The problem with ABA

Updated: Sep 1

ABA has become an industry, no longer the science of understanding human behavior.



I have been in the field for a very long time and have a bit of background to share that may either complicate or explain a few things, you choose after reading my blog.


ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis which has been around since the 1950's for modifying behaviors in humans (and dogs, rats, etc. but we are going to talk about humans here). ABA simply describes the process by which we analyze a behavior - why it happens and how to alter a behavior. Period. Yes. Period. ABA, by its definition is NOT an autism specific intervention. It is a hammer to be used occasionally for the right nails but not everything you see in autism is a nail!!! It certainly has become that way in the autism field, due to a set of professionals who decided to adopt “ABA” as an intervention name. They took the general ABA concept and turned it into a controversial intervention in the field of autism... and because they have done this on a national (and monetized) level, insurance companies pay for it... so doctors' prescribe it.. and parents feel they are doing their very best by their child to offer it. AND autistic adults are justifiably angry.


ABA now has essentially two definitions:

  1. A general tool for analyzing human behaviors to guide someone doing something more or less (not autism specific)

  2. A specific intervention for the remediation of autistic symptoms.

When you might use ABA, as a tool, for an autistic person (or anyone):

If an individual is engaging in unsafe behaviors such as hitting, eloping, or biting, for example, you would most likely get the fastest results from using an ABA concept tool to determine why the behavior is happening, when it occurs, and then providing very specific steps for replacing that behavior with an alternative behavior that is safe for that individual. It is my opinion that this use of the tool we call ABA is useful and effective to keep a person safe as long as we are attending to the person’s overall well being, regulation, sensory processing, and relationship needs.


When you would not use ABA for an autistic person (or anyone):

ABA as an intervention, has the reputation of being used to stop behaviors like stimming and to "get" autistic people to act more like neurotypicals. Both of these are not only problematic, they are disrespectful of an autistic person's processing and can even cause trauma from forcing a person into hypervigilence and into situations for which their system is not made.


It is my strong opinion that this use of ABA as the one and only intervention is wrong and must stop. We are not here to fix autism. We are here, as parents and a community, to alleviate the obstacles experienced by autistics to achieve the goals they have for themselves - which are the same for all of us: quality of life, relationships, purpose, and acceptance.


Parents/caregivers in the lead!

Parents/caregivers, you have the authority to CHOOSE both how and when you use the tool we call ABA. You are in charge and you are the employer of any ABA companies that solicit you for their business. They have the obligation to do evaluations and provide recommended targets for their work with your child. And you have the right to choose and monitor which of those you approve.


Autistic adults do not approve of ABA as a hammer to use for all nails (analogy for not using ABA for making your child comply to neurotypical norms). Listen to these amazing autistic people and make informed choices as parents. Your job is to keep your child, of any age, safe from harm. If there is something they are doing that is an obstacle to their safety, that is an obstacle to their long term quality of life. If it is something that simply bothers you or others - ask yourself if it is something that soothes your child, allows them to better process the onslaught of information around them, or their way of telling you to help them reduce said onslaught. You may then support and advocate for them to do these behaviors for themselves to be their best in our crazy, messy, dynamic world.


ABA has been monetized. Stop using it for everything autism.

The problem with ABA is that the useful tool called ABA has been monetized into being used for everything autism. We can change the landscape by being mindful and making better choices about how we use the businesses called “ABA” for our autistic youth and loved ones. Advocate for more developmentally and humanistic approaches to autism both for your own child and for the community. Either steer clear of ABA businesses or use them wisely and for things like safety. The businesses work for you.


Want to read more from a BCBA and a parent? Here is an excellent article: https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/viewpoint/applied-behavior-analysis-and-autism-flawed-application-of-a-proven-science/?utm_source=Spectrum+Newsletters&utm_campaign=a0dc552884-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_DAILY_20220901&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_529db1161f-a0dc552884-168616129


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