Autism and ABA

Harmful when done poorly:

ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is a subject of controversy in the autistic and autism communities. Some people say they or their children were abused.

Others say it worked wonders. As someone who wants the best for your loved one, how can you tell the difference between a potential success story and horror story? The signs are there if you know how to look for them.

Here are some of the signs and things to think through / discuss:

Ask yourself whether the goals involve accommodation or assimilation. The UN states that disabled children have a right to preservation of identity, i.e., to be themselves even if it means looking autistic. Research has shown that autistic people who attempt to “camouflage” their autism are at significantly higher risk of suicide.

While some people choose to “fit in” a little, this shouldn’t be forced, especially in the home. A good therapist will value the person’s individuality and mental health by allowing and encouraging them to be different. They should not try to remove autistic behaviors or characteristics like…

  • Non-harmful stimming, such as hand flapping or rocking (You may hear phrases such as “quiet hands” and “table ready” to indicate suppression of stims.)
  • Toe-walking
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Introversion or a desire for a quiet social life 
  • Other quirks or harmless differences

Consider if the therapist controls your loved one’s affect. Some therapists train autistic people to show facial expressions or body language that suggest happiness, regardless of their actual feelings. All people need to be able to express their feelings.

  • No one should be pushed to smile or act happy if they do not feel happy.
  • Hugs and kisses should not be trained or pressured, even if it means hurting feelings. The right to set boundaries is important in arming your loved one against sexual and emotional abuse.

Consider whether the therapist is fighting or accommodating the autistic person’s brain. A bad therapist may try in vain to make your loved one not be or act autistic; a good one will seek to work with them so they can grow into a happy and capable autistic adult.

Therapists should focus on helping the person become a happy autistic person, not a non-autistic one. Good therapy goals might include…

  • Building emotional regulation skills and being helped to identify one’s own emotions
  • Finding comfortable and non-harmful stims, instead of extinguishing all stimming that doesn’t look “socially acceptable”
  • Finding ways to accommodate and alleviate sensory issues
  • Gaining social skills in a friendly environment (note: terms like “social skills” or “pragmatic language” can also be used as euphemisms for being taught to socialize in non-autistic ways, such as reinforcing eye contact or rigid social scripts that encourage masking, so be mindful that your child is consensually learning skills that are universally helpful across neurotypes, which include assertiveness and self-advocacy as well as making friends
  • Learning perspective-taking skills and gaining an understanding of why non-autistic people act the way they do
  • Discussing and working on your loved one’s own personal goals

Evaluate whether learning communication is treated as an essential skill, or a performance to please adults. Communication should be considered more important than verbal speech (including both behavior and AAC). Beginning vocabulary should focus on basic needs instead of parents’ feelings.

  • Words such as “yes,” “no,” “stop,” “hungry,” and “hurt” are more necessary than “I love you” or “Mommy.”
  • Behavior and nonverbal communication should be honored and respected, even as someone is learning to communicate via AAC or speech.