What is ABA? What is the purpose of ABA therapy? Is ABA good for Autistic children? Is there a link between ABA and PTSD? What’s the alternative? Answers to all of these questions and more in this episode of Ask an Autistic!
What is ABA?
ABA stands for Applied Behavioral Analysis. Currently it is the go-to method for “treating” autism (makes air quotes), and is strongly encouraged from a very young age to teach autistic children socially acceptable behaviors and to help parents to stop, or prevent, behaviors that they don’t particularly enjoy.
The idea behind behavior analysis is to take your subject and first you analyze what is prompting the behavior — the behavior that you don’t like. So say for an autistic child, that would be hand flapping.
Then the second step is to develop consequential strategies to prevent that behavior from occurring. So the idea is: Observe, and then come up with analytical and scientific strategies to make sure that behavior doesn’t happen anymore.
How you make sure that that behavior doesn’t happen anymore — say, hand flapping in an autistic child — is dependent upon the concept of operant conditioning; the operant being the autistic child, and conditioning being the use of reinforcement and punishment.
Is ABA a good thing or a bad thing?
I am strongly against the use of ABA therapy to “treat” autistic children (makes air quotes). The idea behind ABA, the very core concept, is using the analysis of behavior, and you apply that analysis systematically to improve socially significant behavior.
Some ABA therapists will say, “Well, you know, everybody has consequences to their actions. There are positive outcomes and negative outcomes. You can study hard for that test and pass, or you can not study and fail, and those are behaviors and choices that you have to make.”
Now, the real problem that occurs when you try to treat autistic children with ABA therapy is, you know, what is socially significant behavior, and who gets to say what is socially acceptable or not?
The idea that autism needs treating at all is, I think, inaccurate. The use of operant conditioning on children, especially on autistic children, is, to me, sickening because autistic children don’t need to be conditioned.
There are some things that autistic children do need help with. There are many co-morbid conditions that occur alongside autism, such as dyspraxia, sensory processing disorder, social anxiety, insomnia, speech impairments — all of these things do need help and treatment. But what doesn’t need treatment is autistic behaviors.
And that is entirely what ABA is about. It’s right in the name “Applied Behavioral Analysis.” ABA is all about making autistic children look as neurotypical as possible.
And for what?
ABA therapy is really shallow. The whole focus is on socially significant behaviors, not the well-being of the autistic child, not helping them to learn life skills that will actually help them later on, not teaching them to grow and thrive as an autistic person in a neurotypical world, but to make them look normal.
So much ABA therapy focuses on things like “table readiness” — you know, sitting perfectly still — on not stimming, on behaviors that are just misunderstood, and never at any point in the history of ABA did anybody ever think to ask an autistic person why they stim, what is going on with them, what they would like to be learning.
See, ABA is all about the parents. It’s all about making the child look as neurotypical as possible. And, you know, now we’re moving in a direction where we’re understanding autism better through asking autistic people about it; what our experiences are and what it is like to be autistic.
Behaviorism really just relies on the observations of neurotypical researchers and doctors. Unless you are asking them, or asking another autistic person, you can’t know for sure why they are doing the behavior that they are doing. What may seem simply bothersome or strange-looking to you, like hand flapping, is necessary and an important self-regulation tool to autistic children.
What about the link between ABA and PTSD?
Anecdotally, it’s quite sad, but the use of consequences and punishment and rewards for doing it “right” (makes air quotes) in ABA therapy can lead to some severe mental and emotional issues for children who later become mentally and emotionally damaged autistic adults, because what you’re teaching children through ABA therapy is that who they are is wrong and bad, and that the way they move is shameful and has to be changed.
See, ABA therapy doesn’t focus on helping the autistic child, working with their autism. In ABA, when you’re learning skills like, “Point to the blue card” or, “Don’t stim,” those aren’t skills that are going to help an autistic child later on in life.
What should we do instead?
An autistic child needs to be learning about their sensory sensitivities: What sets them off, what they can do about it.
They need to be learning about neurotypical people, their point of views, and they need to be hearing things like Social Stories to understand why neurotypical people act the way that they act.
They need to be mentored and engaged by adult autistic people. Adult autistic people are the only people who can definitively say to an autistic child, “I know what you’re going through, and you’re going to be all right because I went through it.”
An autistic child needs so much. They need to be told that they have the right to say “no,” because when you take an autistic child, who already has trouble understanding the world and people’s intentions, and you tell them through hours and hours of therapy and use of aversives that they can’t say no, that they have to obey the adults in their life, all you’re doing is breaking down their spirit and taking away their ability to say no, their ability to self-advocate. It is so, so important that disabled children, and autistic children, and autistic adults, need to be able to say “no.” They need to be able to have their own boundaries and express what their limits are.
I’m going to link to some examples where ABA therapy has actually caused trauma and post-traumatic stress syndrome in autistic children. And this can continue far into adulthood, and it affects your ability to trust, it affects everything about your life.
ABA therapy, at its best, is useless to the autistic child and caters only to the neurotypical parents’ desire to have their child look more normal. And at its worst, it breaks an autistic child’s spirit, it takes away their self-direction and their sense of autonomy and self-worth, and it causes trauma and PTSD.
And if something is causing trauma and PTSD in children — in disabled children, the most vulnerable people in our society — we need to take a step back and ask, “Why are we doing this? Why is socially acceptable behavior so important? What are autistic people saying about this?”
There is a large, large number of people in the autistic community, autistic adults and self-advocates, who are saying no to ABA, who are saying, “I did ABA and it was terrible.”
As an autistic person, I am strongly against using ABA therapy on anyone, especially on autistic children. Autistic children are so vulnerable, and they need guidance and acceptance and protection and love. They need to be taught how to advocate for themselves, how to say no. They need to be accepted for exactly who they are, and not told that how they communicate and move and grow and learn is wrong. They need acceptance, not Applied Behavioral Analysis.
I’m going to be linking to some resources. Most of them were written by autistic people who underwent ABA or occupational therapy or compliance training or other forms of therapies, and some of them were written by parents of autistic children, so I really encourage anybody who’s confused about ABA or on the fence, or who just wants to hear the other side of the story, the autistic side, please check out some of these links.
This has been my video on ABA therapy. It was just a quick overview of what ABA is and my thoughts and feelings on it. It is quite a controversial subject, but I was glad to be able to address it, and to tell, you know, the other side of the story from the voices of actual autistic people.
If you have a question that you would like answered via video, feel free to post it in the comments section or message it to me. And if you like my channel you can subscribe for more.
This has been Ask an Autistic.
This is seriously the greatest thing ever. It has captured the essence of all three of these incarnations. Fantastic!
there is nothing I don´t love about this post
There is one thing I don’t love. Mary Morstan, a ridiculously smart and amazing character in her own right, in all adaptations to some extent, being jokingly referred to as “Mary Sue”. Unfunny joke is unfunny.
Does “Granada” mean the ones with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes?
(He will always be the real Sherlock Holmes to me.)
Yes, and Jeremy Brett remains the one true Sherlock Holmes.
White privilege is being the #1 consumers of welfare, food stamps, general government aid, and illegal drugs, but STILL blaming POC for all of those things as well as incarcerating them at an exponentially higher rate.
Clueless racism is being the #1 consumers of welfare, food stamps and general government aid and still voting in politicians who want to scrap all of these things just to spite POC.
You just want to be madam Vastra.
And maybe at the end of a few unfathomable aeons, I can come out and start terrorizing workers in the London underground, only to be talked into fighting crime instead by a friendly passing Timelord.
wow this is satisfying
The truth is, I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to go to Western; I’m just really sick of getting rejected for everything.
I want to dig a hole at the bottom of another hole and disappear into the centre of the Earth for the next few centuries.