Breaking Down ABA, Again: Introduction

[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

[This post is being re-written and expanded into a series. The introduction portion is not heavily edited from the original, but the rest is.]

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

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” is very distressing.



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 I want to write about what I think is going on here.

Note: I’m not going spend much time on the origins of ABA therapy, because that’s a bit like judging modern psychotherapy by only discussing Freud. While there are still plenty of places that practice pure Lovaas-style ABA (or worse), those aren’t usually the people who participate in these discussions.

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.

[This post continues in here]

4 thoughts on “Breaking Down ABA, Again: Introduction”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s