking for a perfectly reasonable accommodation so I say make a list/chart. Also, by speaking up about something that would help, she’s showing evidence of self-advocacy skills. Those will become more and more important as she gets older.”
  • “I tried forever when I was a kid to get my mom to make a list for me to help her and she just wouldn’t do it. To this day (I’m 37 and don’t even live in the same state anymore) I have to hear about she doesn’t get any help around the house lol… Now I make lists for myself when I need to clean my apartment so that I can break it down for myself and not get overwhelmed.”
  • “Having lists makes it easier to live on my own. I make to do lists everyday and it helps so much.”
  • “Oh my gosh, that last point really speaks to me… my mom used to say ‘clean the kitchen’ when all she meant was ‘wash the dishes.’ That was completely overwhelming to little kid me! Did she expect me to scrub the floors? Defrost the fridge? Fix the caulk on the backsplash? I could never be sure and so what seemed like a very simple ask to her always ended up with a meltdown on my end.”

To make an anonymous submission: Go here!

Rejecting Asperger’s and other Functioning Labels

Rejecting Asperger’s and other Functioning Labels

Functioning labels:

A lot of folks are reading the entry questions for our associated group and seem to misunderstand the last question: “Do you understand why functioning labels (including Asperger’s) can be harmful? If no, are you willing to learn?”

This does not mean:

  • Labels are harmful
  • Diagnosis is a label
  • Diagnosis is harmful
  • Identifiers are harmful
  • “Autistic” is harmful
  • “Autism” is harmful

Diagnosis can be an important tool in getting what you need as an autistic person, in the way of accommodations, but it can also be a hindrance (which is addressed in our Self Diagnosis FAQ) and that decision is a very personal one to make for yourself or your child.

Using the identifiers/labels “Autistic” and “Autism” are important and necessary. We are all about educating, advocating, and celebrating autistics, after all.

This does mean:

  • “Aspergers” is harmful
  • “Aspie” is harmful
  • “High functioning” is harmful
  • “Low functioning” is harmful
  • “Moderate” is harmful
  • “Severe” is harmful
  • “Mild” is harmful
  • “Level 1/2/3” is harmful

Functioning labels are descriptors of alleged functioning based on outward perception of the person by non-autistics. These are harmful because they are completely inaccurate and arbitrary.

But most of all, functioning labels are harmful because they are used for one of two things:

These labels are used to deny agency or independence to autistic people:

  • “Low functioning”
  • “Severe”

These labels are used to deny supports and accommodations (and even disability payments) to autistic people:

  • “Aspergers”
  • “Aspie”
  • “High functioning”
  • “Mild”
  • “Level 1”

“Moderate” & “Level 2” can go in either direction, depending on a few factors.

Functioning labels have been repeatedly found by autistics to be unhelpful and harmful, and researchers have finally gotten on the same page. Functioning labels hurt autistic people.

To expand on the uselessness of functioning labels and levels for autism:

Levels and functioning labels were created with the intention of making it simple to address the needs of someone based on perception by an outsider. This idea is inherently flawed, but even if it weren’t, there’s a deeper issue. It is much simpler to say the specific support needs of the person and address them than to generalize that they need “a lot” or “a few”.

Saying what each autistic person individually needs is more important and useful to everyone than giving an arbitrarily decided upon grouping based on your perception of their outward behavior.

So how do they determine these useless levels (and how did they formerly determine these useless functioning labels that are now no longer diagnosed)?

Someone who has minimal knowledge of autism, and is not autistic, looks at the outward/overt behaviors of the autistic person and makes a determination based on how stereotypically autistic they appear outwardly. This means that nonverbal autistics are almost always grouped into “low functioning” or “level 3” because they do not speak, which makes them appear more autistic to an outsider. We know that speech and communication are not good indicators of a person’s ability to function (and we know that nonverbal does not mean they cannot communicate.)

What they are measuring, which they often do not realize, is the autistic person’s ability to “mask” (masking is something that almost all autistic people do, consciously or subconsciously, which is essentially to hide your autistic traits to appear outwardly more allistic.)

If someone speaks, makes eye contact, and does not do obvious stimming like hand flapping during the limited interaction they have with the evaluator, they will likely be classed as “level 1” or “high functioning” because they are masking quite a lot.

It is harmful to base these arbitrary categories on outward perception of masking because that does not show what supports the person truly needs. Someone who is verbal may still need more supports in other areas than someone who is nonverbal, for example. I think I’ve talked your ears off enough, I’ll leave it at this.

Asperger’s specifically is much worse than just a functioning label.

Asperger’s Syndrome was a functioning label featured in the DSM for 19 years (1994-2013) and has since been removed because it is inaccurate. Now, the only autistic diagnosis in the DSM is Autism Spectrum Disorder. In some countries, the ICD is used instead of the DSM for diagnosis, and Asperger’s is still currently listed in the ICD. However, it is being phased out in the newest version which will debut in the next couple years. It was meant to separate “high functioning” autistic people from their other autistic peers.

Even if you were diagnosed with Asperger’s, it is not okay to use that term.

This issue is incredibly important to us and to the autistic community as a whole, and we will not allow deliberate ignorance of this issue. Using functioning labels or “levels” of autism is harmful and never acceptable. It is not acceptable or allowable, it contributes to the othering of and harm of autistic people, and we do not allow it.

To get into the nitty gritty of why Asperger’s is so awful, though, we have to go beyond the functioning label aspect.

Hans Asperger, whom Asperger’s was named after, was a Nazi doctor.

During World War II and the Holocaust, Asperger was essentially responsible for determining which autistic people were “smart” enough to be spared their deaths and torture and which were not so lucky.

He looked at the outward characteristics of the autistic people in concentration camps and hand selected which ones would be exploited to further the Nazi cause (by helping develop machinery/etc) from those who were deemed unhelpful and then sentenced to death or torture and experimented on.

(for those unaware, disabled people were largely experimented on and murdered during the holocaust.)

And I’ll end with some examples and further explanation:

To expand on why functioning labels are so terrible…
They are entirely arbitrary and do not hold any meaning. Someone labeled (incorrectly) as “high functioning” may have similar support needs to someone labeled (incorrectly) as “low functioning”, or any other variation.

The Autism Spectrum is not a linear sliding scale from “extremely/severely autistic to “normalcy- it is an abstract collection of traits that is meant to show that autism looks different on all of us, despite common traits.

what do autistic people think of ABA therapy?

what do autistic people think of ABA therapy?

Short answer: They almost universally hate it.

These stories were all obtained anonymously via google forms survey. Some of these are quoted from parents or loved ones and others are quoted from autistics.

“The focus on eye contact and eliminating comforting stims is frustrating and gross. I bite my nails when I’m interested in something, and if made to stop, I spend all of my energy focused on not biting my nails, rather than whatever I need to be doing.”

“ABA is literally based on gay conversion therapy techniques and animal clicker training. It’s barbaric to treat a human being like this in 2019. If you don’t want to possibly raise a person with autism (or any learning/developmental disability) you shouldn’t have kids.”

“I wished more parents with autistic children understood the harm they are causing thier children and leaving them having to overcome PTSD in the future.”

“ABA is harmful and abusive. I don’t want my child to be taught to conform or obey blindly. She needs to be respected and able to grow as she is.”

“ABA sucks ass.”

“I have read some horrific accounts of ABA and the effect it has on autistic people. My hope is that we can find a way to make our society more inclusive and safer for neurodiverse people such that neurotypicals do not resort to harmful practices ever again.”

“It’s manipulative and disrespectful of the person’s dignity.”

 “Ban it pls.” (pls stands for please)

“I would never subject anyone to ABA.”

“Comparing it to dog training is unfair because even dog training acknowledges that everyone has basic emotional and cognitive needs and that these should never be used for behaviourist purposes.”

“Again, I do not think it was in the best interest of the autistic people and I noticed a lot of ‘conditioning’ to remove behaviors deemed inappropriate. I was never the target, luckily, because I hid my behavior, which not everyone can.”

“ABA should be outlawed.”

 “I am not a dog to be trained. I am left flinchy at harsh voices and unable to completely relax without weed and avoiding my parents who got me into this state.”

“Its is abusive and makes autistics second guess everything they do.”

“I’d rather shit in my hands and clap.” (I’m not joking, this was actually submitted!)

“It’s an awful thing that should not be used.”

“It’s horrible and should be outlawed in all cases. It’s abuse. It’s torture. It’s hell.”

“Its abuse.”

 “ABA is abusive and should be illegal.”Edit or delete this

 “I put no on dog training because when training my dog I listen to what he tells me, I don’t make him stop being a dog.”

 “It’s disgusting, it should be binned.”

“I despise it.”

“Its abusive and does more harm than good.”

“ABA is Abuse.”

“ABA has the goal of making someone ‘appear neurotypical’ rather than helping them navigate the world in their own way.”

“ABA in all its forms is harmful. Changing a few techniques or making it child led or play based will not change that.”

“It is so simple to teach coping mechanisms and meet a child’s support needs. ABA is not needed and is cruel.”

“It’s undercover child abuse.”

So there you have it; 28 individual anonymous responses from actual people who feel that ABA is harmful, abusive, and cruel.

Self Diagnosis FAQ

Self Diagnosis FAQ

From our Facebook Page & Group.


Q: What is self diagnosis? 

A: Self diagnosis is when a person determines that they have autism (which can occur in a variety of ways including informal internet assessments, information from autistic peers, etc) without the help of a medical professional or without a professional diagnosis.

Q: Why self diagnose? 

A: There are many reasons for which someone may self diagnose. Most often, patients experience an unfairness when seeking formal diagnosis’ because they do not it the narrow stereotype that most mental health professionals are taught about autism (which I will discuss below), or they are unable to seek healthcare of any kind due to lack of insurance and/or funding. Other reasons may include concerns about their treatment in the workplace or school, concerns about custody arrangements, concerns about treatment from partners and family members, concerns about loss of freedoms/autonomy or concerns about abusive therapies. Some others may self diagnose in the meantime until they are able to get a formal diagnosis- this is how almost everyone diagnosed in adulthood technically does it.

Q: What’s that you said about the narrow stereotype that most mental health professionals are taught about autism?

A: Most mental health professionals are taught a wide array of startlingly inaccurate things about autism, but I will focus here on the ones that in particular, influence who they will and will not diagnose. It is a common misconception that autism occurs primarily (or only) in white men and boys (AMABs). It is also commonly believed that autism is always noticeable in early childhood. If you are not a 2-10 year old boy (AMAB), the odds of your autistic traits being dismissed by a doctor are astronomical. Doctors and therapists often believe that women and girls (AFABs) and sometimes POC are unable to have autism, or that it is rare. This is false. Mental health professionals also have a higher tendency to dismiss the concerns of women, nonbinary folks, transgender folks, disabled people, people with other mental health disorders, young adults or teenagers, POC, etc. In particular, AFAB persons and POC are dismissed at an alarming frequency. This disparity in treatment and diagnosis creates turmoil in the lives of many people. Doctors are less likely to diagnose autism in adults or teenagers, POC, women or nonbinary people, the list goes on. Doctors will also dismiss concerns of autism if a patient expresses concern that they may have it- they have been reported as saying “If you are asking, you are too self aware to possibly be autistic”. Doctors will also refuse to evaluate a person for autism if they believe the person is able to make eye contact (some can, but others have been told this when looking elsewhere on the face in efforts to mask). There is a lot of bias in diagnosing autism.

Q: I’d like some more information on other reasons a person may not seek a diagnosis. 

A: A large volume of people (particularly in the US) are unable to even see a professional to consider a diagnosis. The US is not on a single payer insurance system, insurance is very expensive. For those not on insurance, costs may be in the several thousands to be seen and evaluated for autism, particularly if a doctor wants to rule out other psychological or neurological causes for traits. Another set of people feel unsafe for various reasons- see below.

Q: Why would someone feel unsafe being formally diagnosed with autism?

A: A formal diagnosis means that in your medical records, there is a report saying you are autistic. In the event that others find out, things can go awry. In some scenarios, it may be safer and smarter for a person to not have that listed in their file. Fear of mistreatment by medical professionals, employers, teachers or other persons who may have authority over you and/or may have your life in their hands is a real and valid fear. Although it is technically illegal to fire someone or refrain from hiring someone because they are autistic, it does happen. It happens more often than you would think. Fear that they will be refused acceptance to or be removed from their dream school program or job may inhibit some people from seeking a diagnosis. Particularly if they need said job to support themselves or a family. In some cases, children may be removed from their home and placed into the custody of another parent or grandparent that is suing for custody if the court is made aware that the parent they initially lived with is autistic. In order to protect their children, an autistic person may refuse to seek a formal diagnosis. There are also countless cases of violence against and murder of autistic people, and it may be safer for some people to slide under the radar, particularly if they have a past history of being abused by someone. If an abuser made this discovery, it could be detrimental. If you are under the age of 18 or in the care of a legal guardian, you may be forced into abusive therapies or treatments like ABA therapy or even violent “cures” like “bleach therapy”.

Q: Aren’t there benefits to being diagnosed?

A: Short answer? There are some, but not enough to outweigh the risks (even if you assume the person has access to a dx). Long answer? a professional diagnosis can help a person get supports that they need- school or work accommodations, disability payments, etc. You may be eligible for scholarships based on being autistic. You will likely have more access to therapy. But frankly, there are not a lot of supports in place for autistic people at this time.

Q: Is self diagnosis accurate? How can someone determine this about themselves?

A: Because autism is a neurotype, and a person knows their brain much better than a stranger who speaks to them for only a short time, self diagnosis could arguably be more accurate than professional. Particularly when you consider that professionals often have inaccurate ideas about what autism is and isn’t. It is possible for a self diagnosis of autism to be wrong, but it is also possible for a professional diagnosis of autism to be wrong.

Q: Should a self diagnosed autistic person still identify as autistic?

A: Absolutely! Identifying as autistic can be very beneficial to all kinds of autistic people- it can give you something to ground yourself on, help you fit in and find communities that experience life in a similar way to you. Owning your neurotype will help you be happier and feel less alone.

Q: Are they faking/seeking attention?

A: No. Why on earth would they? But even if there were a few people who did… Its still important to make sure everyone else knows they are still valid.

Q: Is self diagnosis valid?

A: Of course! Autistic is autistic, regardless of how the person found out about it.

Q: Is self diagnosis important?

A: If you couldn’t tell from reading what is posted above… of course it is!

anonymous submission: “I don’t understand why ABA is bad?”

anonymous submission: “I don’t understand why ABA is bad?”

Anonymous Submission:

Q: “I don’t understand why ABA is bad? What are specific experiences or examples folks can share? Seeing first hand experiences, not conjecture or opinion. I am the bio mom to a 2 year old, enrolled in ABA, Speech, OT in America, only on private insurance. He does not speak, among other issues.”

Our Answer: ABA therapy is child abuse. The focus of ABA is to assimilate autistic children to behave as neurotypically as possible. The goals of ABA are now, and have always been, to reduce the visibility of autism in autistic children. 

While I do not personally have experiences with ABA myself, I did delve into loads of research, other people’s personal experiences, and several articles and journal papers on the subject.

Here is an abundance of links explaining what is so terrible about ABA!

Here are several anonymous personal accounts of ABA.

Here are several other statements from autistic people about ABA.

There are numerous other responses on our thread in the Facebook group “sounds like you should ask an autistic, but ok

You can also find us on our Facebook Page: Ask An Autistic

To make an anonymous submission: Go here!

personal stories from those formerly enrolled in ABA

personal stories from those formerly enrolled in ABA

These stories were all obtained anonymously via google forms survey. Some of these are quoted from parents or loved ones and others are quoted from autistics.

From parents:

“We had a newer practitioner, she did not suppress stim or demand eye contact, however she did very much demand certain flow from conversation. The last straw for me was when my daughter was trying to explain her perspective abd her refusal logically (this is obviously very difficult for a six year old, distressed, autistic to do! I was very proud of the effort!) And in order to make a more genuine connection, my daughter made very intentional eye contact, and the therapist turned her head dramatically away from my child, repeatedly and refused her hearnest eye contact, as a declaration that she would not listen to or consider my daughters feelings. My child was working so hard to communicate and she was crushed.” “ABA was used on my daughters when they were in elementary school prior to diagnosis. We were never told the methods the teachers were using were based in ABA. PTSD, low self esteem, and inability to emotionally regulate are severe now.” “ABA was presented to me as “parent training” and I was several sessions in before I realized it was ABA, we were working specifically on toileting, and the method was so bizarre to me, there was a time table that increased demand to be seated on the toilet more and more frequently until she used it, they tried to tell me She couldn’t have m&ms anymore unless she successfully toilets (m&ms were her favorite thing in the world, so we did not comply with that for long) i. The end it left her terrified of the process of toilet training and put us further behind. Not to mention that it only punished and rewarded, it did not take into account that sensory deficits are to blame for her delayed toileting, not stubborn behavior.” “ABA caused my autistic daughter to burnout and regressed with being able to use the potty or be able to self regulate.”
[note: we don’t advocate for the use of language like “regressed” here.]

“I have unwittingly used some of the techniques which are hallmarks of ABA (repeatedly giving the same command with insufficient time to process) while raising my autistic child. It only made the situation worse for both of us, amplifying her distress and my frustration. ”

“My son was enrolled in the pre-k program. The teacher, also a BCBA, used ABA on him. We saw a huge shift in his overall well being and attitude. He now shows symptoms of anxiety and a need for rewards for any type of demand.”

“My little girl worsened with ABA. I stopped it when she asked me to. It seemed like abuse and certainly not good for a child.”

“My son was in an award winning ABA preschool for approx 6 months before we knew it was detrimental. While verbal understanding and use improved, behavior became more explosive. I believe my son fits the PDA profile so his anxiety and behavior amped up after a few months I think due to the constant demands. I pulled him when he started to physically fight me to avoid school. I don’t know if there will be any lasting effects as of yet.”

“When our child was diagnosed at age 3 (more than a decade ago), we were told that the optimal outcome would be ‘indistinguishable from their peers.’ For 2 years leading up to the start of school, and for a good portion of our child’s elementary/primary school experience, they were subjected to ABA therapy or behavioral management based on ABA principles. Our child is now a young teen with a range of mental health challenges, and they feel very strongly that ABA sent them messages of ‘you are less than.'”

“My son was briefly enrolled at age 3 for potty training issues. I removed him after only two days as he had extreme anxiety about going back.”

From other loved ones:

“My person sometimes doesn’t even know who they are anymore. They told me they feel like a shell of the person they were before, and when situations come up that otherwise could have been managed by stimming they meltdown now. They were perfectly fine before.”

“I wasn’t enrolled in ABA myself due to being diagnosed at 15, but my brother (who is 10 years younger than me) was diagnosed as a toddler and put through ABA by our mother. I noticed that he’s more anxious and tired than ‘normal’ for a child his age (he’s 10) and I strongly suspect that ABA is responsible. (We also have an allistic sister who is the middle child and tries to follow our mum’s lead when it comes to interacting with our brother, which worries and upsets me.)”

“My partner and I are both autistic, and by all accounts were very similar as children. My partner was diagnosed and sent to ABA, whereas I was not. Not only does my partner have more trouble regulating emotions and dealing with the emotions of others, but her mother, who was the one who’d enrolled her, is much more hostile toward harmless autistic behaviors such as stimming than my family is.”

“My aunt doesn’t like to talk about it that much because it’s quite traumatic for her, so all answers [in the survey] about the family member were how I think she feels.”

“I have seen it do harm to a good friend. They became ill from the stress of pretending to be ‘normal’.”

“Autistic friend was damaged by ABA, suffered a great deal and was left in an institution.”

From former providers and other professionals who witnessed ABA in a professional setting:

“I worked briefly in a school which used it. It was nothing short of horrific, and put adults in a place of extreme power over children, controlling their every move and handling them constantly. The adult was always right, the child was always seen as wrong/broken and in need of fixing. This is in the UK, in extremely recent years. I saw signs of trauma in particular in children who had been in aba for a long time, such as starting to pull out hair, a desire to please out of fear (e.g. repeating ‘I’m happy, I’m happy’ and trying to smile even when crying), and meltdowns triggered by the demands of aba itself. Staff saw dealing with meltdowns, especially when the child became violent or destructive as a badge of honour, because it showed they were ‘doing their jobs’. Children were left with no autonomy whatsoever, and no dignity. Skills were tokenised, but ultimately crushed under the more prominent demands of ‘point to the cat…good job, quiet hands’. It didn’t matter if a child was skilled in maths, or piano, what mattered was that they could learn stock phrases to sound neurotypical and comply, comply, comply.”

 “As a special ed teacher I have had some training. Instinctively I didn’t use ABA for teaching purposes, it made no sense to my autistic mind. I always had fun and success following the child’s lead. Verbal expression, eye contact all arise naturally when the child feels safe and accepted. ABC charts would have been filled for diagnostic purposes if child was being assessed by NEPS, Child Dev etc.”

“I work in education and have seen a couple of children who have been put through ABA. Contrary to Lovaas’ idea that autistic children who go through ABA become ‘indistinguishable from their peers’, it’s often easy to spot the students who have been through ABA programmes as they often come across as quite passive and unquestioningly compliant. I can’t lie, as a teaching assistant this does make my job easier but that shouldn’t be a reason to make children do ABA – it feels wrong to try to change their behaviours just to make things easier for their teachers and parents. One child had a full-time ABA tutor with him in school, which was definitely counter-productive as he had few opportunities to interact with other children in the classroom as the tutor was always the one interacting with him. It marked him out as ‘different’ which he didn’t like, and he struggled to make friends. Obviously social difficulties are a hallmark difficulty for autistic people, but in this case the ABA was an additional barrier to him making friends as he was being encouraged to present a false version of himself to the other students. I also think he’d have had an easier time making friends if he’d have been allowed to do it his own way and in his own time rather than having friendships engineered for him by his ABA tutor.”

“I worked at an ABA school as an intern in high school. At this point, I was unfamiliar with ABA. The experience was horrifying. I became suspicious of ABA before I started working there. The person who had set the internship up was an inclusion specialist at my school. They weren’t my assigned inclusion specialist, but nonetheless took a specific interest in me for some reason. Once I started expressing doubts, they pressured me to talk to the owner/CEO(?) of the school about it. We did. I was belittled and dismissed the whole time. Later, she (the owner) implied that I would be intellectually disabled without these services (I had been through a program that used some of the same techniques, but wasn’t ABA). This not only showed a disrespect for people with intellectual disabilities, but also a deep misunderstanding of disability and a manipulativeness that would continue throughout the internship. I wanted to quit, but people from all sides pressured me and gaslit me about my worries. The school itself was awful. There were bizarre, homophobic and transphobic posters on the wall. They were supposed to be about the ages of development for kids, but included things like ‘gender-appropriate play for age’ (?). More than once I witnessed abuse. I was supposed to find crafts for the kids, so I found one where we’d decorate paper plates and cut them into spirals to hang them. One kid accidentally tore his plate in half when cutting it and waned to start over. I said sure, because we had the materials and the time to do it and I didn’t blame him for wanting to start over. The staff insisted over and over again that he staple it until he started crying. Three adults finally surrounded him, used hand over hand to force him to staple it as he cried, and then started clapping and telling him ‘what a good job’ he had done. Later, they pulled me aside. In hushed tones, they said they wanted me to know what happened. They told me they just wanted him to understand that he didn’t have the right or ability to say no to them, ever. The other major incident happened later. The kids would help put small hand towels in the wash and dryer as a chore. They would also help to fold them. (Yes, this was a part of ‘school’.) The students were folding towels. The head teacher, who had a penchant for being rude, impatient, and dismissive of students started bullying the kids. One kid, tired, got upset and lightly tossed a towel at the teacher. She immediately began to belittle him more and he had a meltdown, crying and pacing. She looked him dead in the eye and said ‘That’s right. Cry. No one here cares about you.’ The whole school was a nightmare. They would seclude students, often with no teachers around, in a ‘quiet’ room for bad behavior. They’d restrain them by pushing them into a chair with a pillow (supposedly it was a sensory thing they ‘liked’. I have doubts). They would drag students screaming and crying from the park where we had lunch to the classroom if they ‘misbehaved’. They made fun of students with each other frequently. It was awful.”

“I was an ABA therapist for a short time and it was definitely abusive. When my bosses found out I was autistic they said the company never had an autistic employee, and played an autism speaks video at the next staff meeting about how horrible it is to have autistic children. It felt like they were trying to get me to quit between that and refusing my reasonable accommodation.”

“It is child abuse and I use my position as a Court Appointed Special Advocate to try to prevent children from being subjected to ABA.”

From autistics who experienced ABA themselves:

“I believe I was enrolled in ABA when I was very young, almost too young to remember. I obviously didn’t respond to it very well, because my parents took me out of it eventually. It left mostly trauma and confusion, as I remember simultaneously having a terrible childhood while also having a great one.”

“My personal experience involved physical contact such as slapping my hands whenever flapping occurred. There were other incidents, however this one stands out.”

“I spent 11+ years getting pulled out of class in order to learn the same social skills over and over again, and then got yelled at for not performing well in school because I wasn’t learning the material.”

“Every session ended with me in tears.”

“I’m super flinchy and my grandfather who got an early version of it was visibly left unable to unmask and relax, and flinchy.”

“Simply put, ABA was structured to destroy my self-confidence and agency for not following arbitrary cultural rules. Had I been allowed to interact on my own terms, I would simply have been able to learn, and I still hold that I was never truly disrespectful, just not obsequious, but unfortunately the people around me growing up felt that they could enact any harm on me to try to change this, regardless of where I actually stood.”

“Experienced torture and shutdown due to ABA can not understand my own needs and am unable to ask for basic things to survive from being taught my needs won’t matter. cannot communicate effectively and have not learnt any skills to live independently. don’t know who i am always taught whatever i might be was wrong. it’s a struggle to try and learn who i am at 40.”

“Trying to change who I am a person by mentally abusing me as a way to train me to “be better” was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. It disconnected me from my family as I felt I couldn’t trust them nor that I was loved by them. It made me fearful of all face-to-face interactions because I am still mentally afraid of the consequences, even though it’s been over a decade since my last ABA sessions. I have lifelong PTSD over ABA and it needs to be banned. ”

 “My memories are mostly early childhood with the quiet hands being prominent. It’s hard to sit still and focus for any kid but ADHD and ASD meant there was no way. a lot of forced eye contact too and I just I can’t.”

“I was told to stop playing in the ‘wrong way’ and was taught that my emotions and feelings were wrong. I was fortunately pulled out after two weeks because of how expensive it was, and my family didn’t view it as very effective for my own needs.”

 “I had to wear plaster boots to stop me stimming by toe walking, I was not damaging my feet, it just didn’t look ‘normal’, this is alongside electronic shocks and other harmful practices.”

“My mom had to fire a few therapists for using physically abusive tactics.”

“I was physically restrained for not following instructions. (quiet hand and eye contact bullshit.) My hobbies were shamed and ridiculed and I was told to have more ‘girly and age appropriate hobbies.’ I was forced to ‘try’ new foods (they were forced into my mouth) and I was yelled at for vomiting afterwards. I brought my comfort item one day and it was forcibly taken, I was told I could have it back if i did well… My sister got it back 3 days later when I told her what happened.”

“I am less emotionally developed than others my age due to ABA.”

“ABA is very traumatic, I do not want to talk about my trauma.”

“I have not been enrolled in ABA but my caregivers did use method similar to it when I was a child (holding my hands so I didnt flap, make me look in the eyes, force me to work without washing my hands at recess (hard time writing with sweaty/clammy hands), ect) and I do feel like it made me less able to regulate myself and caused me more anxiety and distress. One example I like to use is: Would you hold down the handof someone communicating in sign language? No? Then why would you hold down the hand of an autistic child? It enable us to regulate ourselves, destress and communicate how we are feeling also.”

” I would not wish the experience I had on anyone else. “

“ABA is responsible for me being hesitant, and in some cases incapable of expressing who I am. While I do not consider this PTSD, I consider it to be a huge factor in the disconnect between my emotions and my expression.”

“I never want any child to go through what I had to suffer through. “

” I am not a dog to be trained. I am left flinchy at harsh voices and unable to completely relax without weed and avoiding my parents who got me into this state.”

“Expensive PTSD-inducing hell i wish i didn’t have to go through.”

“It’s one of the worst things to ever happen to me.”

“It ruined my ability to say no, taught me that I didn’t have bodily autonomy and primed me for abuse later in life. I can only imagine how much worse other people might have it. 😦 ”

The Great Big ABA Opposition Resource List

The Great Big ABA Opposition Resource List

Prompted by an anonymous question submitted to Ask an Autistic / sounds like you should ask an autistic, but ok on Facebook, I’ve put together a list of countless articles explaining why ABA is so harmful. Some of them are from here on this site, but many of them are from elsewhere.

This post will be updated as new resources become available and resources we missed come to our attention.

general information

from parents who abandoned ABA

articles from former ABA providers/behavior analysts/behavior technicians

articles from other providers

(speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physicians, etc.)

responses to ABA providers

information on aversives and torture in ABA (and the FDA’s stance on aversives, torture, and electric shock)

ABA and the link to PTSD

consent (or lack thereof) in ABA

child abuse in ABA

articles about ABA being a conversion therapy focused on assimilation

the terrifying origins of ABA alongside the now renounced gay conversion therapy

To read some of Lovaas’ own deeply upsetting words from his “clinical trial” of ABA/behavior therapy on children in the 1970s, look no further: Some Generalization and Follow-Up Measures on Autistic Children in Behavior Therapy | O. Ivar Lovaas, Robert Koegel, James Q. Simmons & Judith Stevens Long | Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis

Be warned: the language used in this article is incredibly disturbing and dehumanizing.

articles to adress the “but what about…”

miscellaneous articles

Last updated on December 13th, 2019.

Now that you’ve learned why ABA is so terrible… take a look at this post to learn about all the alternative options you have! [Post Coming- Check back for a link!]