Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) is a “therapy”* for autism that aims to suppress autistic behaviours in children so that they can appear to integrate into wider society’s expectations of what a “normal” child will do. This group is opposed to ABA, and associated programs that use ABA techniques and share its goals. (Over the years, practitioners have realised that restraining children looks bad, and so claim to use gentler techniques. It’s still ABA, and still problematic.)
Why is ABA so bad?
It does not work. Many robust studies and meta-analyses (a fancy word for reviews) have shown no difference in the behaviours of autistic children that have undergone ABA, compared with those that haven’t. Yes, the kids undergoing ABA do change over time – but so do the non-ABA kids. Because children, even autistic children, grow up and change.
It causes harm. At the very least, ABA aims to remove “stimming” (the repetitive movements that most autistic people make which help in self-regulation when emotions are heightened, e.g. when distressed). This suppression leaves the autistic person without a vital tool to manage their own well-being, while also requiring them to use vast energy resources to actively be something that they are not. The result is significant mental health difficulties. In addition, it explicitly teaches the autistic child that their needs are not important, a lesson that is taken into adulthood, and leaves them vulnerable to abuse, scams and low self-esteem.
It diverts attention away from the important work of creating a supportive environment that will enable the autistic person to develop the skills that they need to survive, and thrive, in a world not designed for them. Which means understanding the problems that cause the behaviours ABA seeks to address. So rather than trying to teach a child not to cover the ears, we get ear defenders, or other similar strategies.
The science is poor. It’s based on behaviourism, which was old-fashioned in the 1960’s. Our understanding of child development generally, and autism in particular, has moved on from the “dog training” approach of behaviourism. (An autism professional I know described ABA “dog training for autistic kids”, but then a dog trainer also said “we would never be that cruel to dogs”, so…) We know better, and we can do better than ABA.
Bonus point. The guy who developed ABA (Lovaas) also developed gay-conversion therapy. And we all know how well that went. Not.
*I don’t think ABA qualifies as a therapy, on the basis that therapies are supposed to help people, and this one doesn’t.