ABA, Autism, and Mental Health

”Many autistic people speak up against ABA but our smaller numbers and pathologized identities mean our voices often go unheard or ignored”
Shona Davison


ABA or Applied Behavioral Analysis uses principles of learning behavior to teach one skills of social significance. It is the most recommended ‘treatment’ for autism. It is based of Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning and the behaviorism movement. ABA specifically is fathered by Lovas who also founded gay conversion therapy. One is covered by many insurance companies while the other is being banned in some states.

Other therapies like play or social therapy are often labeled ABA for insurance purposes. I even have mixed feelings about these.

The problem with behaviorism is that it ignores the why of behavior. Even though BCBAs chart a lot of data and feel out what happened before the behavior. Behaviorism ignores complex or cognitive psychology. Things ignored included previous trauma, coexisting mental illness, and physical pain. With autistic children, it treats their neurology like the neurology of an allistic child.

ABA isn’t well studied, especially on the psychological impacts of ABA on Autistic people. The one study I know of shows ABA can lead to complex PTSD. ABA is excellent at modifying behavior but not helping autistic people with their struggles.

Because of personal experiences, ABA history, current practices, and this study; many autistics say ABA is abuse. I agree. I don’t think parents who use ABA or people who get jobs in the industry set out to abuse children. Listening to a diverse array of autistic people, especially those who have experienced ABA is the best way to learn.

ABA advocates will say it’s great for self-harm reduction, increased social skills, life skills, etc. But all ABA does is modifying the behavior. It ignores internal experiences, rushes natural development, and focuses on pain suppression rather than pain relief.

ABA vs Development

  • Autism is considered a developmental disability. This means that we have delayed or different development markers than the average child.
  • Averages are based on the most common numbers found in a sample. Basing everything on averages harms outliers.
  • There is nothing wrong with a delayed or different development. Developmental differences occur throughout other species.
  • Rushing development puts stress on a child and can further harm their self-esteem.
  • It is important to be patient with children who are gaining toileting skills, and other skills.

Mental Illness

    In kids who have coexisting mental illnesses, Behavorism teaches emotional masking not regulation.
    CBT and DBT focus l on accepting experiencing difficult emotions, emotional regulation, emotional validation, cognitive empathy, and recognizing irrational thought processes.
    Self-harm is usually communication of mental or physical stress.
    Suicide is a leading cause of death amongst autistic people.
    An autistic person shouldn’t have to fix harmless behavior to avoid bullying. It is the bully’s responsibility to fix their behavior.
  • Sensory Overload
    • Pain caused by hyper senses is still pain.
      Suppressing and enduring pain will cause burnout either internally or externally. Animals trained to suppress their pain for the sake of a job or entertainment eventually become aggressive or depressive. Tyke the elephant and Tilikum are examples of what happens when forced to live in sensory painful environments.
      For years I didn’t know how to adapt to my environment. In order to stop losing my temper with my siblings, go to school, work, etc I suppressed a lot of pain. I think this on top of my mental illnesses were catalysts in my nervous system freaking out in the form of fibromyalgia. When I got fibromyalgia, my ability to cope with sensory pain disappeared.
      Allowing stimming, clothing choice, sunglasses, hats, hoodies, and headphones will help with sensory adaptation.
      Rewarding one set of behaviors will add to further stress on the nervous system.

    Risk of Sexual Predation

      Rewarding children for doing things that scare them, or involves uncomfortable bodily contact like eye contact, handshakes, or hugs leaves them vulnerable to grooming behaviors by sexual predators.
      Kids will do things when they feel ready and have the confidence to do so.
      When I was tall enough to ride an amusement park ride, I was still too scared to. I was promised a hamburger if went on the ride. I did so.
      For a while I was scared of jumping off the diving board, but when I was 12 I finally jumped off without any need for rewards.
      In a general parenting article, it highlighted how to say bribing a girl with a hamburger to ride a rollercoaster can lead to say promising her a puppy for a kiss on the mouth, or to be touched inappropriately.
      Using ABA or operant conditioning to get kids to accept unwanted touch teaches them that their bodies are not their own. Even using rewards teaches kids to ignore pain or discomfort to achieve a materialistic goal for the sake of the person gifting them.
      Candy and toys as kids are equal to shelter, money, and drugs as teens or adults.

    Ignoring physical health causes mental health problems. Ignoring pain causes mental health problems.

    Operant conditioning is a good tool. But it is not an effective therapy in and of itself. Time and money would be better spent on if necessary Occupational, Physical, or Speech Therapies. Also mental healthcare. Autistic kids need to be allowed to be themselves.

    If you are working as a behavior tech, listen to autistics and adjust. ABA is not the best method for autistic people. Ideally, go into another field that helps autistics.

    This is only the tip of the iceberg on why ABA harms. All behavior is communication.

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