Is ABA Really “Dog Training for Children”? A Professional Dog Trainer Weighs In.

Soldier training a dog to jump through a hole in a fence.

ABA Therapists like to talk shop with me when they find out that I’m a dog trainer.

“I use the same principles in my work!” they always say eagerly. “It’s all operant conditioning, isn’t it?”

“Well,” I say, “a lot of it anyway.”

I love operant conditioning, and as a dog trainer, I’ve built my career around it.

I hold a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and I took every course on behaviour modification and conditioning that my university offered. I use it daily when training assistance dogs.

So you can imagine I was curious about ABA when I heard about it.

I started reading ABA websites, the principles and goals involved. The more I looked into ABA, the more I was exposed to the controversy around it. While parents whose children have received ABA sing its praises and describe it as the therapy that saved their child, the adult autistic community seems to feel differently.

I discovered that autistic adults consider it abusive, and many who were subjected to it as children claim to have been emotionally damaged.

Some preliminary studies even suggest that adults who received ABA as children are at an increased risk of suicide and PTSD.

And quite commonly on Twitter, I’ve seen people call ABA “dog training for children.”

When I see that, I tend to go on Twitter rants in reply to it, because from everything I have read and seen of ABA, it is NOT “dog training” for children.

…I would never treat a dog that way.

What is ABA?

I’ll let ABA proponents explain it themselves:

Autism Speaks says:

ABA therapy applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.

Autism Canada says:

Behaviour Analysis is the science of behaviour. Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is the process of systematically applying interventions, based upon the principles of learning theory, to improve socially significant behaviours to a meaningful degree.

The Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approach teaches social, motor, and verbal behaviours, as well as reasoning skills. ABA treatment is especially useful in teaching behaviours to children with autism who may otherwise not “pick up” these behaviours on their own, as other children would. says:

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the practice of applying the psychological principles of learning theory in a systematic way to alter behavior in humans or animals. The practice is used extensively in education, healthcare, animal training, and business management. It is particularly prominent in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for which it is one of the only scientifically valid therapies available.

Right away a few things in these descriptions strike me as odd.

For one thing, none of them—or any of the information I’ve found from the ABA discipline–make any reference to the autistic person’s emotions or well being.

It’s all about increasing certain behaviours and decreasing other behaviours, as if their student were a passive recipient.

Dog trainers don’t talk about systematically altering behaviour as if the dog weren’t a thinking, feeling, sentient being.

Look at Karen Pryor, who changed the face of dog training by introducing behaviourism to the wider world. If you’ve ever heard of “clicker training”, you can thank Karen Pryor.

Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker”: a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.

That’s a pretty scientific way to describe dog training, isn’t it? It sounds a lot like the description of ABA.

But notice this difference – this description uses words like “communication,” “safe,” and “humane.”

Even this brief description of operant conditioning as it is used on dogs addresses the dog’s point of view (“tells the animal exactly when they are doing the right thing”) and addresses the emotional and physical well being of the dog.

That’s a big difference. The language of the ABA research and its guiding documents struck me as excessively clinical and distant, especially considering that they were discussing not animals, but human children.


Behaviour Analysis Is Not Dog Training

As a dog trainer, what also stood out for me when learning about ABA was the frankly-inaccurate claims that ABA is used on animals.

That’s just not correct. I have a science degree in behavioural psychology and I never heard the term “behaviour analysis” at university.

If you google “behaviour analysis,” you will only find sites that refer to autism and intellectual disability. It simply does not exist outside of the realm of “ABA.” So their claims that they took an existing science and applied it to autism is extremely misleading.

It is clear that ABA employs some aspects of B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviourism and this is what they mean when they say “behaviour analysis.”

Not only is it recognizable to anyone familiar with it, but you can also confirm the connection by googling radical behaviourism. Everything will tell you it underpins ABA.

The founder of ABA as it exists today, Ivar Lovaas, who is also the father of gay conversion therapy, derived the principles of his therapies from radical behaviourism.

What is Radical Behaviourism?

It’s hard to make this a short answer because the real answer involves a lot of bickering about minutiae among behaviourists, but the “tl;dr” of it all is that radical behaviourism believes that everything we do is a behaviour.

  • Your thoughts are behaviours.
  • Your feelings are behaviours.
  • All of them can be modified or altered through reward and punishment as consequences.

Radical Behaviourism is considered out-of-date by modern psychologists.

While its principles do work and have largely been upheld in experimental research, cognitive science has found that there are some things that it can’t explain.

Language, for example.

B.F. Skinner tried to explain language using behaviourism, but there is a lot in psycholinguistics that frankly cannot be explained through behaviourism.

Some things are larger than reward and punishment. Empathy, for example. Creative language. Storytelling. Music.

So basically, Radical Behaviourism is broadly seen by psychology professionals as a simplistic and restrictive theory which is useful in certain situations but cannot sum up the entirety of the human experience. It doesn’t even satisfactorily answer some questions about behaviours seen in animals.

I can understand why Applied Behaviour Analysts decided to rename it as “Behaviour analysis,” but a rose by any other name is still radical behaviourism.

In any case, very few dog trainers use the radical behaviourism that’s employed in ABA.

Most of the dog trainers I know mix and match behaviourism with other cognitive science research and other methods to create a more holistic approach to training their dogs. This is because dog trainers understand the limits of behaviourism on canines, because it doesn’t address the whole dog.

One would hope that someone considering using radical behaviourism on a human being would also recognize its limits.

So if it isn’t sufficient to properly train a dog, is it sufficient in educating a child? Let’s take a look at ABA and the success rate that ABA proponents often boast about.

Does Radical Behaviourism Work? How is “Success” Measured?

ABA is good at accomplishing what it set out to accomplish. There is plenty of research demonstrating this, and ABA practitioners point to it often. This doesn’t surprise me. The principles behind radical behaviourism are sound and well proven. You can use it to change an organism’s behaviour.

But should you?

Dog trainers spend a lot of time debating what is moral or ethical when it comes to changing the behaviour of their canine students.

They discuss not only what behaviours should be taught and which are not, but also what methods are ethical and which are not.

Do ABA practitioners do the same for the children in their care?

Are their goals in alignment with the best interests of the child?

Are their methods of achieving those goals humane and considerate of the child’s emotional and mental health?

Autism Speaks says that ABA helps:

· Increase language and communication skills
·  Improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics
· Decrease problem behaviors

Autism Ontario says that:

An ABA program should address the core features and characteristics of ASD (i.e. social skills, communication, and repetitive patterns of behaviour), as well as any barriers to learning (i.e. challenging behaviours, stereotypy, etc.)

What struck me about these lists was how outwardly focused they were. They really are teaching behaviours, aren’t they?

Nothing about improving the child’s quality of life, relieving anxiety, or helping the child cope with sensory sensitivities.

ABA is focused on shaping an autistic child to behave more like a non-autistic child, even to the point of shaping the child to play more like a non-autistic child.

Those are weird goals, quite frankly.

None of these goals refer to improving the quality of life of the child.

I suppose that to some it would be redundant. People seem to think that if you act normal, then you must feel normal. But that’s not true for people.

It’s not even true for dogs.

The Problem of Operant Conditioning in Dog Training

In my field of dog training, you can use reward and punishment to train a dog not to bite when another dog passes by, or when a human touches it. In fact, Cesar Millan does it with great aplomb on TV.

While he talks scientifically disproven nonsense about dominance, what he is really using is operant conditioning, the aspect of behaviourism which ABA therapists employ. By punishing “problem behaviours” Cesar makes the dogs stop growling or attacking.

It looks like magic to viewers.

But to certified dog trainers like me, it looks like painting over rotten wood. Worse. It looks like burying a land mine.

We all know that we can feel angry without expressing anger. That we can smile when inside we are crying. You can stop someone from expressing an emotion, but that doesn’t make the emotion go away.

A dog who has been trained not to growl is considered by trainers to be a “time bomb dog.”

When you read about a dog attack that came “out of nowhere” and “without warning,” it is because this sort of method was used to handle “problem behaviours.”

Studies show that dogs trained with these sorts of methods actually have an increased rate of aggression, because punishing aggressive behaviour doesn’t deal with the underlying fear and anxiety that caused the aggression in the first place.

Certified dog trainers help the dog get over their fear… and that uses no operant conditioning whatsoever.

Deal With The Underlying Problems Before Tackling Behaviour

Before a dog trainer breaks out the operant conditioning, our first task is to ensure that all of the dog’s fundamental needs are being met.

Dogs need to run. Dogs need to dig. Dogs need to chase things. Dogs need to chew things. Dogs need to play with other dogs. These are fundamental needs that cannot be removed from a dog’s psyche, and that can result in a lot of “problem behaviours” if they are not met.

If the dog is afraid or fearful, we gently encourage them to have positive experiences with the things that frighten them. It seems counterintuitive to learn that feeding a dog who is growling at you will end the growling but it does – when the fear is gone, so is the aggression. No operant conditioning required.

There are many times when an owner wants me to “train” the dog out of a behaviour and I refuse because either the behaviour is fear-based, or because the goal of the owner is unreasonable/unethical.

Before you train a dog you need to accept that it is a dog.

Yes, I’m happy to use operant conditioning to teach your dog to greet people politely at the door or to pull your wheelchair (which they love doing anyway) or to lie quietly on their bed during dinner.

But when people ask me to train their retrievers not to pick things up in their mouth, or their terrier to stop digging, or their puppy to stop mouthing them, I have to sit down with them and have a little talk with them about the fact that they have a dog.

Could I train a retriever not to pick things up? Yes. If I broke out a shock collar I could put an end to it really fast.

But I won’t do it.

The fact is that you bought a retriever and holding things in their mouths is what they love. You bought a terrier and they love to dig. You bought a puppy and they love to play.

Relieve fear instead of training the dog not to show its fear. Teach your retriever to retrieve and buy a sandbox for your terrier instead of forcing your dog to ignore fundamental instincts.

It’s not only easier – but it’s much kinder.

How Does ABA Ignore Fundamental Needs in Children?

One of the reasons parents and ABA professionals get so upset when autistic people call ABA “abusive” is the fact that they care deeply. They genuinely want to improve these children’s lives. Yet the vast majority of autistic people when polled (typically 97%) oppose ABA including and especially those who went through it as children.

Why is there such a disconnect?

Some of it has to do with a breakdown in the way autism is perceived. Non-autistic people believe that “normalcy” is a fundamental need; indeed, a stated goal of ABA is to make the autistic child “indistinguishable from [neurotypical] peers.”

They think a child who blends into the crowd is a happy child.

When parents see their child engaging in unusual behaviours such as flapping, or ignoring other children, they see a child who is ill or damaged.

When they see that child talking and working well at their desk and playing with other children, they see a child who has been healed. Helped. Saved.

If only they would listen to the autistic adults who are trying to tell them that this is not necessarily the case. Because in reality, a happy autistic person may not look neurotypical.

Knowing how to stack blocks or how to suppress essential means of regulation and expression (such as flapping) doesn’t make an autistic person “happier.” Often, in fact, it makes them less happy.

When you are autistic, talking can be exhausting. Even if you are extremely verbal like I am – adults praised my precocious vocabulary as a child, and I have often been called a “chatterbox” – vocal speech is draining. My well of words may be deeper than that of most other autistic people, but it is not bottomless.

Therefore, an autistic child who has been playing, without speaking much, all day may be a more rested and happier child at the end of the day than a child who has been chatting up a storm.

A child who is given AAC or other ways to communicate their needs will be more comfortable and better regulated than a child who has been required to speak aloud… assuming they are even able to meet this demand. An autistic child who spins or jumps is probably stimming and/or self-regulating through movement—ways to stay calm.

Flapping and echolalia (repeating words or phrases), similarly, are expressions and often play an important emotional role as well as a developmental role. Echolalic speech helps autistics, many of whom process language in a different part of the brain, to process the language they have heard and understand the meaning of the words.

Yet, ABA seeks to “extinguish” these things.

A good dog trainer doesn’t extinguish behaviours which improve the dog’s mental health and happiness. But an ABA practitioner may not think twice before doing this to a human child.

In my field, when a dog loves to tug, I don’t operantly condition the dog to play tug less frequently. Instead, I play more tug and incorporate obedience routines with it so that the dog has a blast learning to sit and stay. And, if a dog has problems sitting still, I see that as a sign that the dog needs to move. Some dogs are not meant to lie still. Some dogs are meant to play agility and flyball, not lie on the couch all day.

Sometimes I have to tell an owner that their dog’s personality just isn’t suited to what they are trying to achieve.

Could I achieve it? Yes.

I could break out the hardcore reward/punishment and using a combination of learned helplessness and positive reinforcement. I could change that dog. I could break their spirit. Crush their ability to respond to their own emotions.

But I won’t do it.  Because the methods I would have to use would violate the Code of Ethics I agreed to when I applied for my certification through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers. The methods would violate the recommendations of every veterinary medical association. The methods would violate the standards of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Some goals just aren’t worth it.

…But as it turns out, the Behaviour Analyst Certification Board has no such guiding principles.

Codes of Ethics: Dog Training versus ABA

Like all certifying bodies, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board has a professional code of ethics which its certificants must abide by to remain in good standing.

You can read them here.

I was amazed when I read it, because while it goes into great detail regarding what certificants may do with regard to the business aspect of things, right down to detailed guidelines on what you can do and say in the media, there is virtually nothing about the welfare of the therapy’s recipients.

The Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), by contrast, dedicates almost the entirety of its code of conduct to what, when, and how you interact with the animal. While it also covers ethical business practices, its primary concern is the well-being of the “learner”.

First of all, the CCPDT has an entire policy dedicated to specifying in great detail what sorts of methods are condoned and which are not. The Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers policy is called “Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive” and is referred to in the code of ethics by its acronym, LIMA.

This policy also lays out the “Humane Hierarchy” which advises which methods to start with first (ensure basic physical and emotional needs, then redesign the environment to remove antecedents, then employ positive reinforcement, then use differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour, and so on), and which methods are only acceptable as a last resort.

The CCPDT Code of Ethics refers frequently to this policy which forms the backbone to the board’s entire framework.

If one applied the dog trainer’s code of ethics when working with an autistic child, therefore, one would first ensure that the child’s basic needs were met. If the child seemed to be under-exercised or lacked sufficient playtime for an average child’s needs, they would recommend trying that first.

If that failed to make an impact, one would then pay attention to what situations impact the child, such as loud and noisy public places. Following the dog trainer’s code of conduct, one would then recommend reducing exposure to these places, or providing the child with ear defenders and sunglasses, or gentle exposure based on the feedback of the child.

One could not even consider other methods until these had first been tried and found unsuccessful. For example, counter-conditioning or desensitization could only be considered if one could not simply keep the child away from the situation and if ear defenders, sunglasses, etc. were not proving helpful.

One certainly could not deprive the child of playtime past the point needed by neurotypical children as part of any training plan, because that would violate one of the first steps in the Humane Hierarchy.

This step-by-step guide provided in the CCPDT’s Code of Ethics is designed to ensure the dog’s emotional and physical needs are considered first and foremost and to provide a clear guide of acceptable training conduct to its members.

The Well-being of Humans, The Well-being of Dogs

The Behaviour Analyst Certification Board (BACB) does not consider the well-being of the child through policy or guidelines.

In fact, in the entire Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s professional code of ethics, a 24 page document, there is only one small section which refers to the behaviour-change program, and most of that involves how the plan is documented.

It is interesting to me that this document uses the word “client” to refer to the learner and the employer (parents or care home) interchangeably, which means that when it discussed “client consent,” it does not specify whether the actual learner has to consent.

The way it is written, the learner could give no consent at all and the analyst could still be within guidelines as long as the employer consented, regardless of the learner’s age, intellectual ability, or communicative capacity.

Only three subsections in the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s professional code of ethics even address the wellbeing of the learner:

  1. Subsection 4.08 requires that reinforcement procedures must be preferred over punishment procedures.
  2. Subsection 4.09 requires that they use the least restrictive procedures necessary. This is meaningless, however, because it does not define what is considered “restrictive” or lay out a clear guideline on this.
  3. Subsection 4.10 warns against harmful reinforcers which could adversely affect the client’s health (presumably the learner, not the parent).

None of those three ensure that the procedures will be humane, for a few reasons.

First, “reinforcement” and “punishment” do not mean “good” and “bad” in behaviourism.

When I used to train service dogs, for example, some of the older trainers still used the old-fashioned, no-longer-recommended method of training a dog to retrieve: they dug their fingernails into the sensitive tip of the dog’s ear until the dog screamed, while holding out a dumbbell. As soon as the dog’s mouth closed on the dumbbell, they stopped pinching the ear.

I refused to use this technique and now, if I were to do so, I would be barred from the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers for doing it. But – and it is important to understand this – it is a “reinforcement technique.”

The dog is rewarded for grabbing the dumbbell by the trainer ending the pain. That makes it reinforcement.

If the CCPDT used the BACB’s code of ethics, I could use that method without breaking their code of conduct.

The BACB says nothing about inflicting pain. There’s nothing in the BACB ethics code says you can’t use electric shock. In fact, it doesn’t say anything at all about what type of “aversives” are acceptable.

4.08 – Behavior analysts ensure that aversive procedures are accompanied by an increased level of training, supervision, and oversight. Behavior analysts must evaluate the effectiveness of aversive procedures in a timely manner and modify the behavior-change program if it is ineffective. Behavior analysts always include a plan to discontinue the use of aversive procedures.

As long as the aversive procedure is effective and accompanied with training and supervision, under the ABA model you could hypothetically do anything.

In fact, in a 24-page document detailing ethical codes of practice for working with human beings, including children and disabled adults, the word “abuse” is used zero times.

The word “humane” is used zero times.

The word “positive” is used zero times.

All this despite the fact that using behaviourism on a human being – especially a child – can easily venture into the realm of emotional and physical abuse. For example, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies defines emotional abuse as:

excessive, aggressive, or unreasonable demands that place expectations on a child beyond his or her capacity. Emotional abuse includes constantly criticizing, teasing, belittling, insulting, rejecting, ignoring, or isolating the child.

And yet the BACB does not warn against or establish a criteria regarding the use of ignoring to punish a child, which is actually a commonly recommended strategy in ABA.

The BACB does not warn against asking a child to sit still or work beyond the capacity expected and recommended for a child of their age.

The BACB, in other words, considers virtually anything acceptable so long as it is within the law and well documented.

I find that incomprehensible.

 The Rights of All Living Things

All sentient beings deserve to have their needs met, and their lives enjoyable. All sentient beings should be able to be themselves and still be cared for. All sentient beings should be treated with kindness and respect.

Modern dog training takes its codes of practice from the recommendations of many animal welfare bodies, and it prioritizes the needs and emotional well being of the dogs.

I don’t believe ABA focuses on the emotional needs of autistic children. Nor do I believe that it incorporates recommendations from child psychologists on basic needs such as unconditional love, the need to play, or the right to say no.

The emotional needs of children are too often left entirely out of discussions about autism. This should be shocking to anyone who understands children, behaviour, or how emotions and relationships impact us.

Nor does the field listen to autistic people about autistic emotions, which may be different from those of neurotypical children but are worth of respect nonetheless.

Dog trainers understand that dogs need to chew and bark and dig, but ABA therapists don’t understand that autistic children need to repeat words and sentences, flap their hands, and sit quietly rocking in a corner when things get too much.

ABA assumes that the key to happiness is changing their behaviour to be more in line with non-autistic children.

It focuses on training children by holding their sources of happiness hostage and using them as blackmail to get the children to meet goals which are not necessarily in the best interest of their emotional health.

And like I said…

I wouldn’t treat a dog that way.

Carol Millman B.Sc., RAHT, CPDT-KA, CTDI is an autistic dog trainer with seven years of post-secondary education and a decade of practical experience. She apprenticed as an instructor at Pacific Assistance Dogs Society in Burnaby, BC, and now trains dogs privately. She specializes in training assistance dogs for people with a wide range of visible and invisible disabilities.

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139 Responses

      1. Amanda, I have read your rebuttal and really have little to add. None of your points seem to refute mine at all. They only set up straw man arguments to knock down instead.

        You link to the same compliance code that I link to, and specifically quote some of the areas that I addressed as problematic.

        You say the compliance code is “thorough” which is a strange rebuttal because I pointed out several areas in which it is NOT thorough and you actually quote one of them. You also quote an item that I quoted myself in my article. It’s very odd.

        If you are not concerned by the fact that your compliance code doesn’t outline abusive practices such as electric shock or planned ignoring, then you and I will never see eye to eye on ABA.

        If you truly care about autistic people, then instead of defending a very loose code of conduct which allows therapists to do things like this:

        TW: JRC, electric shock, abuse

        As you can see, several of the board members at the JRC are certified by the BCBA.

        In fact, a couple of BCBA-D certified presenters ran a symposium on the effective use of electric shock at the Association for Behavior Analysis International’s 2009 convention.

        That is because the BCBA PERMITS treatments like this as long as certain protocols are followed. The JRC is still in operation and still using these techniques and the BCBA seems just fine with it.

        That is because none of the above violates the BCBA’s ethics code.

        Either you think that this is acceptable, or you do not.

        I do not.

        I’m sorry that my article made you feel defensive about your chosen field, but unless you wrote the compliance code and run the BCBA there is no reason to take this so personally.

        I’m sure many ABA therapists mean well. But your field is not well regulated.

        A poorly regulated field allows abusive therapists to continue practicing without repercussion. I do not consider this acceptable.

        You cannot rely on people’s goodwill to ensure that the child’s emotional and physical wellbeing will be considered a priority. There must be clear guidelines.

        I recommend guidelines such as:

        “Repetitive behaviours which are soothing to the student and which do not cause harm or significantly disrupt the people around may not be discouraged or extinguished.”

        “When sensory sensitivities are suspected the therapist must always first try adaptive tools such as ear defenders or sun glasses before attempting desensitization.”

        And so on.

        The fact that a dog training certification board has policies in place to ensure the wellbeing of the animal and prevent abuse yet a certification board that involves working with children does NOT is frankly appalling to me.

        You consider it sufficient. I do not. We must agree to disagree.

        At least we both agree – dog training and ABA are nothing alike.

        1. This made me think of psych ward stays in past years where I witness more than a couple individuals go through shock therapy. The one guy after a session had his face so swelled that it looked like a balloon human, he couldn’t even see his flesh had inflamed so bad. It seemed to reduce over the next treatments and never got that bad again. Now every one of those people I saw go through it had a remarkable reduction in their initial symptoms of depression/suicidal ideation, but I could not for the life of me conclude that it was the therapy electro therapy itslef because of the personal conversations with those individuals, which seeme to be more effective in producing common ground and insight into our happiness and reflecting on those. And that man who swelled I met again in future time on the same ward. So I agree that there is science that is in place that shows immediate and short term results of electo therapies, but there is nothing that shows long term benefit or long term harms directly resulting from those forms of therapy.

          I am an austic adult and everytime that a psychologist recommends electro therapy I will say the same thing, ‘Doing no harm should entail you looking at current science and the shortcoming of past scientific conclussions being based on faulty premise’.

          This article is hands down the best analysis of ABA and it’s shortcomings. And I as an autistic person have defended Autism Speaks because I don’t believe they have the intention of harm, but I do think there needs to be account for what Carol addresses in this article. It is well thought out and well presented. Only ignorance would attempt to sweep this under the rug with gross justifications.

          And just clarifying about my support of AS. I quite every single facebook autism group because I felt peer pressured to hate them and that my questions regarding why would be retaliated with aggressive bully like explanations.. Had anyone given me a well though out article like this I may still have those groups as a peer support.

          1. Quick note: the electro-convulsive therapy used to treat severe mental illness is very different from the shocks used at the JRC. ECT uses electricity basically to turn the brain off and on again. The patient is sedated and it’s painless. There are risks, which is why it’s only used when someone is extremely ill. But it often does help a great deal and is solidly evidence-based.

            The electric shocks used by the JRC, and mentioned in this post, are simply a punishment method. Quick blast of current causes pain and stops people from doing something. No therapeutic basis. Completely different.

  1. Ridiculous, redundant article More like a stupid thesis.

    You make a few shocking comments based on NO personal experience and sit back and gloat?

    1. I feel like you either didn’t read this or you might need to read this after wiping the steam from your eyes.
      Sit down, Sheryl.

    2. So that’s a 98.9 chance that Sheryl is an Autism Mom trying to poison the well.

    3. I see. You’re an autism mom using abusive methods to try to make your child not autistic, aren’t you?

      Listen to autistic people instead of abusing children.

    4. Hi – I am developmentally disabled, so I’m not sure why you’re so angry? And I agree, we shouldn’t have to compare children to dogs which is why I’d really like to know why a therapy involving children has poorer ethics and less consideration for its learners than dog training does.

      1. Because in wealthy countries we treat animals better than humans?
        I mean people are more easily outraged to see a dog left to survive in the streets than a homeless person…

    5. article: aba is so inhumane i wouldnt even do it to dogs

    6. Did you even read the article? The author is literally autistic. And it’s less about comparing humans to dogs, it’s about comparing how people treat dogs to how people treat autistic children. Learn to read please.

    7. …What? this person is responding to a common pro-ABA stance that “ABA is just like dog training”. They don’t believe that.

    8. Your seriously out of line with your comment and its repulsive and abusive. Don’t call someone ableist in the same post of you using shaming tactics of a bully.

    9. You know, not everyone thinks the same as you.
      Every creature has its wants and needs. We live with dogs, and quite frankly……..the person who wrote the article does have a point. We have guidelines for how to treat and train animals, wereas we dont necessarily have those fpr human beings. I think part of that is because everyone is different and has a different idea of how to treat people. Not saying that it doesnt happen either with animals….but we as humans have been learning how to treat animals better than other human beings fpr a long time now.

    10. “Carol Millman B.Sc., RAHT, CPDT-KA, CTDI is an autistic dog trainer with seven years of post-secondary education and a decade of practical experience.”

      Sounds to me like someone did not read the entire article.

      Doggis and Humans have not only grown together, but evolved together. Since the days when Humans were little more than glorified stunted primates who shared a common ancestor with apes, doggis have been there helping them to hunt and gather.

      To get your weenie in such a knot because a) curebies like to proclaim that ABA is like dog training and b) an autistic individual who is registered with an official dog-training organisation says “no, it is not, and this is why”, is what is truly pathetic.

      We autistic people have our “****ers” and our Uncle Toms, too, and the above comment looks like it was written by one.

    11. Then surely you understand why it is even more insulting to treat humans with developmental disabilities in ways you wouldn’t even treat a dog. If it is insulting to compare us to dogs, then why do you condone treating us worse?

  2. This information about ABA is incorrect. There are so many things wrong with this article that I don’t know where to begin. No, I would not say that ABA is dog training for children. We certainly do not spend hours and hours of our time trying to make kids act more “normal” and it is actually against our code of ethics to change a behavior simply because it doesn’t fit in with social norms. I am appalled that you think we don’t look at the child as a whole, or think of their feelings and emotions. I actually help children understand, label, and cope with their emotions. A lot of my clients struggle with that. A huge part of ABA is teaching the child to communicate. A lot of problem behaviors come from communication issues and the frustration that goes along with that. All of my programs are adapted specifically for each individual based on his or her needs, contrary to what you said in your article.
    This article is incredibly slanted and it makes me sad that you didn’t make a better attempt at understanding ABA and behavior analysis.

      1. “it is actually against our code of ethics to change a behavior simply because it doesn’t fit in with social norms.”
        Then why is it used to teach children to make eye contact and not hand flap or rock as stimm? Both these things are only social norms that don’t harm anyone but are things that ABA tries to change.

    1. Honestly, it should make you sad that you are working with a therapy that almost all autistic people find to be abusive. Whether or not you feel like what you do is in the best interest of the children, or how well it meets their needs, it doesn’t matter. You help autistic children define themselves and their feelings and needs according to neurotypical standards, and that doesn’t translate the same way to us. What matters is that those who have been through the therapy find it traumatizing, and that should matter to you. If autistic people matter to you, then you should listen to them.

    2. Watch the video here of an autistic child being forced to ignore thier sensory needs to grocery shop, or the video where the therapist takes away the child’s communication tool as a means of controlling the child. I’m an autistic adult, and I could not finish watching these videos without many tears. This is abuse. Neurotypicals should not be in charge of developing therapies for autistic children. They have no idea what it’s like.

      1. I agree that its horrendous and something needs to be done in allowing these offshoot conversion therapies to account. I don’t think this is a neurotypical vs neurodiverse issue so much as it is a ignorance to updating conclussions of data and that false premises of conclusions can skew perceptions.
        I am diagnosed autistic.

        1. It’s not so much “a neurotypical vs neurodiverse” issue as the same issue that plagues *all* disabled people. Doctors and scientists who do not have that specific disability do not understand, and if they don’t listen to the people who do, their analysis cannot be complete. No method of helping autistic children adapt to the world of allistics should be used if autistic people themselves were never consulted about it — I mean. We are a huge percentage of STEM. You can’t throw a Beanie Baby in a science conference without it landing next to an autistic person. But even if that were not true, they still need to consult us when they’re developing therapies for us.

          The issue isn’t the data, though. The data says it’s effective. And it is. What you gotta ask is, effective at what? If the goal is, make the autistic kid act more allistic, great! You did it! But why did you want to do that? I think most parents think the goal underneath, the *end* goal, is raise a happy and successful child, and they think that conforming to “normality” will accomplish that. And, you know, for the success part, maybe sometimes they’re right. Maybe conforming *can* make us more “successful” in life. But when you consider the high rates of drug abuse and suicide among wealthy celebrity performers at the top of the world’s “success” scale… should a parent want a child to be successful if the price of that is being miserable, maybe even suicidal? And I think it’s very, very clear that ABA does not make autistic people *happy*. And it’s not trying to. As the article pointed out, it’s all about changing our behaviors so we conform… nothing at all about how we feel about it or what that does for our inner life.

          So you can’t truly say the problem is with conclusions drawn from the data. The reason they should be asking us is, they never asked the right question. Your conclusions can be scientifically correct, but appallingly wrong, if you came from the wrong perspective and you didn’t question your own biases. They asked “What would it take to make these little freaks act like normal people?” and came up with a solution that works. But they never asked “what would it take to make these children happy and functional in life without harming their individualities or depriving them of their needs?”

          BTW, I am also autistic. And I am very grateful to have had parents who believed strongly enough in individuality and nonconformity that I never had to face anything like ABA.

    3. I am going to suspect that you as a therapist use more tools than just ABA in every single one of your appointments. So I have to wonder if you are in fact employing text book ABA?
      In all the research I have looked at concerning ABA none have addressed the concern that there is a possible correlation to increased suicide risk of those who went through ABA as a child and were adult at the time of suicide.
      The difficulty it seems is that there is little ability to truly seperate the differences of how you therapy compared to Bob or Jane and how they do theirs. Your individuality makes it difficult to parse the data to a degree of serious clinical significance on todays standards. What I want to know is can we correlate the increased suicide by therapist versus straight up ABA?

  3. I find it very telling that those like Louis, Sarah and Sheryl who defend aba dont just show/quote where in their own code of ethics you are wrong.

    How hard it must be for these people to read a 24 page document and tell us where it tells people not to hurt children, like the dog trainer can clearly tell us where and why she cant hurt a dog, as well as what “hurting” is as well as how that has changed over time.

    1. You find it “telling”? I’m not writing a research paper, I’m commenting on an article. If I were to go through this article and point out everything that is wrong, it would take days. If you actually want to know about ABA, I would love to explain it. I doubt that’s the case.
      I do want you to know that ABA is not child abuse. It does not change a kid’s personality. I have never seen a therapist ignore a child’s sensory needs, nor have I seen anyone attempt to change behaviors such as “flapping.” Problem behaviors are things like self-injurious behavior and aggression. And we teach kids to use more appropriate behaviors to express their feelings. For example, I have a client who used to bite herself when she was frustrated. She was always covered in bruises. She now has a chewy that she chews on when she is frustrated, rather than hurting herself.
      I could go on and on. I wish this author wouldn’t make these false claims.

        1. They won’t. ABAers are so full of themselves they don’t give a shit about what we autistics want or actually feel.
          No ethics to be showed there because many know they are wrong for doing this but denial motivated by stuffed up entitlement is an easier escape hatch.
          And still people say we autistics are the ones lacking
          empathy… 🙄🙄🙄

      1. The first crop of children that received ABA are now adults, and studies show 97% of them report ABA was undeseriable. It strikes me as very pompous to declare that invalid. It also speaks to the exact mindset that this article suggests is the root of the problem.

        1. I wonder if they would be able to report anything had they not
          gone through ABA. My 17 year
          old was non-verbal through age 8,
          smeared feces until he was five, and eloped until 20 or so. ABA enabled him to attend to learning, and now he enjoys reading and baseball. However, he will never live independently, and ABA enabled him to learn basic life skills.

          I fond this article, comparing my son to a dog, to be offensive. Autistics who have turned their backs in lower functioning people with autism are a new form of ableists, looking to deny others of the therapies that give them hope for a fulfilling life.

          1. Hey…..can you actually tell me your kid is happy? I am autistic. Never had aba because it was undiagnosed, but my daughter is getting it right now. I can tell you this, she does have words but is still learning how to use them properly. She is going to an autism school, and quite frankly…..I am on the fence about ABA. My daughter shows me in a very non verbal way how she feels about ABA. I can tell you that she has gone down hill when it comes to them teaching her to sit still and all that so she can have what neurotypical s consider “attending skills”
            She is right now in that inbetween stage of what you call low functioning and high functioning. She is learning, but at what cost?
            My daughter does not need to communicate with me like everyone else does to tell me how she is feeling. She tells me with body language most of the time… Tell me…how can an autistic person read another persons body language if they never got ABA?
            ABA has helped her learn more words and to better communicate…but I don’t think it has helped her to better sit still and pay attention. I get daily reports from her teachers. When they have her doing attending behaviours…..she is at 50% most of the time these days because she does better learning while moving.

      2. Sarah,
        Cool story. So now, when that child is engaging in the communicative behavior of expressing that something is very wrong (e.g. self-loathing, pain, sensory overwhelm, etc…), it’s easier for her caregivers to ignore or put off addressing the actual REASON behind her behavior because it’s not as pressing of an issue when it’s only hurting the chewy. Sweet. I’m sure she appreciates it. Please give us some more examples of how you’ve taught your clients that the way they express their pain is wrong- and more important than the pain itself. If you want to share your actual strategies for behavior change, I’d love to hear about that too. I think it would be illuminating.

      3. To be very frank with you, the testimony of autistic people who have been subjected to it is far more credible. They would not want to share their pain if they hadn’t experienced it, but you clearly have a personal need to be absolved.

      4. Why is the child self-injuring in the first place? How about reducing the pressure, expectations, sensory overload etc. that is causing the behavior instead of just redirecting it to a chewy? Any treatment that is not created in COLLABORATION with the people it purports to serve is bad science. Any treatment that actually ignores and shuts down the input of the people it purports to serve is not science at all. Why don’t you show us which autistic people you’ve collaborated with? Whom have you interviewed? Show us that you listen and work together WITH us. Hmm? I think that’s the number 1 problem: you use the pronoun “they” when speaking of autistics, not “we.”

      5. Who defines “appropriate” here, I wonder. You? The parents? How much say does the child have in the goals of treatment and the techniques used?

      6. I would love to hear a point-by-point rebuttal so feel free. I took a lot of time writing that article, and the knowledge to write it came from seven years of post secondary education in psychology and animal health, and a decade of dog training. If you want to spend as much time countering each of my points, all of which I can back up with plenty of references, by all means I am happy to read it.

        1. Do not hold your breath. Curebies are not interested in proving themselves right, only in bullying us back into letting them word-rape and abuse us. At the risk of upsetting you, I would gladly train every doggi in the world to tear every curebie in the world to shreds. Because they make it abundantly clear that without such action, all they are going to do is pretend that qualified psychologists who happen to be autistic are automatically worthless because they are autistic.

          I have seen declarations of war that are more subtle than curebies about their intent to keep us in chains or dead.

      7. I learned about ABA, and I was an ABA specialist. I have a graduate degree in psychology. What I saw when I watched those videos and when I shadowed on the job was totally different from what the NTs with whom I worked saw. I didn’t know at the time I was autistic, but I knew I was more like the children with whom I worked than the other professionals. Shortest position I ever worked.

      8. I’m an autistic adult who works with autistic preschoolers, and am trained in ABA. I refuse to use those practices, as I can see quite clearly how much it distresses these children, and my morals prevent me outright from doing this. It’s wrong. If you are not autistic yourself, you really should listen to all these autistic people INFORMING you how damaging it is. If you cannot actually listen to the voices of autistic adults who do not need your ‘help’ to understand what they think or feel, and do not need your help to communicate, then you are clearly in the wrong job. If I was in your situation as a neurotypical person trying to help autistic people because I cared about their welfare, I WOULD BE LISTENING TO AUTISTIC PEOPLE. It took me all of about 2 weeks to realise that ABA was abusive, and I had to break my employer’s code of practice to refuse to comply with those methods. Please wake up.
        This is a person with more experience than you talking- I have been taught ABA methodology, have been expected to use it, have attempted to use it before I morally couldn’t bring myself to any more, and I actually AM autistic. But something tells me that you are so emotionally invested in this practice that you won’t possibly be able to change your stance on it. And the funny thing is, neurotypical people call autistic people rigid! Perhaps we should just take away your food and reward you with it when you see sense????

    2. I’m not defending ABA.
      I’m Autistic and I hate ABA and ABAers for their untrustworthy dishonesty and cynicism.
      The link I added was to an Anti ABA piece that provide various other links to ABA related discussions like PTSD links, why it is not like parenting or it isn’t because you seem to enjoy it that you really love it etc…

    3. Considering I read the document several times in the writing of the piece to double check my facts, I would appreciate it if the would do the same.

  4. “If you’ve ever heard of “clicker training”, you can thank Karen Pryor.” – Thanks to TAGteach for Autistics, right? Disgusting. Can’t believe how this article gets circulated and is mentioned as a stance against ABA at all.

    1. I took that sentence as applying to dog training only… NOT as recommended to be used on humans at all. She was merely using it to demonstrate “safe and humane” behaviors for DOGS…. and that dog trainers take the well-being of the dog into account, whereas ABA does not. The author is not recommending clicker training as an ABA tool. The author is “thanking” Karen Pryor for starting a training method that takes dogs’ well-being into account, and therefore superior to ABA, which does not take into account the well-being of living human beings.

    2. Hi, TAGteach was based off of clicker training, NOT the other way around. Clicker training revolutionalized dog training and it is thanks to Karen Pryor that dogs are no longer choked, pronged, and shocked into obedience. I consider that good. Sorry to hear that you disagree.

  5. Hi! Thanks for the article, it’s very interesting.
    I was just wondering, do you have links to the sources about the 97%?
    Thanks a lot.

  6. So let’s allow some children to head bang until it bleeds or causes a concussion, beat up their parents and siblings (SO many parents deal with this), sexually stimulate themselves in public (another common behavior), knock everything down in stores while screeching while we get to the root of their feelings? What an enlightening article.

    1. When someone suggests to not use ABA, they do not imply that no therapy should be used to replace it. There are other ways to deal with the problematic solutions you mentioned you know?

    2. Maybe they are just hoping that they can get the right person’s attention and alert them to the fact that you are a filthy child abuser?

    3. I agree this article is incredibly bizarre and I’m confused why the opinion of someone reading about it online can be considered an actual “source” what ABA therapy is and what it does for families. I completely understand and agree that I’m sure there have been several bad experiences out there and it’s very sad and unfortunate. But there are also several bad experiences with SLPs, OTs, PTs, educators etc. Several instances of educators abusing children and leaving them in the corner of the room by themselves because they don’t know what to do with them or think just because a person is nonverbal that they must be dumb, but yes let’s ignore those people. ABA people who care about the child and interact with them and play with them are the villains here (big eye roll).

      BCBAs actually do have a strong ethical code so to keep saying there isnt is bizarre. Also shock therapy is widely denounced by BCBAs and there is maybe 1 place that for some reason still uses it sadly in the U.S.

      The therapy actually should be very play based and following the motivation and interest of the individual, teaching them to advocate for themselves, teaching them how to communicate, helping them have access to peers to make friends, consuming food that is healthy for them, supporting them in not engaging in behaviors that are physically harmful to themselves and others and causing OTHERS to outcast them in schools and in the community. To even pretend that this isn’t true is cruel and irresponsible to parents and children that need actual help.

      One of the main components of ABA is that it is supposed to be meaningful to the individual and their family. Again, making up things like this article and many of the commenters is irresponsible and just literally making up things.

      Again I don’t doubt there are multiple people out there that have made mistakes or practiced the therapy in a wrong or irresponsible way, but to say that as a whole it’s “abusive” is so bizarre.

      Feel free to call me all the names you want or whatever you want to make up. There is a difference between actually having a discussion with those that need to be educated– such as those trying to stop children from stimming even on their free time– and just yelling made up things and name calling.

      1. BCBAs DO NOT have a strong ethical code. They make a point of defining “client” as “whomever behavior analysts provide services, whether an individual person (service recipient), a parent or guardian of a service recipient, an organizational representative, a
        public or private organization, a firm, or a corporation” (see: At no point within the document do they specify that the needs/best interests of the *service recipient* must be put first.

        The result? A parent, or even an insurance company, can have their needs/best interests put ahead of a child’s by the BCBA… and that would not be an ethical violation on the BCBA’s part. Would you consider a doctor that put your interests ahead of your child’s – when treating the child specifically – to be ethical? Sensible parents would not find this even remotely acceptable.

        As for the “shock therapy”: the Judge Rotenberg Center is still doing it. A UN Special Rapporteur on Torture specifically states that the use of GEDs (graduated electronic decelerators – a backpack-like device worn 24/7 that delivers a shock 10x stronger than a taser, used as an aversive) is, in fact, torture. NOT A SINGLE BCBA AT THAT FACILITY HAS HAD THEIR CREDENTIALS PULLED FOR PERFORMING LITERAL TORTURE. This can’t be pushed aside with the “it’s not *true* ABA” rhetoric either – just this year, ABAI (Association for Behaviour Analysis International) had the JRC as a speaker defending their use of what the UN calls torture (“The Right to Effective Treatment in the Crosshairs: Massachusetts Versus Judge Rotenberg Center”, among others). If it’s not “true ABA”, ABAI would not have invited them to speak. It doesn’t matter if only one facility you know of does this – if the profession as a whole refuses to denounce torture, it is complicit in it. If the professional association gives them a platform to speak of how torture is “effective treatment”, they invite it to continue. THIS IS UNETHICAL.

        While it is accurate to say BCBAs have *an* ethical code, calling it *strong* is a complete falsehood. You can’t even call their code adequate without lying. If BCBAs had an adequate ethical code (not even strong, just the bare minimum required to uphold human rights) , torture would be strongly condemned and the people performing it stripped of their credentials and blackballed from the profession. If they had an adequate ethical code, the prioritization of the *service recipent’s* needs/best interests over that of any other person/entity defined as “client” would be explicitly stated. Honestly, calling their ethics guidelines negligent would be far more accurate.

  7. Many spexisp education teachers are crying out for ABA in classroom. There’s a plethorabod articlar in which they state they’re tired of being beaten up and groped. Several teachers have filed lawsuits and pressed charges against students because this is the only protection they have. What is the alternative that can protect these teachers? Are daily restraints a viable alternative?

    1. Carol, it does not surprise me, at all, that you are a proponent of ABA. I hope that you are not in education. You’re the problem, Carol. And what is a plethorabod articlar?

  8. Your article is inaccurate regarding many facets of ABA. I felt compelled to write a response to hopefully clear some ABA misconceptions here.

    I’d encourage you to read what an actual behavior analyst has to say about your dog training / ABA comparison. Wishing you all the best!

      1. Did you read it at least? Because it’s pretty good, it’s reasonable and well argued.
        And no, i’m not a big fan of ABA.

        1. I read it. It’s ableist crap. To me the money line was:

          “We accept children for who they are, but what harm is there in teaching behaviors that will help a child in an often judgement and sometimes close-minded society?”

          So, in other words, the article linked (over and over and over) by Amanda Catherine admits the main point of Millman’s article, that the focus of ABA is on making autistic people act neurotypical to cater to an ableist society.

          Amanda further outright ADMITS that ABA does not focus on emotional well-being, meaning that things like meeting children’s basic needs is unimportant no matter how miserable these behavioral interventions may be making the clients (if we define the clients as autistic children/adults) and how little it might be doing to address the causes of socially unacceptable behavior. As long as the clients *act* right (i.e. neurotypically), the job is done as far as ABA is concerned.

          There’s also a fundamental disconnect in that Amanda works with adults while Carol Millman is addressing ABA for children, who have very different capacities and comfort levels in advocating for themselves than adults who voluntarily seek help in addressing a specific task like a job interview or a date.

          Amanda also engages in a neat bit of strawmanning in saying: “Millman essentially says we should accept children for all their tantrums, misbehavior, and physically aggressive behavior.” This is the false dichotomy that ABA proponents engage in all the time, that it’s either ABA or no therapy/intervention at all. What Millman actually said is that focusing exclusively on changing behavior can come at the expense of well-being of the autistic person and that it’s best to try other approaches first such as meeting fundamental needs.

          Also speaking of behavior, Amanda, do you think it’s socially acceptable behavior to spam a comment section over and over with the same link? Do you think it’s acceptable to lie about the position held by someone you disagree with? What kind of modification does ABA propose for this kind of rude, annoying, and intellectually dishonest behavior?

          1. No lies here, you can attack with ad hominem fallacies all you want. I’m merely trying to clear up some misunderstandings and present an alternative view of ABA and how it can help others. If you took time to read my article you would realize that the purpose of ABA is NOT to change an individual. The purpose of ABA is to teach socially significant behaviors to potentially improve the quality of someone’s life. Also, I did mention the four functions of behavior, which directly relate to a child’s basic needs. I agree that meeting a child’s fundamental needs is important. As far as dealing with spam, a behaviorist would recommend ignoring the extinction bursts, which is what I plan to do now that an alternative perspective is out there. So feel free to do the same to me, thanks.

          2. What is “socially significant,” Amanda? That we be able to gaze into NT eyes of our creepy peers and smile through the distress it causes? That we be regimented to go against the neurology of our brains and downplay the self-regulatory mechanisms that keep us in our best state? That we “play” like a neurotypical so people accept us, but we don’t accept ourselves? That we learn to tolerate distress with a smile? That we learn to need rewards from another person every behavior, even though the root of “autism” is “auto,” meaning “self” because we are self-motivated?

          3. Which therapy other than mental health therapyfocuses on emotional wellbeing? Occupational and physical therapy can be hell for example but in thelong run it pays off. Many people are in pain and emotional turmoil having to stretch limbs after surgery etc.

          4. Right… but in this case we’re talking about autism therapy. If autism therapy doesn’t help the autistic person, then how is it good therapy? Autistic people want to be comfortable and happy. ABA therapy is associated with high rates of PTSD and suicide.

          5. I also said that ABA does not aim to ensure the well being of the child and she somehow countered with the argument that the child’s feelings are outside the realm of ABA.

            I do not feel disproven.

        2. If I’d read it, I’d only be encouraging her maladaptive behavior. When she starts communicating like a person instead of a spambot, I’ll take her seriously.

    1. I have read both articles thoroughly as well as every comment, and I fail to see how your article conflicts with this one. Your article lists methods that have been effective in teaching positive behaviors. Millman also states that ABA is effective in her first few paragraphs. The question that Millman addresses is whether the methods used are ethical.

      It would seem that you are defending your methods and use of ABA. Reading your article, it would seem that what you do is ethical, effective, helpful, and consented to by able adults that are seeking skills they need in the real world. However, your work is not a comprehensive representation of all ABA therapy. What Millman is arguing is that the overall definition, direction, and implementation of ABA is not defined well enough to prevent the abusive use of its therapies. I don’t believe she is saying that all ABA needs to be stopped, but rather that it needs to be considered as a whole to identify the proper use of it.

      I’m not sure I ever went through ABA therapy because it was always just called therapy, but I can attest to the fact that normalized behavior does not necessarily equate to a well-adjusted individual. By all accounts, I have been the epitome of what a cure for autism would look like. I have excelled in all of my classes through graduating college. Since third grade, I have never done any of the problem behaviors you refer to in your article as examples of when ABA would be used. I have interviewed and received jobs without issues. I have supervised and trained others in management roles. I have excelled in careers. I own a house. I have done everything that would be expected of a typical person my age and more.

      However, I always felt flawed, unwanted, and scared to show anything but perfection to those around me. I never showed my autistic side to friends or family. At 24 years old, I finally met someone I could feel safe with. She became my best friend and for the first time in my life, I did something autistic in front of someone. And because I finally felt safe, I was able to do things I had never been able to do before. I was able to say hello to people I recognized without feeling scared. For years, I was forced to do things that terrified me. I was not given skills, I was given tasks that had to be accomplished. But when the underlying fears (the emotions that you state are unidentifiable) were finally resolved, progress came easily. It was easy to do the desired behaviors because I had nothing holding me back from them. Maybe you can’t address what you are not qualified or trained to address, but this article is saying that you should at least try. If someone had tried with me, maybe I would have felt safer earlier. Maybe I would have made progress quicker if someone had tried to understand rather than just tried to get me to do “what I needed to learn to do.”

      This article is not saying that ABA is ineffective or needs to be abandoned altogether. It is simply saying that maybe there is a better way. Maybe there are other things you can try as well. Maybe you are not getting the whole picture. Rather than viewing this as an attack, try looking at it as a suggestion of how to improve what you are already doing. ABA can be effective and beneficial, but that does not mean that there are no flaws with it or with how certain people practice it.

      1. If I could have one wish for autistic people I would wish non-autistic people could understand how much effort it takes for us to act like them, and how damaging it is to our emotional health in the long term.

        1. We do understand that it takes a lot of effort to “mask autism” and honestly I can write that a lot of us in the field are trying to change societal perceptions. The work that I do focuses on training employers to learn more about what environmental changes and universal design can help individuals with autism feel more comfortable. I’ve also consulted with teachers, behavioral specialist consultants, parents to try to help them understand how to provide better environments for individuals with autism, but many time environmental improvements simply benefit everyone. I’ve said multiple times, ABA therapists focus on changing the environment not the individual with autism. I’ve written a different article I’m sharing below, once, if anyone would like to explore different perspectives.

          1. Can you provide ANY sources to back up your claim that ABA focuses on changing the environment not the person? Because every ABA site disagrees with you.

        2. whether i’m autistic is up for grabs (40+ and a hyperverbal white girl so nobody tested me as a kid, and the bipolar II/TBI/”yeah lithium/gabapentin/seroquel/20+ years of tremors” combo adds up to “maybe, but it’d be really hard to separate out” as an adult).

          i am neurodivergent enough that i’m never passing for NT and it’s less tiring socializing now that I’m pretty much at “no, I’m not wasting my limited spoon count on trying to ‘fake normal’ because for me this is normal”.

      2. Hi! I think this is a great response and I’m a believer in ABA. It is super important to always evolve and consider opinions and a discussion. I think too thinking about some of the adults that may have experienced it when they were younger is that ABA has changed A LOT over the years. A lot of that old school ABA is not the norm any more and what I think most of the people here have a problem with. There is TONS of discussion going on in the ABA world about not forcing kids to look people in the eye, not stopping children from stimming, etc. Many times people that work in ABA are trying to educate others, including the parents of the children, that its ok for their child to stim or rock forward and backwards. People stand there and sway side to side all of the time, so why is it an issue to sway backwards and forward instead? Are there still people that make these mistakes? Absolutely. Unfortunately in all professions that serve children there are going to be people that don’t do things correctly.

    2. Amanda, there’s something really big that you’re missing in all of this, which is (among other things), that the goals of ABA, and the goals of Autistics, are not the same. In fact they sit in opposition to one another.

      I’ll see if I can illustrate it a little below:

      1. You said, “ABA methods are used in various ways to increase or decrease the likelihood certain behaviors occur in various education, social, and vocational settings.”
      – Autistic people want you to consider the idea that this isn’t necessary.
      – Autistic people want you to consider the idea that this is ableist.
      – Autistic people want you to consider the idea that this can be harmful to autistic people.
      – Autistic people want you to consider the idea that the ABA therapist’s goals, or those of NT parents, might sit in direct contradiction to the goals of the autistic individual.

      2. You’ve made it clear that you are working solely with adults. This is totally different to working with children. Adults can give consent. They get to set their own goals or agree to yours. They get to communicate when things aren’t okay for them in the therapeutic process. While your work with them might be ethical and caring, if you can imagine what that would look like if it were forced on your clients, the goals were determined without their input, and they were silenced or ignored if they protested. The latter is what children and young people experience under ABA.

      3. You say “ABA does not employ interventions based on any person’s perceived emotions.”
      – Why not?
      – You seem to be expressing that you see emotions/feelings as behaviours. This outdated view is straight out of the radical behaviourist handbook.
      – The omission of consideration for a person’s emotions leaves the therapy open to unethical practices, with complete disregard for the emotions of the participant, by your description, being totally permissible.
      – ABA, within its model of discreet trials and “empirically based behavioral observations”, has room to account for the emotional impacts of the therapy.
      – It is reasonable to expect that a therapist would take into account the emotional state of an individual when assessing responses to any therapy.
      – Nobody is saying you have to study, work on or fix the emotions of your client, only that basic human empathy should be an essential element to your therapy. That is, if your therapy upsets the client, then the therapy needs to be dropped or modified.

      4. The ethical expectations as outlined in the ABA code of ethics does not insist upon having empathy for clients. The code of ethics for dog trainers does require trainers to be empathetic towards their animals. This is the core message of the original article. You seem to have missed it altogether.

      5. “So what dictates whether a behavior is socially significant or not?” “Socially significant behaviors improve the life experiences of an individual.”
      – Autistics want you to understand that they don’t usually get to decide what are socially significant behaviours in their lives. Instead, therapists and well meaning family members usually paternalistically tell them what needs to be worked on. Often this is done at the expense of everything else in the individual’s life, including education and wellbeing, all to meet someone else’s behavioural requirement
      – For autistics, this is a dehumanising and disempowering experience, often leading to learned helplessness and PTSD.
      – Autistics also don’t generally get to have any influence over their environments. There is very little, if any, give and take. Autistics are usually required to modify themselves to fit in, instead of having their needs met.
      – Autistics want you to understand that often, what you might class as socially significant behaviours, are necessary for the autistic individual to moderate their own nervous system, anxieties or sensory problems. Being forced to suppress those behaviours can cause a great deal of internal distress, resulting in such long term problems such as cortisol dysregulation, chronic fatigue, heightened anxiety and much more.
      – All of the above is ultimately expected in order to make NTs feel more at ease around autistics. Autistics want you to understand that this is not reasonable or equitable.

      I was going to say more about the language in your article, and how you inevitably dehumanise the autistic individual as someone whose feelings you don’t have to worry about in your therapeutic model, but hopefully the above says enough about that.

      Please have this as your takeaway message – ABA, by definition, lacks empathy. Your article lacks empathy. Your responses lack empathy. Autistics deserve better, and they are asking you to do better. Their opinions about their experiences matter more than your opinions about their experiences. I hope one day you understand all of this.

        1. Amanda, in all of the times that I have enacted violence throughout literally my entire life, it has been after someone (not necessarily the person I am violent to) has enacted behaviour to me that is not only ABA-like, but for all intents and purposes might as well be ABA.

          I do not give two shits about your articles. I am autistic, and the times when I have been subjected to things that would be called ABA today…

          Let us just say there is a reason why I frequently wish I could go back in time and fatally injure some people who abused me during my childhood. Teachers. My own parental units. Just to name a few.

          I have a vision of an Autism Civil Rights Act. It is based on what it would take for me to feel safe in my own home, nay, in my own SKIN, around people like you. A world where people like you can be thrown in prison for even saying the word “autism”, and not get out until you convince a panel of autistic people including ones in a similar situation to me that we are safe around you, is just for starters. In a world where I feel as safe as you apparently take for granted, the staff of the Judge Rottenberg Centre would be dead, and I would have carte blanche to shoot people like you in the head without so much as a “please explain” from the authorities.

          That is how far people like you have been allowed to push the autistic.

          Autistic people either violently oppose ABA, or they are the autistic equivalent of something black people call by a derision that rhymes with the phrase “mouse riggers”. That is literally all there is to it. A world where the autistic no longer have to wake up screaming “help, help, Hillary Clinton is coming to get me” is one where people like you are segregated and contained away from people like me. Or what you might call “worse”.

          1. Please get some kind of help. While your anger is valid, the way you seem to desire handling it is disgusting and makes you sound deeply disturbed.

            Good God, man…I’d never let my kids near you.
            Your autism is not the problem, your sadism is.

  9. What is missing from your article is your definition, or plural definitions, of ABA and its application in the field of autism. Applied Behavioral Analysis is a field SCIENCE. It is not a specific methodology. I don’t understand how you have a degree in psychology that didn’t encompass BF Skinner and the science of Applied Behavior Analysis.

    There are both good and bad applications ABA cloaked under the umbrella of the scientific field. Some of the most horrific abuses of people with autism and their families came from the field of psychology under the guise of therapies. In some cases, abusive “therapies” used the term ABA to lend legitimacy to the therapy.

    Because I had learned to train dogs using ONLY positive reinforcement methods years my daughter was born, I was well equipped to teach her with positive methodologies from legitimate ABA science. The key to sound ABA teaching methodologies is to give positive reinforcement for offered behaviors. It must be fun, or the student won’t participate. This puts an added burden on the teacher to engage the student. I have used singing and musical instruments to engage students with autism who like music. It’s easily recognized as ABA methodology where the musical response is a natural positive reinforcement.

    So, when you and some other parents who have a negative reaction to ABA, are you talking about the entire field of the science of ABA or specific methodologies? If you refer to specific methodologies, are any of those practices that involve exclusive use of positive reinforcement?

    1. Hi, a few things: Even through grad school in psychology, Skinner is a punctuation mark in a single chapter in a single course. He doesn’t fit in the APA Ethics Code except for some trauma therapies with ADULTS if they consent.

      If you’re in marketing, however, you can get lots of Skinner. His techniques are good to get people to engage in behaviors whether or not they’re good for the person.

      In fact, the entire gambling industry is based on Skinner’s methods. You can get impressionable people to do a lot of things!

      Using mixed methods teaching is not ABA. Using music because a kid likes music to educate is not the same thing. Did you read the damn article? Is it not abundantly apparent that the author has done her research?

    2. Where to start. How about with the name?

      Applied. The name of the thing itself contradicts your premise – ABA is very much about specific methods (side note: methodology is the study of methods, not an academic-sounding word that literally means “method;” whether someone gets this right is a good clue indicating whether that person has ever taken the research methods course required for all undergraduate degrees at accredited institutions – or whether that person was paying enough attention in class to take any of the opinions proffered seriously – because whether one’s research methods are valid per a scientific methodology is an important tool for differentiating science from bullshit). The implied scientific field of study would be behavior analysis, which is a real contemporary field within psychology based on Behaviorism. Like most psychology outside of neuropsychology, it’s a somewhat dubious field, as it relies on hypothetical models of cognition that cannot be directly measured in any way for its models, though the applied/clinical side can use clinical outcomes as a metric of applied methods. The research branch is called experimental analysis of behavior, not applied behavior analysis; the latter is the application of principles of behavior analysis to modify behavior.

      As Terra notes, various insights, including some of Skinner’s, have indeed been applied successfully – but rarely ethically; as Terra alludes, slot machines operate on the basis of operant conditioning employing intermittent reinforcement, a necessary insight to keep people hooked, as continuous reinforcement wouldn’t really work well.

      If you have studied Skinner in the context of a legitimate psych program (which, as noted above, I somewhat doubt), you should also be aware that “positive reinforcement” has a specific, narrow meaning in the context of operant conditioning, a meaning most laypeople also get wrong, much like confusing methodology and method. “Positive” means adding something, and “reinforcement” means the stimulus makes the behavior more likely, but neither – nor both together – implies that the conditioning method is actually good or pleasant for the subject. For example, if I starve a dog all day, then condition a desired behavior by rewarding that behavior with food, I’m using positive reinforcement, but I’m doing so in an unacceptable, abusive manner. One of the arguments put forward here is that even when the specific stimulus isn’t harmful or noxious, the overall context – and perhaps the conditioning model itself – is frequently abusive.

      More generally, a lot of us object to operant conditioning categorically, because it is literally a systematized method of coercion. It’s a method of extrinsic MOTIVATION, not of teaching/learning (a subject may learn an association used to condition a behavior – this food pedal is electrified, that one isn’t – but the conditioning method itself is a way to motivate behavior, not teach skills). That we don’t think most of the behaviors its practitioners are attempting to condition need to be modified in the first place is just an extra bit of awful; again, based on its own reasoning, what ABA is doing is coercing specific behavioral changes in autistic children because someone else wants them to change their behavior. So, really, I’m struggling to find even a single claim you make that’s credible on its face (except that I fully believe you inflict ABA on children).

  10. AhJohn here (u.k.) 72-diagnosed Asp at 68. In order to ‘conform’ (ages 0- 13 in particular) I wonder if (from 1947-1961 if I was subjected to an ‘ABA’ mild type of conditioning :- a Norland Nanny-strict feeding/sleeping routines= a ‘playpen-treated like a dog?!-well not quite,+ later 3 AuPair ‘girls’, and limited contact with Mother. Later still it was strict boarding school-low marks in all subjects except Music (I’m a music savant)-with small classes=intense teaching, and a very strict musical training (resulting in efficiency but limited expression-however I am over? empathic strangely). Be really glad if anyone can respond /comment. Thanks Ahjohn.

    1. AhJohn, I think any kind of strict “training” that focuses on changing the core of someone could be considered like ABA. And yes, most of us are overly empathic. Do you think that this kind of environment stifled your creativity and damaged your potential?

      And, do you compose?

      1. I used to have whole symphonies buzzing round in my head -but too fast to write down-all dried up now. I think they came at ‘dream speed’! Ac tually I got into the profession as a bit of a fluke as the training was rather mechanical. Thanks for your interest Terra.

  11. Ok. there is something here I don’t think anyone has pointed out. This article seems to make the assumption that the TRAINER is the one in charge. They’re not, the parent / owner is. It’s true, almost everyone that goes into animal training or clinical psychology do it with a deep love for the subjects the work with. The same can’t be said of all parents / owners and they are the ones in position of ultimate control.

    Parent / owner comes in. They want the subject modified to please them. Trainer refuses based on ethical reasons. What do you think is going to happen? Well the person will likely leave in a huff, leave a nasty negative review that’ll hurt the influx of current clients, and run off and find someone with less scruples OR they will just LEARN TO DO IT THEMSELVES. Too many hits like this and while the trainers might still be ethical they’ll definitely lose some of their livelihood. So who has the power here? The trainer or those that modify the trainers’ behavior with the incentive of $$$$$?

    People modify animals GENETICALLY to suit their needs without any concern for what it does to their mentality, “purse dogs” comes to my mind, next are certain “therapy dogs” who sole purpose is to exist as security blankets or anxiety sponges for their owner. Some children are born with even LESS respect than an animal gets, yet the people who have genetic ties with it are typically the ones that start out with the most controlling interest no matter how uncaring they are.

    (could rant for another 2 pages but I’ll stop here)

  12. Unfamiliar with this subject but a very interesting read. So, definitions need to be changed and there definitely needs to be regulations put in place for the things mentioned above. If the regulations fit to comply with more ethical standards, would ABA be a suitable therapy for people with a diagnosis? Also, I’m curious how ABA differs from public school where kids are forced to sit still and work (referencing their “needs” as mentioned above). There are set schedules of when they can learn and when they can play but each kid should be individually tailored to their own needs. If not, is this unethical to the standards of the article above? Great work btw. I can’t even grasp how much work was put into this 👍🏻

    1. Re: public school, I’ve seen several teachers talk about managing autistic kids in class. Autistic kids, and any kids with special needs, will have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that is specifically designed to address things like this. For instance, one autistic person has described how their teacher, when noticing they were on the edge of a meltdown, sent them out to run around the playground/gym. Some teachers/schools designate a quiet space/room where an autistic kid who is dealing with sensory overload can get up and go to when they need quiet for a while.

      So the short version is: ABA differs from (good) public schools because (good) public schools do take into account the needs of the kid and create and individual plan for helping the kid get what they need while continuing their education.

      This system doesn’t always work. Some parents abuse the IEP system on behalf of their kids, and some schools don’t have the resources to give kids what they need, and some teachers don’t want to work with kids who have special needs. But it works a good part of the time and there are alternatives in place (like schools specifically for special needs kids) if it doesn’t.

      My kid is autistic and has an IEP. Every year I, his main teacher, his special needs teacher, and his advisor all sit down and review it, with a focus on what is the best way to address *his needs*. Yes, he needs ot keep up with school work, but (for instance) when I went to the teacher earlier this year about a specific problem he is having with writing assignments, she said that since he is doing well on writing assignments (mostly 100%s) but since they are such a struggle for him, she’s excusing him from a bunch of assignments so we can spend more time on each assignment. This way he isn’t as stressed out and rushed. That is a change specifically addressing his emotional needs, he clearly doesn’t need it to meet the classroom goal — he was already meeting it.

      So yes, the public school system has a set up designed to help autistic and special needs kids in a way that is ethical by the standards of this article. Not every school or teacher is able or willing to abide by that set up, but it exists and when the standards aren’t met, there are ways to address the issue, either by going to higher authority to force the standards to be met or by moving the kid to another environment.

      ABA proponents insist that there *is* no other option, that nothing else has been proven effective, and it’s ABA or nothing.

      Re: changing ABA… I have a very knee jerk reaction against ABA at this point. But I think that is ABA shifts in the ways outlined in this article and begins incorporating other cognitive behavioural approaches when appropriate, that I would be willing to re-evaluate my opinion.

  13. Interesting article and perspective. Thank you for sharing! As someone who’s been heavily involved in both the veterinary field as well as working with children on the spectrum, I always find it valuable to take in perspectives from those who have different experiences, especially regarding ABA and behavioral modification. I think one thing everyone can agree on (hopefully) is that we all share a common compassion for improving the lives of people, their pets, and families. Keep up the great work!

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