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  • Writer's pictureErica Livingston

ABA: Good or Bad?

If you’re a part of the autism community, I’m sure you have heard the controversy around ABA. I’m here to give you my take on it as a parent and student. ABA is the only medical “treatment” for autism. This begs the question, does autism need to be treated? Many autistic adults will say no. Studies, however, seem to support ABA. Therefore, what is the correct answer? I’m going to break down some of the good and the bad with ABA below.

  • ABA began alongside gay conversion therapy 🚩 This is obviously the bad. Gay conversion therapy is nothing but evil and tries changing the way people were born. This is what led to ABA. Therefore, I very much disagree with how and why ABA began.

  • ABA shows positive outcomes ✅ HOWEVER, all of the studies tend to be single sample and flawed greatly due to the lack of inclusion for girls and nonverbal autistics.

  • ABA requires intensive hours 🚩 So, this is a yes and no. ABA tends to be prescribed as many hours, but it supposed to mostly be play. However, I will never agree with a child being forced into 40 hours a week of any form of therapy. This is what (I believe) the start of the trauma for many autistic adults is.

  • ABA is like dog training 🚩 I actually disagree with this. So, yes, it is based on positive reinforcement. However, everything in life is. You work to get paid. I mean, that’s life! So I personally ignore this red flag because I don’t see it any differently than most of the things we do in life. Everything is cause and effect.

  • ABA tries to get the autism out of you 🚩 This is true IN BAD ABA!!! This is the principle that ABA began on, but any good ABA therapist today will not do this. Never let them stop your child from stimming. Stimming is very helpful for autistics! Any ABA therapist that still follows the way of trying to make your child normal IS NOT OKAY!

  • ABA involves physical abuse 🚩 AGAIN if a therapist touches your child or does any form of negative reinforcement, THAT IS NOT OKAY! This goes for any therapy, not just ABA. Do some therapists believe in shock therapy? There are statistics that say so, but I have not met one that did, and if I ever do, well, it won’t be pretty for them.

  • ABA teaches communication ✅ ABA has actually taught my son how to communication via “manding”, which is requesting something. David touches a picture of what he wants and receives what he requests. While some autistic adults may say this is dog training, it has given my son the ability to talk to me in a nonverbal way.

  • ABA forces compliance 🚩 So, this is something I have heard, but not seen. My son is in ABA but his therapist has never pushed his own personal boundaries or made him consent to anything he is not okay with. However, that’s not always the case. I would not tolerate a therapist forcing my child to comply blindly. Now I do have exceptions. For example, my son today made a huge mess and refused to clean it up. He could not do anything else until he cleaned up. Some could say that’s forcing compliance. However, he has to learn to clean after himself, and he knows how. It was not forcing him to touch a texture that is hurtful to him or do anything that he cannot physically do. It is a basic skill he needs to live life at all. So that really depends on your own judgment.

  • Reinforcers 🚩 This is another yes and no one. So, only letting your child have their favorite things if they do well in therapy is not a good idea. I believe in positive reinforcement because, like I mentioned above, a lot of things in life are reinforcers. However, I never restrict David to certain things only in therapy. When he is not in therapy, he is allowed those items. This can lead to a child learning to mask, or to hide autistic behaviors, just for a reward. Masking is physically and mentally harmful for autistic children because they are forcing themselves in very uncomfortable positions and also stop understanding consent.

As you can see, there are a lot of red flags here. HOWEVER, not all ABA is created equally. David has been in ABA for 6 hours a week for almost a year. His current therapist is a saint. She has never once put him or myself in an uncomfortable position or has made me question whether this is “torture” for him. On the other hand, we are moving in a few weeks. I’ve been trying to find a similar set up, and have had no luck. The first one I talked to demanded he do at least 9 hours and completely disregarded what I said was best for my child. I would never work with somebody that thinks they know better than me for him. Never.

ABA is not all bad. I must say, though, there are still so many bad therapists out there practicing old ABA that should have never existed. This has led to many autistic adults suffering from trauma and ptsd. I recently read a blog post, I’ll be linking it below, that mentions how you can know if ABA is good or bad. In it, she mentions how you should ask, “would I be okay with this for a neurotypical child?”. That was spot on for me. We help David learn basic skills in ABA. He has learned to communicate and do things like pick up his toys. I do not allow them to teach him to stop stimming or how to appear more “normal”. You will never take the autism out of your child, so if that is your or your therapist’s goal, stop. Stop what you are doing and research. Listen to the autism community. We cannot ignore their voices.

Please be vigilant in what you allow your child‘s therapist to do and be sure to work with an ABA therapist that does not use negative reinforcement or trauma techniques to make your child normal. Instead, work on changing the world to accept your child for who they are.

Additionally, there is a wonderful group called Autism Inclusivity on facebook. They are anti ABA, but they share why. This will give you great guidance in learning what is harmful and not to an autistic person. There is also a google doc explaining more on this group. I highly recommend it!


The blog mentioned above:

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