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why professional behavior analysts are leaving the field

Photo by Vanessa Bucceri on Unsplash

As more and more information becomes available about the dangers of ABA, behavior analysts and ABA providers are beginning to abandon their jobs for less harmful alternatives.

Behavior Analysts are often minimally trained individuals; certifications are available but schooling is not required.

“My official title was ‘Behavior Technician’ which in itself is really telling. I was hired off the street with no background in child development, no knowledge of autism or ABA, and no experience working with children, let alone autistic children. I. Literally. Did. Not. Know. What. Autism. Is. And I wouldn’t find out what autism is in the years that I worked there either. “

– Birdmadgrrl

Because behavior technicians/analysts do not often know what kind of harm they are causing to children, and lack a formal background of education in disability, healthcare, child development, or psychology, most of them are lead to believe that they are helping autistic children with their jobs. And sometimes, the children even appear to enjoy the program. Parents will sing praises of their beloved behavior technician and to the behavior technician, this feels like a job that makes a change in the world.

So why are behavior analysts leaving?

We know that ABA hurts autistic people; that it’s origins are abysmal, that behavior analysts violate the consent of the children they work with, that ABA stops children from self-regulating, that ABA uses aversives, and that it is very intensive for children involved, and the ABA has been linked to PTSD.

When behavior analysts/technicians leave the bubble of ABA and get exposed to the autistic community, disability rights, or child development, they often come to a tough realization- that everyone outside of ABA… hates ABA.

In the lengthy process of coming to terms with what they have unwittingly done, and unlearning the abusive methods and harmful ideology that they have learned, most former ABA providers have a lot of things to say about the field they once believed in.

Former behavior analysts have come to me repeatedly on social media to share their experiences- every one of them has confessed that they witnessed child abuse every single day that they worked in the field.

” We learned things like ‘planned ignoring’- how to ignore a distressed child until they comply with your demands, how to ‘properly’ restrain a 2-6 year old child, how to not show empathy when a child has a meltdown- that would only reinforce the behavior and we can’t have that, how to ‘desensitize’ a child to painful or uncomfortable sensory experiences (hint; they aren’t actually desensitized, just forced to endure it until they successfully and consistently don’t react), how to change the environment- not to make it more accessible, but to make it more conducive to compliance (ex; feed the child salty chips so that she’ll drink more water so that she’ll use the potty chair at the designated time.)”

– Birdmadgrrl

Former ABA providers speak about how they questioned whether behavior modification via operant conditioning was helpful or harmful, but were often dismissed because ABA is considered the “only evidence-based treatment for Autism” (Nevermind that the evidence is just proof that children will comply if they are faced with aversives, and that autism is not a disease to be treated.)

“Would you comply with demands if tortured enough? Probably. Does that make it effective? Well I guess that depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to gain compliance (which is the goal of ABA) then yeah I guess it’s effective at that goal, but that’s a pretty shitty goal to have, and at what cost?”

– Birdmadgrrl

The primary reason that most ABA providers leave the field is simple: They began listening to autistic people that described the ABA they experienced in childhood as abusive and harmful. They connected the experiences of those autistic people to their own workplace, and the abusive way they were instructed to treat their patients.

If autistic people are the experts on autism, and they’ve been tortured and abused and are living with PTSD… How could this “treatment” possibly be acceptable?

Former ABA therapists often describe an immense struggle to “let go” of their jobs and switch to a less harmful mindset, because learning that you are abusing people that you care about is not easy. The important thing is to recognize the harm and move forward, leaving ABA behind.

“I thought that because I cared about the kids’ well-being, because I had a strong desire to help them, everything I did must therefore be in their best interest. In my mind, it gave me a special immunity to making mistakes. Caring meant there was no way I could be hurting them. I now realize how dangerous this idea really is. I’ve hurt many people I care deeply about. Just because you care about someone or have good intentions does not guarantee you’re doing the best thing for them. “

– Socially Anxious Advocate

Additional readings from former behavior analysts who have left the field:


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