I’ve always been suspicious of ABA, but I’ve held back on commenting on it much in the past, because I wanted to know what I was actually objecting to. But I’ve found that the more I researched it, the more my horror deepened. The result is that I am now more opposed to it than ever, for the following reasons. (Bear with me, this could be kind of long.)
1) Its Behaviourist Origins. The roots of ABA are in the behaviourism of psychologists like B. F. Skinner. I wasn’t impressed by this theory when I first encountered it at university more than 20 years ago, and I’m even less impressed now.
Behaviourists are only interested in measurable human behaviours, and regard underlying causes of these behaviours as irrelevant, or as something that will change if the behaviour is changed. Lovaas followed their ideas when ‘treating’ autistic children. He even saw autistics as ‘not-people’, empty shells, or raw material that, in his own words, he could ‘assemble into a human being’.
ABA’s behaviourist approach tells them that autistic behaviours can be ‘extinguished’, and the child will then become ‘normal’ as a result. So, for instance, if an autistic child is stimming, ABA ignores WHY the child is stimming, ie what need it fulfils, and simply works to suppress it.
2. Its lack of understanding of autism. Because ABA sees autism as just behaviours to be extinguished, ABA therapists usually have zero training in what autism actually IS. In fact, many of them have few qualifications and little training at all, in anything other than delivering the ‘therapy’. They consequently lack any understanding of the underlying neurology. They fail, most of all, to understand that autism is intrinsic to our very beings.
Even where ABA therapists do consider our motivations for behaviours, they invariably get them wrong. And they not only don’t really understand us at all, but refuse to try, or to listen to us when we try to explain. (They tend to simply reply with more jargon instead.)
3) Its Alarmism. ABA therapists will tell you that your child only has a certain developmental ‘window’, and that if you don’t put them through intensive ‘intervention’, as young as possible, they are ‘doomed’. They paint a scary picture of your child becoming a faecal-smearing, head-banging, non-verbal, non-toilet-trained, highly dependent adult, if they don’t have this therapy.
It’s nonsense of course. It entirely ignores that autism is a developmental DELAY, and that there is no predicting how any child will develop in the future. They may not progress even if they’re ABA’d to the max, or they may progress just fine without it, but in their own time. Because a child is not doing ‘x’ at a given point, doesn’t mean they will never do it. Autistic personal histories are replete with instances of sudden leaps in abilities and skills. I have experienced them myself.
But ABA promoters don’t want you to know that, because that would take money out of their pockets. Make no mistake, ABA is primarily a money-making enterprise, and autistic children and their real needs and developmental trajectories come way down the list of importance. (It also seems to have some of the hallmarks of a cult, but that’s a post for another day.)
4) Its Creation of Compliance Junkies. ABA places great emphasis on training the child to do exactly what the therapists and other adults around the child want, when they want, as they want it. The child is not allowed to say no or refuse to participate. It uses repetition ad nauseum, till the child learns to ‘behave’, ie to do what is demanded, over and over, regardless of whether what is demanded makes any sense to them, or is even useful to them. They learn that their needs and wishes will be ignored, and that they must comply or else.
The end result is that ABA’s compliance/approval junkies lose touch with what they really feel. They become approval seekers, always doing as they are told, ignoring their own feelings and invasions of their personal and physical boundaries, and thus they become ripe targets for any abuser.
5) Its Abusive Nature. Forty plus hours of ‘work’ per week? Much of it boring and repetitive in the extreme? What other young children have that expected of them? The rigid insistence on the therapist/parent ‘winning’ against the child’s desire to get out of it is abusive in itself. The child’s will is systematically broken.
And that’s without the physical forcing often done – I have watched video after video where the child is pushed to do the ‘right’ thing with ‘hand over hand’ (ie the therapist forces the child’s hand to pick the right card etc), or pushed into or pulled out of a chair. Even supposed ‘rewards’ can be physically invasive, tickling and grabbing the child for a bearhug was also common.
Manipulation is also frequent, and can be a form of abuse. Emotional withdrawal when the child does something ‘wrong’, or taking away the child’s favourite things and doling out time with them as a ‘reward’ for compliance, are common tactics. Any distress the child displays over this is ignored. Meltdowns are also ignored, as ‘unwanted behaviour’ that must be ‘extinguished’. They are not seen as the cries for help they actually are.
Originally, ABA was accompanied by hitting or yelling if the child didn’t comply. Some (though not all!) modern ABA tends not to do that, leading some proponents to claim it’s ‘different’ to ‘old’ ABA, and hence not harmful. But don’t be fooled. Physical violence or no, mental/emotional abuse is frequent and almost intrinsic to the therapy.
6) Its Ignoring Consequences. Some of the first children who went through the whole ABA-for-years thing are now young adults. Many of them now suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, fear and mistrust of adults, or other mental health issues. Yet the ABA industry has never done any follow-up on the long-term consequences of their ‘therapy’, that I’m aware of.
They also refuse to acknowledge that extinguishing an essentially harmless behaviour can see it replaced with another and far worse one, if the original need is still unmet. Suppressing stimming, for instance, can lead to an individual developing self-harming habits instead, such as cutting or gouging their skin. Or they might develop addictions, aggressive behaviours, suicidal ideation, etc.
But even these things, bad as they are, still don’t get to the heart of what I loathe most about ABA, which is this…
7) Its Demonisation of Autism. Autism is cast as a Big Bad Thing, a horrible ‘disease’ or epidemic, which has ‘stolen’ your child and which only ABA can ‘rescue’ them from. Parents are told that autism is ‘ruining’ their child’s life, and potentially that of the parents and the rest of the family also. So ABA is saturated in the autism-negative mindset. It promotes normalisation, at the cost of the child’s autonomy and natural way of being. It’s not alone in this, of course, but it does play a big role in perpetuating all this negativity.
The truth is that autism simply *IS*. It comes with its share of difficulties and problems, but it’s not a horrible thing to be in itself. The horrible part of being autistic is how we are treated, including by ABA therapists and parents who, having swallowed the rhetoric, have lost sight of the child in front of them, at least for now. Some do come out of this trance later, and regret what they’ve done, when they see the results in their kids. But many seem to be almost brainwashed – as do their kids.
ABA proponents have a standard set of answers for criticisms like the above, which I’ll get to in another post (this one is long enough!). For now, I have this to say –
Autistics have the right to BE autistic. They have the right to behave autistic, to develop at their own pace, to receive support that actually helps them, and to be free of being coerced into behaving like the NTs they are not. They do not deserve to have an essential part of their very being quashed, denied, hated and forced into repression.
Please, parents, don’t ABA your kids. For their sakes, and your own.