What is ABA Therapy?

#Autism #Autismawareness #Disabilityrights #ABATherapy

I am not an expert on ABA therapy, but I like to think I know enough about it, and have had enough exposure to it, that I can comment on the impact it may have on Autistic people.

ABA Therapy stands for Applied Behavioural Analysis, and it is a psychological intervention believed to have evolved from the now deceased psychologist B.F. Skinner. BF Skinner used operant conditioning with rats and birds to try and teach them to behave ‘correctly’ and eliminate ‘incorrect’ behaviours. That’s right, rats and birds. ABA stemmed from this experimental approach. It was another psychologist (Ole Ivar Lovaas) who took this to the next level, using ABA with children with Autism and other conditions, in an attempt to ‘help’ them become “indistinguishable from their peers”.

Ole Ivar Lovaas thrusting bland normality onto a child

Now, I can acknowledge that ABA therapy has probably evolved since the time it first started being used. For example, for many therapists, I don’t believe their intention would be to force their Autistic clients to become ‘normal’ like other children. However, I think the general premise remains the same, focussing on eliminating and changing perceived negative behaviours with the promise of a reward if there is compliance.

I think it is important to note that this conditioning could be very distressing for an Autistic person. For example, teaching someone to go to the supermarket without having a meltdown by exposing them to the supermarket three times a week is arguably cruel. Autistic people have significant sensory challenges, that we cannot help. So to expose us to those challenges on a regular basis is not only exhausting but has the potential to be very traumatic, affecting our mental health adversely.

Now, I have a couple of issues with this, but before I go into that I want to give a few examples of ABA therapy in action. I didn’t mention before, a common way to encourage a behaviour in ABA is using a rewards-based system. As a support worker I used this exact method with a client, and honestly, I found it so uncomfortable I eventually quit my job.

I would pick my client up from school, and we would go home to do some homework. She had to do her homework, regardless of whether she was tired or not. Part of her homework was also working on conventional social behaviours such as “eye contact” and refraining from engaging in compulsions she had developed to cope with anxiety e.g. drawing dots on paper after practising letters. If she did not comply with the request to make eye contact, the request to concentrate on her homework, she would not receive a token and snack.

When she did something ‘correctly’ I would need to commend her by saying “good job” or “awesome” in a very over the top way. I suspect this could have even overwhelmed her, because I know for a fact that if I had a bunch of tall adults surrounding me and spewing “good job” and “well done” repeatedly in my face I’d tell them to go away, and give me space. The problem was, this client was non-verbal, so she couldn’t say that. She could however, bite her hands and fingers to the point where she would bleed, and engage in other self-injurious behaviours. Also, by the time an Autistic person is feeling overwhelmed after being pushed to do something, then of course they won’t be able to clearly articulate, or sign what they want or don’t want because they’re emotionally unregulated for shit’s sake!

Another thing, Autistic people DO communicate. Particularly with regards to non-verbal Autistic people, they also DO communicate. It’s just that non-verbal Autistics don’t communicate in the conventional way you expect them to. If they don’t want to do something, they might nod “no” and move you out of their way. They might protest vocally, and appear visibly stressed. Is this not communicative? Why do they HAVE to say “I don’t like this”? Why do they HAVE to sign “No”. If its not already clear that they don’t want something, then perhaps it’s you that is the problem.

I would probably need to write a huge essay to fully get my point across properly and explore this type of intervention in more depth. However, I’ll spare you the mundane academic investigation, and just keep it simple. I like to keep blogs fun and informative rather than dry and overwhelming.

What I will say is that although ABA mostly makes me cringe, I have some hope for families and therapists who are willing to make adjustments to the approach for the purpose of making the therapy at least more effective, and perhaps more beneficial to the child/person concerned.

I encourage people to go and watch this amazing Ted Talk: The Problem with Applied Behavioural Analysis| Chloe Everett. She is Autistic herself, and studying psychology, and she does an incredible job at articulating what it could be like to be on the receiving end of potentially harmful therapies such as ABA.

I’d love to hear what your experiences of ABA have been. I’ll keep an open mind, I promise.


DeVita-Raeburn, E., 2021. The controversy over autism’s most common therapy | Spectrum | Autism Research News. [online] Spectrum | Autism Research News. Available at: <https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/controversy-autisms-common-therapy/&gt; [Accessed 6 August 2021].

NeuroClastic. 2021. Invisible Abuse: ABA and the things only autistic people can see. [online] Available at: <https://neuroclastic.com/2019/03/28/invisible-abuse-aba-and-the-things-only-autistic-people-can-see/&gt; [Accessed 6 August 2021].

Romanczyk, R. and McEachin, J., 2016. Comprehensive models of autism spectrum disorder treatment. Springer International Publishing.


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