Home > Autism, Disability Rights > Proposed Guidelines for the Safe and Ethical Application of ABA Methods

Proposed Guidelines for the Safe and Ethical Application of ABA Methods

Please note: This post is a work in progress.


Behaviors targeted for modification or extinction must meet the following criteria:

  • The behavior creates a physical safety risk for the client or other people, or causes significant damage to the surroundings. Behaviors may not be targeted for elimination/modification on the grounds of being atypical, embarrassing, annoying, or socially unexpected. Behaviors that involve social appropriateness may qualify if they involve the client physically interacting with strangers (eg, inappropriate touch, attempting to remove someone’s clothing, grabbing other people’s belongings, etc.)
  • All reasonable accommodations have been implemented to alter the antecedents before any attempts are made to modify consequences. In normal language, this means that you address the triggers for the behavior (such as stress, situational factors, and the behaviors of other people) before using tactics to discourage the client from doing the unwanted behavior.
  • The client is given a clear verbal and/or visual explanation of what behavior is unwanted and why. The rules given must be clear, explicit, and consistent. If the behavior has an identifiable communicative component, the communication must be acknowledged and the client must be offered an alternative means of communicating the same message and having it respected (eg, if you teach a child not to hit others when touched, you must also provide them with another method of clearly stating “don’t touch me.”)

Behaviors targeted for acquisition must meet the following criteria:

  • They aim to improve the client’s independence skills, self-care and ADL skills, or effective communication (preferably in whichever modality the client acquires most easily). Other behavioral goals can be established if and only if: they will improve or expand the client’s opportunity to gain an education or participate in activities of the client’s choosing, AND the same opportunities cannot be provided by reasonable accommodations.
  • The behavior or skill being acquired is one that can be reasonably learned by rote. No studies exist showing a more effective way for the client to gain the skill. Dyspraxia and other physical difficulties must be acknowledged as possible barriers to skill acquisition. If practice appears to cause significant distress to the client, the program should be re-evaluated.
  • The goals and reasons for them are clearly stated to the client verbally/visually. If the client is capable of providing input on goals, their input should be taken into account as much as it is with a neurotypical who is being trained in a skill.


  • The client must be allowed the maximum possible participation in session planning.
  • Parents and clinicians shall not speak about the client in their hearing as though they are not present.
  • The term “noncompliant” should be replaced by something more neutral.



  1. December 15, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    I could get behind these.

    Of course, I’ve also never had ABA used at me.

    A few months ago, I was able to have a conversation with an autistic patient who was receiving ABA therapy, loving it and making progress towards what he, his mother and I all consider worthwhile goals. It was unusual and lovely to be able to talk with him about what he was learning and made me feel less negative about ABA as a whole. Of course, there may have been non ABA methods for him to be taught the same skills. . .


    • Restless Hands
      December 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm

      Yeah– in addition to trying to pin down what is actually harmful about ABA in measurable ways, I really want to work on hammering out the distinctions between:
      1) Stuff ABA does just fine that could be done just as well or better by other methods
      2) Useful things ABA therapists do that aren’t technically ABA (many of them use social stories, for example, which can be very helpful)
      3) What aspects of ABA should be preserved and maybe used in a context other than ABA sessions (I talked about this a bit in a previous post on the advantages of ABA)


  2. Fuzzy
    January 25, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    I realized today that I was training my service dog for attention and eye contact with treats and a verbal marker rather than a clicker. It looked amazingly like an ABA session…..


    • Restless Hands
      March 7, 2015 at 9:36 pm

      Yup! ABA is essentially operant conditioning, as is animal training. The difference is, we’re using not training animals to do things that destroy their self-esteem and ignore their intelligence. That being said, I think ALL parents, especially of “normal” children, should take a class in dog-training. The majority of bad habits that kids develop (like throwing tantrums) persist because their parents have unwittingly reinforced that behavior.


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