This week I ended up in yet another conversation with someone who wanted to defend ABA. He repeatedly asked us not to demonize ABA and kept dismissing discussions of the origins of ABA by saying that Lovaas is a long time ago and we can’t compare ABA to where it came from. Along the way, he used a racist analogy that I won’t repeat here.
He kept insisting that there are abusive ABA practitioners and good ABA practitioners so we shouldn’t vilify the entire body of ABA based on those bad apples. After several rounds of that, I wrote this and decided to polish it and share it here in my blog as well. Thanks for reading!
My problem is bigger than ABA. I have a strong issue with the entire field of behaviorism from which it springs. (I know, I know. You have some analogy about how I shouldn’t judge roses unfairly because they grew from manure. Now we can skip past all these analogies. You’ve been heard there.)
Before behaviorism, psychology was concerned with mind. Psyche. It’s hard to translate from the Greek, but you usually get soul, mind, or spirit. The whole field of psychology was concerned with interiority.
Along came Skinner with his boxes and his pigeons and his scientific revolution. You can’t question a pigeon about her interior existence or enact the talking cure on her. All you can observe is her behavior. And so behaviorism was born, by studying animals and later transferring the methodology to humans.
Skinner didn’t originally want behaviorism to be applied to humans. Read Steve Silberman’s excellent history in the book Neurotribes for more details about Skinner’s concern and eventual yielding to those who wanted the theories of behaviorism to enter the field of human psychology.
This is why so much ABA looks like animal training: that’s where it came from. Watch anyone training a bear to do tricks and you will recognize the methods. (Any readers who have been traumatized by therapies should not watch videos of bear training. It gave me nightmares for weeks.)
ABA has a fundamental flaw because Behaviorism has a fundamental flaw. It’s a psychology cul-de-sac that people cling on to because they don’t know how to access the interiority of those who do not speak so they don’t know how to do any psychology other than animal training when faced with non-speaking clients.
And since Behaviorism rapidly became the gold standard for addressing autism, the toxic viewpoint and theories blanket nearly all autism projects, programs, theories, therapies, and classes. Most insurance will only pay for something named ABA, so everyone jumps into that name because it’s the only game in town. And the organizations certifying people as officially qualified to perform ABA are perpetuating everything that’s wrong with Behaviorism while veiling it in soothing words – often, ironically, Behaviorists use wording lifted from the Neurodiversity Movement but stripped of their intended meaning and context. It’s insidious and it’s awful.
And some good people slip through. Some people give lip service to behaviorism, knowing in their heart it’s the wrong approach, get their certification, and then get out into the world and practice with genuine compassion and help people.
And a lot of those people don’t have the resources to set up their own practice, so they go to work for someone else and are forced to do things they feel very wrong about if they want to keep that job. Those who don’t have the resources to quit and go work someplace else end up with PTSD over time because of what they are economically forced to perpetrate. I feel for them. I’ve met some after they quit and recovered somewhat. It’s a very real trauma they’ve experienced – the trauma of causing trauma in others. It’s a hard thing to deal with.
I never did make that flaw in Behaviorism clear, did I? That flaw is the Black Box. Behaviorism is external. Behavior. What you observe.
You say ABA cares about internal things? Motives? Preferences? Aversions?
True, but it’s designed to be able to glean all that from observing behavior, not from social-emotional bonding between client and professional.
You can talk all day long about practitioners who do care about their clients, who do bond with them socially and emotionally, who do care about interiority, etc. You and I both know that they exist. I have met some BCBAs that I really liked, who were genuinely good people.
But … in order to present ABA as something beneficial for ALL Autistics, it has to be something that can be done with non-speaking Autistics and show documentable results.
That’s the number one argument I hear from those who support ABA: “it works. It’s documented.”
I’m not denying that. ABA works for all the same reasons that bear training works. My argument against Behaviorism is that I don’t want my people viewed as or treated like animals. We are human beings. It harms us to be viewed as or treated like animals and that is what Behaviorism encourages from its practitioners.
Behaviorism, at its core, only cares about the exterior reality of a person. And until professionals start learning how to access interiority with non-speaking Autistics (it can be done. I know parents who do it every day with their non-speaking children) Behaviorism and ABA will always be the order of the day because ABA is easy and documentable and no therapist ever has to return 15 to 20 years later to clean up the mess when the trauma they started finally comes to full fruit.
Every oppressive system has many, many good people in it. People get caught into systems in so many different ways. I will never deny that there are good people out there practicing ABA. But there are far more people out there damaging children because they are working from within a system that, by design, damages people. In the end, the good ABA therapists don’t matter. I mean, they matter as human beings and I feel for the struggles they will face if we manage to get rid of ABA and they have to re-certify in something else.
But it doesn’t matter that there are good people doing good work in ABA. The system is so flawed and so damaging those few good apples aren’t worth taking on the whole rotten barrel.
Wow! Thank you for putting into words what ABA therapy feels like. I am a parent and have ALWAYS felt it was dehumanizing but could not quite articulate those feelings into words. My daughter is 16 now and I am unraveling years of really bad ABA therapists in the school setting. The guilt I’ve felt has been enormous, the impact that it had on her is everlasting and all I can do now is reassure her that I was wrong to subject her to those people and let her know how truly amazing she is , Just the way she is ❤️
<3 <3 <3
You have put this so eloquently! I am saving this post to send to those I argue with about ABA.
When I graduated college (before I realized that I, myself, am on the spectrum), I intended on working with autistic children. I was offered a position at a state-of-the-art boarding school in Massachusetts. Great pay, great training, housing, the works. However, after my tour, I had to turn the job down. I saw clearly that what they were doing was not teaching, but enabling mimicing behaviors in exchange for treats. I have more to say about this part, but this is getting long already!
What put the nail in their coffin: they were offering to pay for my Master’s degree. Fabulous! I intended on becoming an Expressive Arts Therapist, I wanted to use the arts to help those who were nonverbal or limited verbally to have some form of comfortable self-expression. I was told that they do not do any arts programming at this school, because it was not structured enough. This school was considered one of the best, and their children have no arts programming? No free time?
I ended up on a different career path. I do not work with autistic children, because I figured out that in order to do so as a career, I would likely have to struggle though a program which teaches ABA and I cannot do that. We are in quite a mess right now in regards to available insurance-covered therapies. It’s very sad.
Sorry this comment ended up so long, I have a lot of feelings about my uncharted path, and that terrible experience. Thank you for being brave and outspoken.
Thank you for sharing your experience and thank you for setting out to work with autistic children. I’m sorry the field is filled with such stressful stuff. It really does drive away so many of the good people who could have really made a difference. I hope the career you did end up in is pleasant and satisfying. You sound like someone who deserves that. <3
Look into the groundbreaking new science from Elizabeth Torres . Autism should be studied as a physiological difference not a psychological one. Torres is PROVING the primary struggle behind autism is movement and sensory differences – historically these were looked at as secondary coincidences by the psychologists and psychiatrists that have been calling the shots relating to ASD.
Assessing it as physiological makes far more sense (especially when you read about the neurological activity in detail) and then being able to consider treatments that isolate the underlying disturbance to the motor and sensory pathways that Torres discovered (via wearable sensors) which are prominent in autistics, rather than treating autism as a whole with all its beauty.
The movement-sensing perspective is the basis behind Spelling to Communicate, which is a method that effectively changes the lives of nonspeaking , minimally- and unreliable-speaking autistics – the ones ABA and other behaviour alike therapies couldn’t explain or help (but have been making the most money from, ironically).
Thank you! I just picked up a copy of the book she co-wrote last year and I am looking forward to reading it. I appreciate you pointing it out to me.
The theory makes sense to me. It even explains my social awkwardness because how was I supposed to learn social when I was a kid so overwhelmed by sensory overload all the time?
This is fascinating and you are spectacular.
Thank you for this, and some of your other articles –
You have confirmed everything for me 💗🌈✨
Ps: the website I added isn’t ready for use yet – hence the weird domain name 😄
Thank you again 🙏🏻
It is pretty blatant that animal training is on the same level as working with autistics. This blog post by Dr. Mary Barbera, BCBA-D says as much.
“2) Why did I go to chicken camp? Like chickens, many of the children I work with including my 15- year-old son with autism, do not understand complex human language.”
Essentially what we are talking about is operant conditioning. It is all about finding a particular stimulus that will elicit a particular response. It is social engineering and it is Orwellian. It is cold, dishonest and manipulative and yet, not only has it become the accepted vehicle for changing behaviors in Special Education, it has become the accepted method for teaching in Special Education.
ABA is a central tenet in Undergraduate and Masters Programs for most every kind of endorsement in the field (not sure about Autism because of all the push-back). And why not, it’s neat and clean, observable and recordable and made to order for data collection and systematic instruction plans. But are we really teaching people how to think, reason and be self-reliant or are we turning them into stimulus dependent conniving robots? I would argue that we’re not teaching them how to think, we’re teaching them how to respond, and their’s just a really big difference!