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ABA is Problematic

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ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis is considered the gold standard for treating autism. However, ABA has many problematic elements. In my experience, ABA tends to treat a child not like an individual or human being but as a set of behaviors that need to be encouraged or corrected. Children with autism deserve to be treated like people by caring professionals, and I think we should talk about how ABA fails them more. 

Have you ever worked an ABA case with a devoted ABA enthusiast and looked at what they do and wondered how useful it actually is? 

Well, I have. I just don’t get why everyone has put so much time, effort, and money into getting certified in ABA. When I look at ABA, I see a lot of highly problematic practices. 

The main issue I have with it can be summed up by telling you one story. 

I was in my mid-twenties and had just finished grad school. I was adopting a dog. Her name was Decky.

As I was filling out her adoption paperwork the volunteer from her rescue asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a one-on-one special education teacher who worked with autistic children.

She said, “Oh if you do ABA then you will have no problem training your new friend.”

Let’s take a minute to let that sink in. 

It is very easy to compare training a dog to what ABA providers do.

Hopefully, you find that just as disturbing as I do, because, nonverbal people with disabilities are not dogs.

I think there’s something wrong with us as a society. We consider a therapy program that treats people like dogs, to be not only acceptable, but often the only thing insurance will pay for. 

Let’s go over the theories behind ABA, why it is problematic in real life, and what alternatives can be considered. 

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To give you an idea about what the foundation of Applied Behavioral Analytics is based on we’re going to have to talk about some names you probably heard in college.

We have to talk about John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. If you’ve purged those names from your brain, I don’t blame you, so let’s review real quick.

Watson and Skinner were behaviorists. Behaviorists are a group of scientists who believe that the science of psychology should be based only on what you can observe.

The idea is, you see stimuli in your environment, you respond to it a certain way, and the results that come from that response tell you how successful that was. This either teaches you to repeat the action or never do it again. Thus what you do and how the world responds dictates your behavior.

Watson popularized the theory in 1913, and Skinner did further research on it in the 1930s. 

It’s a solid theory and one that does hold up a lot of the time. 

I’m not knocking the science behind or saying that behaviorism isn’t valid. It’s the basis for a lot of different therapies we use for people with disabilities. 

The problem is that the world is much more complicated than what Watson and Skinner described and over time, the system in which ABA applies their theories has lost touch with the reality of the world.

The issue is in how ABA applies the science and theories. 

For more information on Watson click here.

For more information on Skinner click here.

(Serious do some more research on this. Make up your own mind. I simplified that a lot.)

ABA is problematic both from an emotional and academic standpoint. Let’s take a look at what happens when a child’s providers use ABA exclusively.

There are a lot of people who sing the praises of ABA and say that it helped them a lot or that it did wonders for their children.

To those people I say great! I’m happy for you.

However, I wind up working with the kids that ABA didn’t help but harmed. I’m not the only one. 

ABA is problematic because it has been found to be harmful to children for reasons that we still do not fully understand. 

A 2018 study found that almost half of the people surveyed were found to have Post Traumatic Stress Symptoms after exposure to Applied Behavior Analysis interventions in their youth. 

Click here for the full study. 

One theory as to why this happens is that ABA attempts to force people on the autism spectrum to normalize or conform to societal expectations. 

Click here for more information.

This often includes trying to stop students from stimming (repetitive and sensory-based behaviors.) People on the autism spectrum who are verbal report these behaviors help them calm themselves and are how they deal with extreme emotions. 

Learning can be stressful for people with severe disabilities, and putting them in stressful situations without a means to self-soothe or cope emotionally is cruel and would of course be traumatic. 

Outside of the emotional damage ABA can cause, I don’t feel like it effectively teaches what is going for.

The huge ABA programs and schools I have observed ask students to identify certain objects passed off pictures. 

One day I saw a student correctly pick a mailbox out of said pictures. Later that day, I asked that same child to point me to their mailbox in real life. They were unable to do so.

So…what good did that exercise do? 

Well if you ask them what a mailbox looks like, they can hand you a picture of one, which is not going to help them mail letters.

I have seen little evidence of students whose schools exclusively use ABA being able to generalize the skills they learn in the classroom into the real world. 

On top of that, I frequently notice my colleagues who are devoted to ABA addressing the behavior, not the root cause. 

For example, I have a student who starts quoting movies to himself whenever he gets stressed or does not know what to do next in an academic activity. 

A behaviorist would focus on eliminating the stimming behavior of quoting movies, which would fail to address the actual problem. He is nervous and confused and needs help academically. 

Long-term, that student is going to be better off if I teach him more effective strategies for asking for help, rather than trying to get him to stop quoting movies. 

Ultimately kids on the spectrum are kids first. If teachers become too focused on their behavior, rather than helping them, no one is going to learn or benefit. 

I have often found the problem in treating children on the spectrum comes from blindly being devoted to one method of intervention, and I’m not just talking about ABA. 

My first case was a Son-Rise case, and I fell in love with it. However, I was so devoted to it, I failed to see many of the problems it created.

No one treatment method is ever going to be completely nonproblematic, so I say commit to none of them. 

Take from ABA, Floor Time, Son-Rise, all of it. Because sometimes kids need the structured and clear steps that ABA lays out, sometimes they need incentives to engage in developmentally appropriate play, like in Floortime, and sometimes they need to have their own needs put first, like in Son-Rise.

Children with autism are complicated, and none of them are exactly alike, which is why no one methodology will ever work on all of them. Special education teachers, as a field, need to be more into genuinely looking at what is working and what isn’t. 

The first priority always has to be what is best for the child. 

And if they’re nonverbal that means giving them the means to communicate effectively. 

Whatever teaching methodology helps them learn that, is the way to go, because that is what is going to make the biggest difference in their lives and make everything else possible. 

I know I started this post by saying I’m not a fan of ABA, and overall I’m not. In its application, ABA is problematic. But there are parts of it I love and have found effective.

I can say the same about many different therapies and methodologies used to help people with severe disabilities. 

It’s complicated. And it should be because the children we teach are complicated. 

And they are children, not dogs. Remember that your students are people first and not just a string of behaviors for you to deal with. Treat them as such with respect, because we have a duty to protect them and help them grow! 

Also, check out this post on Autism and Impulse Control.

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