Applied Behavioural Analysis, or ABA, is the gold standard of autism ‘treatment’ in the US, and increasingly in the UK. It has been reported over and over again as being life-changing- it really works!
Well, I won’t argue that it ‘works’ in that it achieves the desired effect. But the fact that it achieves its goals is no kind of argument for its use.
First of all, what is ABA? ABA is a behavioural modification technique developed in the 1950s and 60s. It’s based on rewarding desired behaviour and punishing ‘bad’ behaviour. Ivar Lovaas was one of the early pioneers and was a huge influence in the development of this type of therapy. In the early days, aversives such as electric shocks were used to discourage unwanted behaviour. Now it’s mostly (but not always) bright primary colours and smiley practitioners. It almost looks like fun! Punishment for unwanted behaviour varies from having the behaviour ignored to being yelled at or losing privileges. Autistic children ‘love’ the new version of ABA, so parents tell us. (If you want to read more about ABA and its history then I recommend getting yourself a copy of Neurotribes by Steve Silberman)
So why have I got a problem with it?
I’m not going to go into specifics of whether or not ABA practitioners still teach ‘quiet hands’ or forced eye contact, or whether they do 40 hours a week or 10 hours. ABA can be as ‘ethical’ as you like, but I STILL don’t think it’s a good idea.
Why? Because teaching a vulnerable child to do as they are told without consideration for their own feelings is a terrible, terrible idea.
Ask anyone what qualities they want their child to have when they grow up and you’ll probably hear a lot of things like intelligence, kindness, industriousness, empathy, resilience, problem-solving and so on. What you probably won’t hear is ‘obedience’. Why is it that people value obedience in children but not in adults? Convenience, mostly. Sure, it’s a total ballache to have to explain things over and over again to a child. I have kids, I know this very well. But why spend ages teaching your children to be obedient and then expect it not to bite them in the arse as an adult?
Ask yourself these questions;
- What is ABA teaching autistic children about their personal safety?
- Why teach someone who already belongs to a vulnerable group that it’s better to go against their natural behaviour and instincts and instead do what someone else wants them to do?
- By rewarding them for following instructions without question, even if it goes against their instincts or hurts them, you are creating a person who is conditioned to be a people pleaser; is this a desirable thing for a vulnerable person to be?
- Do you think you are equipping them with the social skills to be able to say no when they need to, and how to tell when they are even allowed to say no?
- What is ABA teaching autistic children about consent?
I’ve already talked about how autistic people are vulnerable to abusers. I can only see that ABA is adding to this problem by taking a group that may already struggle with judging whether someone has good or bad intentions, and turning them into a group that is conditioned to say yes to things even if it goes against their own wishes.
If you’re a parent and your autistic child is in ABA then I’m not going to say you’re a child abuser or any of that stuff. I know that you love your child and you want to help them. Many parents are told they must sign their child up for ABA at an early age as possible, otherwise dire things will happen. They are told that there’s a narrow window of opportunity.
The truth is that the choice is more than just “ABA or nothing”; there are plenty of other ways to raise and support autistic children without the use of ABA. I recommend having a look at Parenting Autistic Children With Love and Acceptance and Better Ways Than ABA to learn more about positive autism parenting. If your insurance company will only cover ABA then get together with other autism parents and lobby for something else.
Fighting for your autistic child’s rights and future is something we all can and should do together. Let’s make the world better for the next generation of autistic people.