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ABA and the refusal to teach children about consent

Sexual Health Centre

In light of the recent #metoo movement and our society becoming more and more aware of the importance of consent, concerns are rapidly arising about ABA’s lack of consent.

 ABA does not require the consent of the child. Behavior analysts frequently disregard a child’s bodily autonomy by restraining or touching them without their permission.

We know the importance of teaching our children to take control over their own bodies, to say “no” when they do not like or want something. We know that in order to set up our children for success in a world where rape culture is on every corner, we must stress consent so that our children know when someone has gone too far– and know when to stop themselves as well.

In ABA, where consent is often violated initially because they do not require consent of the participant or consent to touch and interact with the child, children are also not permitted to say “no” and refuse.

When a child refuses or says “no” during an ABA session, they are either forced to participate anyways or punished. By punishing a child that is exercising their personal right to say no when they have had enough, we are effectively teaching children that they are not allowed to stop unwanted advances, and that they do not have to stop when someone else asks them to.

Children are not permitted to say “no” or refuse to participate during ABA.

We see the long-term consequences of this act every day– sexual assault and abuse happen when one party ignores the consent of the other and in many cases, the victim was not adequately equipped to assert their personal right to refuse.

But what about the short term? Those aggressive or harmful behaviors that people want their children to stop so badly are reinforced in ABA. This might seem counter-intuitive, but when you consider that a child is repeatedly told that someone else can hurt and upset them and they must allow it, what is stopping them from applying that information and that learned skill to other scenarios? If an autistic child is repeatedly shown and told that even when they are being hurt or harassed by someone, they cannot say no… they may in turn hurt or harass someone and not stop when they are told no. And it will not have been their fault.

If a child hits, kicks, or bites a behavior analyst or parent or sibling, it may well be directly linked back to ABA, where the behavior analyst hurt them which showed them that hurting someone else was allowable.

Ink and Daggers

When behavior analysts ignore a child’s refusal, it sets a precedent. When behavior analysts harm a child in order to force them to comply or punish them for not complying, it sets a precedent.

And that precedent is that hurting people is okay.

In order to teach children the importance of consent, to keep them safe and help them understand what behaviors are expected from them, we must allow them to give and refuse consent to participate in their own treatments.

What’s more? Autistic people are statistically more likely to be victims of abuse or sexual assault than their non-autistic counterparts.

Autistic people are already at an increased chance of being abused or assaulted, and teaching them that they must comply with the requests of another person even at a great personal expense will likely lead to more victimization.


Is the “gold standard” too much for such young children?

In today’s anti-autistic behavior climate, early intensive intervention is considered the gold standard for autism care.

Often, the very first conversation a parent has with a physician when their child is diagnosed with autism is the conversation about enrolling their child into as many early intervention programs as possible, and specifically, enrolling their children into ABA.

“BA therapists recommend that small children between 2 and 5 go through 40 hours a week of [ABA] learning.”

C.L. Lynch

ABA is intended to start very young and continue until adulthood as children spend numerous hours per week on active learning- a feat that most children are not expected to do, as this is nearly double the amount of active learning time in public schools- which not only places a lot of stress on the child but also may inhibit their ability to socialize and have a life outside of their ABA sessions.

Most school-aged children attend school for 35 hours per week, and of those 35 hours, anywhere from 5-15 are spent on lunch and recess, leaving about 20-25 hours of school day where the children are actually at their desks. Even during those 20+ hours, some of that time is used for downtime or quiet reading. Most children only actively learn for 15 hours a week, and very few are actively learning for 40 hours per week.

ABA asks parents to enroll their children in 40 hours of active learning per week, during which the children typically sit in a small room with the behavior analyst who explains the tasks and teaches them while modifying their behavior. There is virtually no down time, and no breaks. Children are not allowed to refuse to participate.

Spending this much time actively learning is stressful for school-aged children, and many children start ABA before the age of 3- there are 2-year-olds enrolled in 40 hours per week of learning and behavior modification.

Any good parent or professional would question anything that puts so much stress on- and requires so much work from- such young children.

Is ABA really like “Dog Training for Humans” ?

ABA therapy and dog training both largely stem from the same principles- teaching children or dogs to behave in a desired manner by reinforcing preferred behaviors and discouraging other behaviors. Because of their similarities, many people argue that ABA is harmful because it is akin to dog training.

Survey results obtained from 221 autistic and non-autistic respondents suggest that many autistic and non-autistic people feel that ABA is similar to dog training.

However, others believe that while some of the principles between ABA and dog training are similar, dog training is much less brutal and harmful.

“Dog trainers don’t talk about systematically altering behavior as if the dog weren’t a thinking, feeling, sentient being.”

Carol Millman

Here are some submissions from the aforementioned survey, wherein respondents were asked if ABA was akin to dog training:

In dog training, trainers assess the behaviors but also the consider what behaviors are normal and important for the dog’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

“A good dog trainer doesn’t extinguish behaviours which improve the dog’s mental health and happiness. But an ABA practitioner may not think twice before doing this to a human child.”

Carol Millman

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