Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach to understanding and changing behavior. It’s the top go-to for the treatment, or reducing, of autism symptoms. There is no cure for autism.
Ole Ivar Lovaas is considered the “founding father” of ABA therapy. He did not see autistic people as people. He said:
“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.”
Sounds like Mr. Potato Head: Playdough edition.
Lovaas developed his idea of a comprehensive way to “build the person” and called it “Applied Behavior Analysis”. He recommended autistic children partake in 40 hours of ABA therapy per week — equivalent of a full-time job — to mold autistic children into “typically-developing children”. Harsh aversive techniques included withholding affection and food, physical punishments, and electric shocks. (source)
Connection to gay conversion therapy
Psychologist George Rekers, a key figure in conversion therapy, used Lovaas’s techniques to treat “deviant sex-role behaviors” in male children.
Even if you ignore Lovaas’s involvement in gay conversion therapy, there are enough similarities between ABA and gay conversion therapy that many autistic people call it “autistic conversion therapy”.
Per Amy Sequenzia, a non-speaking autistic person:
I propose that every time we write or talk about ABA, that we also write or say: Autistic Conversion Therapy. Gay Conversion Therapy has a bad reputation now, even if it still happens. Both “treatments” (tortures) have the same root. I want the supporters of ABA to own their objective. ABA: Autistic Conversion Therapy that uses torturous methods.
ABA roots are still practiced today
Many ABA therapists and organizers argue that ABA is different now and not the same, but ABA roots are still practiced today
ABA experts still recommend up to 40 hours of ABA therapy each week, which is the equivalent of a full-time job. Therapists typically work with autistic children for 10-20 hours per week, each is essentially a part-time job.
False perception of ABA success
Plenty of parents of autistic children and ABA experts argue that ABA therapy significantly reduces autism symptoms and unwanted behaviors.
Actually, you are creating a compliant child who has learned to mask their organic being. This child is going to grow into someone who burns out (autism burnout), knowing you did not accept who they were.
It looks like it’s working only because they have realized they can’t be themselves and have your love.
But yeah, okay. Let’s call that “ABA success”.
Looking at 4 different types of ABA therapy
Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
DTT teaches a skill by breaking down the tasks/steps into short trials and using prompts or cues.
- Copy me
- Child copies
- Reward given
This is exactly how I train my cat to fist bump. I view my cat as my child, but I still do not support this type of ABA therapy.
DTT is recommended to parents who want a way to teach behaviors they want to increase, like
- social behaviors
- expressive language
- adaptive skills
- imitative behaviors
Tell me you clearly don’t understand autism without telling me. Autistic people often imitate the behaviors of those around them on their own.
Moreover, “consequences” of their supposed “good behavior”, which is compliance and acting non-autistic is the same as when you train animals. The difference lies in understanding that animals think, feel and communicate differently and respecting that.
My cat is allowed to leave the training session anytime she wants. I don’t push. Training is supposed to be fun for BOTH of us. It’s not an obligation, but a bonus way to entertain a hyperactive indoor cat who needs extra stimulation. It helps us bond more than it teaches her how to behave.
If she struggles to understand something, or struggles to the point of frustration, I don’t push her to complete the task and move on to another one.
But she’s a cat. She’s not a human child. She won’t grow up to realize that I traumatized her by treating her like a human.
Rather, the bond between cats and their pet parents differs from bonds between cats and their owners.
Verbal Behavior (VB)
VB therapy is also often referred to as “VB training”. It’s used to teach language to autistic kids by connecting words with their meanings. There are four specific VB terms often used.
speaker says something aloud and the listener repeats exactly what was said
If the speaker says “four square”, the child is also expected to say “four square”.
I actually have no issue with this one, because it’s basic format of teaching babies how to talk.
However, I haven’t witnessed it used. Are they forcing their preferred pronunciation and tone of a word onto the child? Because that would be attempts to manipulate the autistic child into behaving like a non-autistic child.
My cat, Galaxy, is taught how to do some tricks dogs can do, because cats can do almost anything dogs can do. But I don’t get upset with her for not behaving like a dog. I don’t treat her like a dog. She’s a cat. I chose to have a cat, and she chose me.
Parents who chose to have and keep their children instead of having an abortion or giving their child up for adoption chose to have children, even if they’re autistic.
person commands/demands something, usually child picking up item that was spoken
If the speaker says, “I’m thirsty,” the child is expected to get them a drink.
I dislike this one, because it is the epitome of neurotypical communication issues. It is not up to the child, or anyone else, to fulfill the needs of someone other than themselves. If you’re thirsty, don’t simply state the fact aloud if you expect someone else to get you a drink. You can ask for someone to grab you a drink if they’re already standing up or your current situation keeps you from getting it yourself.
Otherwise, mands is akin to a wife saying, “The trash is full,” and getting upset when her husband doesn’t take it out. The wife said nothing about her desire for her husband to take out the full bin. Her anger derived from expecting her spouse to read her mind and know precisely what she wanted.
Mands is literally the same thing as “fetch”.
I do not support this at all and believe the people who do are the root of the neurotypical communication problems.
labeling an object
If a child sees a cat and verbally says “cat”, they’re “emitting a tact”.
…neurotypical kids do this ALL THE TIME WITH FLASH CARDS??!!
Why does it need a different name for neurodivergent individuals??
I don’t know whether this one is stupider than “mands”.
“the most complex verbal behavior to teach” where a child responds to a conversation as expected
- Speaker: How are you?
- Speaker: Twinkle, twinkle, little ____
I dislike this one because the goal is to teach autistic children how to converse like non-autistic children. It is a literal definition of autistic conversion therapy.
Natural Environment Training (NET)
practicing and teaching skills within the situations they’d naturally happen
- The therapist gives the child a coloring page, but withholds the crayons until the child requests them.
- Therapist gives child an empty cup and waits for child to request juice.
- Adult withholds dice or spinner while playing a board game until the child requests it.
This is still horrible. I actually experienced this a lot as a child and would be reprimanded when I sought out my own solutions. I’m autistic, not a mind reader. If you won’t hand over the dice, I’m going to stop caring about the game or borrow from a different game. If you give me an empty cup, I’m going to find a way to fill it myself.
NET might be an attempt at compromising, but it still forces verbal communication and instills frustration.
To me, common sense = coloring page and crayons.
Imagine you’re an adult at a full-time job who constantly has to ask for their paycheck instead of it being deposited directly into your bank account.
Imagine you pay for gas and the attendant takes your money, but doesn’t complete the transaction.
Imagine you pay for your groceries, but are not allowed to leave with the basket until you ask for it back.
Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
play-based behavioral therapy uses the natural environment and consequences while focusing on increasing motivation by adding items for the child to make choices/selections, taking turns and rewarding attempts
I don’t believe kids should be encouraged to share or take turns. It’s radical, but I believe it teaches entitlement.
When you teach kids to share or take turns, you’re teaching them they are entitled to get to play with someone else’s toy, share someone else’s food or participate in something — just because they want to.
It’s not at all helpful in adulthood.
My toddler cousin was devastated when I taught her what “sharing is caring” looks like, but I noticed it caused her to think more carefully about it. She started saying, “No,” when people asked if she could share her snacks. Teaching a child to say no is important.
Autistic children are taught compliance in ABA, also known as autistic conversion therapy. Autism looks different in girls, in that they can appear even more compliant by default because society pressures females to be compliant and easygoing.
You don’t get to “take turns” in adulthood just because you ask, want to or expect it. You have to work for your turn in adulthood.
Autistics are susceptible to sexual harassment, which makes compliance conditioning dangerous. I experienced a form of ABA “therapy”, was abused when I wasn’t compliant, and didn’t know how to say no or report multiple sexual assault experiences. Please don’t teach your autistic children this.
It’s not dog training for children — it’s much worse. The “new ABA” is still abuse. ABA is autistic conversion therapy and will never not be, simply thanks to its roots. You can’t remove the roots from a tree and plant it elsewhere without killing the tree and growing a new one.
The so-called “success” stories are simply trauma responses and autism masking. Your child is no less autistic than they were before they started — they’ve just finally learned that you are not a safe space where they can be themselves. They’re in survival mode. They’re masking.
Learn how to be an autistic ally first.
If a neurotypical child was forced to endure this, it would be considered abuse. Why is it l only okay when autistic people are involved?I write with a diverse upbringing, underprivileged family history, and indigenous heritage. I understand not everyone has access to better treatments and that ABA might be all that is available to them where they are. The parents who are aware that ABA is bad and lack access to better programs already know ABA is bad — so if they get anything from this post, I hope it’s ways to fight the tide — not that I don’t empathize with their struggles.
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thanks for clarifying the differences between Natural Environment Therapy and Pivotal Response – especially through lived experience.
[the transactions of interaction and the “sharing is caring” model respectively].
And sharing is not only your things.
It can be your time; skills; feelings; information – as well as resources.
“You have to work for your turn in adulthood”.
Hmmm… a lot of autistic children know this [almost instinctively] and they have it therapised out of them.
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Angelica Florine Steele
OMG That is HORRIFIC!!!
Yeah. Arguments = new ABA is “better” than old ABA, but all they did was slap bark on a rotting tree.