Breaking Down ABA

[A note, December 2021: Time passes and I learn things. I hope we all do. I ran across a link to this series of posts recently, and came back to re-read them. And realized that they contain statements I no longer agree with. I have, multiple times, defended limited use of Behavior Modification methods, including ABA. Since then, I have come to understand that the risks of ABA far outweigh the potential benefits. The positive accomplishments I have seen occur in ABA therapy happened despite the use of ABA rather than because of it, and this is one of the most insidious risks of all. Children may still learn in a horrible learning environment, but their success is not an argument in favor that environment! This parallels a common misunderstanding about socioeconomic privilege. Many people use the existence of highly successful people who overcame great odds as an argument that everyone in disadvantaged situations should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Nothing could be further from the truth. A better explanation of my current beliefs about ABA can be found here

So here I’m going to talk, again, about ABA, and about the disconnects and disagreements that I see whenever ABA is discussed online in autism-related communities.

I am going to ask that commenters be sensitive to the fact that many autistic people have been deeply traumatized by undergoing an experience that was called “ABA therapy.” Whether or not that was “correct” or “real” ABA, whether or not ABA has changed since then, whether or not you’ve ever witnessed the methods that were used on these people, please be respectful of that fact that for many people, the term “ABA” alone is enough to trigger deep fear and even symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).



I see an often-repeated pattern in online discussions about ABA. It goes something like this:

  1. Someone mentions ABA.
  2. Autistic self-advocates and some parents jump in to say that ABA is terrifying, problematic, unethical, and so on. Terms are used like “child abuse” and “psychological torture” and “deeply traumatizing.” Most of these people speak from personal experience.
  3. Many other parents and professionals jump in to defend ABA. They also speak from experience. They point out how much ABA has changed since the early days, or document the incredible progress they’ve seen in their children and clients. Many are deeply offended by the idea that what they are doing to their children could possibly be hurtful.

So let me talk a little bit about what I think is going on here.

Note: I’m not going to go into the origins of ABA therapy, because that’s a bit like judging modern psychotherapy by only reading Freud. While there are still plenty of places that practice pure Lovaas-style ABA (or worse), those aren’t the people who participate in these discussions. The people I described above are talking about modernized ABA, which doesn’t involve deliberate aversives and has often addressed many other major criticisms as well.

I’m also not going to try to define ABA. I assume the reader has a working knowledge of at least some form of therapy that falls under the ABA category (though I will ask readers to remember that many different practices currently go by the name “ABA”). What I am going to do is talk about individual aspects of many of those therapies, and try to tease part the good from the bad.



One major way in which schools of ABA can differ is in their primary goal.

Traditional ABA practitioners believe that it is inherently good for autistic children to appear, act, and communicate as “normally” (neurotypically) as possible. When you start from this fundamentally flawed assumption, no real good can come of it, no matter how gentle or naturalistic your methods. This school of ABA teaches “quiet hands” and “sit still” and “make eye contact.” It teaches autistic children to hide their pain and their needs, to obey without question, and to suppress their most natural ways of interacting with the world. By extension, it teaches autistic people to hate themselves. The self-hate may not surface until later, but it is an inevitable result of being taught that the way you do things naturally is always wrong.

Some more modern schools have moved beyond this, at least in part. They understand the basics of sensory needs. They argue for kids to get accommodations, allow them to stim, accept multiple forms of communication, and don’t focus primarily on suppressing autistic behavior. They do still, however, tend to set goals through a neurotypical lens, which often involves a lot of incorrect assumptions about how the autistic mind works. Ultimately, much of their work is counter-productive, although a lot less unpleasant for the child than the previous version.

An example of this is when a therapist sets the goal of having a child look up and orient towards the speaker when her name is called, so that she will attend to safety instructions like being called back before she runs into the street. The underlying goal isn’t a bad one– get the child attend to stimuli that are likely to be important for their safety– but the notion that an autistic child can reliably indicate attention by looking at the speaker may need to be re-examined. Too often, these practitioners work at getting kids to do the wrong things for the right reasons, taking time and energy away from more important learning. Unfortunately, the vast majority of research into autism “interventions” and “treatments” is based on assumptions like these, if not the even worse traditional beliefs mentioned above.

The rare wonderful ABA folks have a philosophy more like that of most occupational therapists. They believe that their primary job is to give the child a set of tools that are useful to that child. They use the methods of ABA to teach communication skills, self-care skills, and skills that increase a child’s independence rather than stifling it.

A therapist in one such program said to me that the philosophy behind their sessions is “form follows function.” This means that they use, in my opinion, the appropriate interpretation of the “Analysis” part of ABA — they try to figure out what the child is trying to accomplish, and then seek to teach the child an effective and reliable way of reaching that goal. This same therapist told me that the very first thing they teach any child is how to ask for a break– “and then, if the kid wants to take a break 200 times in a 2 hour session, that’s fine, we let him take all those breaks. We’ll work on the rest later.” I’m not saying that these people are flawless– they do fall prey to some of the same erroneous assumptions about what it means for an autistic child to show progress– but most of what they do helps more than it hurts. Sadly, they are in the minority.


ABA is based on the principles of operant conditioning, which makes more sense for teaching some things than others. Breaking a task down into little steps and rewarding increasingly good approximations of the goal is a fine way to teach someone to get dressed or even acquire basic table manners. It’s probably not a good way to teach someone to speak, and it’s definitely not a good way to teach someone to make friends.

Good ABA programs don’t assume that everything should be done via ABA.

One thing that’s missing from a lot of ABA programs is the presumption of competence. Again, there are the rare exceptions, like the therapist who tells the family “assume that your child can understand everything you say within their hearing.” But one fundamental drawback to the method is that ability is indicated by action. Because it’s a data-driven method, practitioners have to fill that page with marks and numbers indicating what skills the child has demonstrated.

Again, for some things, that makes sense. You prove you can tie your shoes by tying your shoes. You may prove you’ve learned a social skill by tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention rather than punching them in the face. But when you assume someone doesn’t understand a word because they don’t repeat it, or can’t do math because they don’t point to the right answer, you run into problems, especially in autism, where dyspraxias and other mind-body disconnects are common.

ABA and its data-tracking can have good uses. The sensitive technician knows that when a child starts giving fewer correct answers, he’s getting bored with this game and it’s time to move on to a new activity. Paying attention to numbers can reveal important information– if your kid can do math in the living room better than in the classroom, there’s an important environmental factor to uncover. If he points to the right answer but says the wrong one, this might indicate a difficulty with intentional speech and a reason to move away from verbal communication.


This post is a lot clumsier and more preliminary than I had hoped, but I’m going to post it now and perhaps try to rewrite it later. I hope it at least gives some insight into why I 1) am not entirely against ABA as a potentially useful methodology and 2) object strongly certain ABA practices even when they are done in a gentle and pleasant manner.

Relevant Reading (comments included)

Research-Based Approaches to Autistic Ways of Learning

3 thoughts on “Breaking Down ABA”

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