What is ABA?

ABA stands for Applied Behavioral Analysis. Behavior analysis is a science that seeks to understand, predict, and change behavior. Most professionals who work in the field of behavior analysis work in behavior intervention for autistic children, an approach used to shape the behavior of autistic children. We will only be addressing ABA as an intervention therapy for autistic children.

ABA uses operant conditioning and positive reinforcement (praise and rewards) to “program” desired behaviors. While positive reinforcement may seem harmless, autistic advocates and allies contend that rewarding children for behaving in a way that is unnatural to them is a grooming technique that will result in internalized shame and trauma later in life.

ABA is often criticized because the goal behaviors it teaches are selected without consideration of autistic needs, such as sensory sensitivity or overwhelm. Autistic children are taught to perform behaviors regardless of whether those behaviors cause them pain. ABA practitioners are not trained or equipped to understand autistic sensory, social, and emotional needs and work to change those behaviors instead of reducing the stress and demand on autistic children.

ABA is not your only option

Autistic children do not need therapy simply because they are autistic. Instead of asking, “What should I do instead of ABA,” ask yourself, “What specific needs does my child have?”

Alternatives to ABA include:

  1. Does your child have no reliable way to communicate? Try a speech and language pathologist specialized in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).
  2. Is your child experiencing distress and meltdowns due to sensory sensitivities? Try an occupational therapist specialized in sensory regulation.
  3. Does your child need help regulating emotions or understanding interpersonal boundaries? Try counseling with a pediatric mental health therapist trained to support children in those areas.
  4. Is your child struggling with motor (movement) coordination? Try working with a physical or occupational therapist.

Choosing a Therapy

Are you wondering what therapy, if any, your child needs after being diagnosed with autism?

This article is written to help you explore and process all the new– and sometimes aggressive– therapy recommendations doctors often push following an autism diagnosis. Keeping your focus on getting to deeply know and understand your child is a winning strategy.

Choosing a Therapist

No matter what type of therapy you choose for your child, there is a risk of harm and unintentional abuse– like causing children to settle into learned helplessness because they have no way to meet their needs.

This article has videos and a printable checklist to help you identify if a therapist is using abusive or harmful techniques.

Good Introductory Articles

I Was Part of the “Good ABA”

Louis Stay wanted help autistic children when he took a job as an RBT. The clinic was advertised as the modern “good ABA” that avoided the harmful practices associated with ABA’s history.

White girl in school, sitting across from a white woman teacher. The teacher clasps her hands and the girl is copying that with her own hands, looking at them. There are paintings on the wall and the desk is white.

ABA Rhetoric, Difficult Choices for Parents

Parents are often pushed into ABA therapy for their child after an autism diagnosis. This article shows how parents can make informed decisions about supporting their child without giving into the common rhetoric that ABA therapists push onto parents.

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