When Good Science Meets Bad Values: The Case of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

“ABA is not ‘dog training for children.’ I would never treat a dog that way.”

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

“Dog trainers understand that dogs need to chew and bark and dig, but ABA therapists don’t understand that autistic children need to repeat words and sentences, flap their hands, and sit quietly rocking in a corner when things get too much.”

“Now understand that sessions like this are not a couple of hours a week. ABA therapists recommend that small children between 2 and 5 go through 40 hours a week of this type of learning.”

“I know that if I ask someone if they think it is abusive to remove a child’s only way of contacting their parents, or to ignore a child in distress, or to force a child into a situation that they find uncomfortable/painful, or refuse to help a child when they are suffering and overwhelmed, they will say yes. As long as I don’t mention that the child is autistic, anyway.”

“They don’t think about how this person will learn to stand up for themselves or advocate for their needs when they were systematically trained in preschool never to disagree, speak up, or disobey.”

In autistic self-advocacy circles, April is Autism Acceptance Month. It’s a month to celebrate neurodiversity, in stark contrast to the grim portrayals of autism that characterize “Autism Awareness” and the annual “Light It Up Blue” campaign.

So, on this first Friday of Autism Acceptance Month, I want to highlight autistic views on the most popular “evidence-based” therapy for autistic children in the United States and Canada, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Simply put, pure ABA uses external reinforcement or punishment to change outward behavior, and it is often used to make autistic people act in more neurotypical ways. I would urge readers who have any connection with an autistic person to read these two articles written by autistic people. The first, written by an autistic dog trainer, examines the spurious comparison often made between ABA and dog training. Her argument is that the discipline of dog training is more concerned about the inner well-being of its subjects than is the discipline of ABA. She cites the codes of ethics in both disciplines, as well as common practices in both dog training and ABA, to support her assertion. The second article includes video clips from real ABA interventions that, on the surface, may seem harmless or even positive (e.g., teaching a student to tolerate a grocery-store environment). However, the author emphasizes the coercive nature of the interactions between therapist and child, and the emphasis on meeting the therapist’s demands over meeting the needs of the child.

ABA may be “evidence-based” in that it leads to outcomes desired by its practitioners. But, autistic voices call into question whether or not the outcomes of ABA are truly positive from the perspective of its recipients. Any intervention, including ABA, must be evaluated according to the benchmarks set by the population who has the most to gain-or lose-from it. It is time to center autistic people in the evaluation of autism therapies, including ABA.

Is ABA Really Dog Training for Children? A Professional Dog Trainer Weighs In

Invisible Abuse: ABA and the Things Only Autistic People Can See

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