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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

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