So, what actually is this ABA anyway?
It stands for Applied Behaviour Analysis. The application of techniques for the analysis of behaviour. Analysing behaviour, drawing conclusions about cause and effect, about motives. Applying techniques to change that behaviour based on the conclusions generated by the analysis.
That sounds like trained specialist scientists carefully analysing cause and effect chains in human behaviour, tracing back to root causes using the most up to date techniques, taking account of a web of interacting factors, checking in with the subject at each stage, carrying out multiple observations across a variety of settings and an extended period of time, cross-checking those observations with independent, reliable sources, agreeing that one or more carefully isolated behaviours are clearly disordered, incomplete, damaging or offensive based on the latest research and equally agreeing on the underlying causes, designing tailored, personalised interventions to address the causes and thus free the person from any obstacles or impediments that have been hindering their progress and development as a full human. It sounds like all this is backed up with extensive research and solid, independently assessed and confirmed results. It sounds wonderful.
But ABA is none of these things. It should be. It claims to be. It bases its self-promotion on these very points. But they are falsehoods. Deceptions. Worse, those who do the research, carry out studies, publish the books, lecture in college… they know it is falsehood. But they continue anyway. The only possible reasons are that their careers and therefore egos and income rely on ABA continuing to have credibility. Either that, or they are all staggeringly inept and unable to follow basic reasoning and actually believe their own nonsense.
So, what actually is ABA, then?
Simply put, it is rote learning extended to an extreme form, focused not on learning spellings or time tables or poems but on performing tedious, meaningless tasks, enforced through coercion and bribery. It is generally based on brief, single observations, the up-front assumption that the subject is defective, and the prescription of often arbitrarily selected solutions, applied through relentless, repetitive, distressing sessions, over and over. It is overtly designed to break the subject’s will, to crush their independence, their belief that they can resist. It uses punishment, threats, mechanistic techniques. It seeks only to coerce the subject into performing an imitation of what is declared to be normal. It does not offer therapy, remedy, understanding, growth,
independence or autonomy. It teaches that these will never be available, it teaches the subject that resistance is futile, that it is best to just give up, that they cannot win. It teaches despair and turns humans into traumatised robots. It is everything other than what it claims to be.
But how is this allowed? How is this possible, today, in the third decade of the 21st century? This sounds like something from a hundred or two hundred years ago. Surely it is in breach of basic human rights? Some of it sounds like it would be in breach of animal welfare rights, never mind human rights.
ABA is the product of the 20th century, combining faith in the ability of science to solve any problem, a partial and simplistic understanding of how humans work, poor ethical oversight of experimentation on humans, cultural pressures towards performance measurement and conformance to standardised goals, the commodification of, well, everything. And above all the rise of marketing in all forms, from the use of fashion to sell yourself as cool, to advertising and promotions to sell products as desirable, right through to propaganda to sell ideologies that reshape the very fabric of society.
Only in that environment would ABA have been possible, and it combines elements of all of these to define its purpose and goals, to claim credibility as a method, to define the measure of its success, and above all to sell itself.
I say ABA does this, not ABA practitioners, not ‘the ABA industry’ or people or ‘they’, because everyone involved in ABA acts like they are members of a single cultish organisation, driven by a single ideology that cannot be questioned, that can dismiss any evidence against ABA as unscientific or flawed or due to ignorance or lack of understanding.
So how does ABA operate? What are the theories behind it, and what methods does it employ?
At the heart of ABA is one idea, that you can manipulate a cause and thereby manipulate an effect. Knock over the first domino and it will knock over the second. Pour water on a fire and the house will not burn down. Give a plant better light and soil and it will grow better. Simple.
Behaviourism took this idea and tried it out on animals, showing that you can teach an animal to respond to signals that a certain thing will happen even if that thing does not always happen. However even on this relatively simple level, the effect requires that the
probability remain that the thing will, in fact, happen or that its effect will be so significant that even a small chance warrants a response. Getting an animal to salivate in response to a signal that food is coming wears off if the signal no longer is followed by food. The sound of a snake hiss may cause animals to scatter and hide, but if no snake ever appears, the animals learn to not scatter and hide.
This requires reinforcement. The signal has to retain meaning enough times to warrant the response. If it does not, the animal will learn to ignore it. It will adapt to circumstances. Animals do this because each response costs time and energy and can involve stress with a whole cascade of knock-on effects such as slowed digestion, lost appetite, cessation of fertility, shortened lifespan.
Only machines continue to operate mindlessly.
This raises the next key element of behavioural theory and thus of ABA, that everything in between initial cause and final effect is a ‘black box’ and we cannot know nor should we waste time seeking the processes that occur within. It is deemed unknowable and irrelevant. If a cause can induce an effect, how that might happen is irrelevant.
When that mechanistic model is applied to humans it immediately presents very obvious problems. We have emotions and thoughts, and those emotions and thoughts are complex, personal, and based on past experience, personality, goals and aspirations, expectations and a sense of dignity, fears and beliefs.
If we treat a person’s lived experience, their relationships and education, their memories, their interests, their imagination, their loves and dislikes, their attachments and desires, their ability to reason and plan, their aspirations and hopes as just some irrelevant black box, we not only will fail to produce the same result with a given input, we will be denying everything that makes a human human.
Doing this is the most unethical thing possible. It is irredeemably unethical. Denying the humanity of any person is not acceptable. Yet, this is central to every aspect of how ABA is said to work. It relies on denying the subject’s humanity.
Humanity comes with rights, of course, and by denying humanity to its subjects, ABA is free to deny human right also. And it does. Freedom of movement, freedom of security, freedom of learning, freedom of childhood, freedom of communication, freedom of association. Most importantly, ABA denies a person freedom of affection and choice and even existence.
It requires that the subject gain acknowledgement of their existence only through compliance with some often arbitrary demand. This is called planned ignoring, and it extends to encompass affection and choice. Protests, efforts to escape, expressions of anger or frustration or despair even are ignored. The object is to destroy any sense of self, of humanity, to turn the subject into a machine that can be programmed and shaped, and set in motion to perform simple tasks. A machine that will respond as required to punishment or reward. That will be quiet and passive until given instructions or issued a signal. That will always respond as programmed.
It – for the person has no human existence now – has no need for the contents of its ‘black box’ because cause will result in effect. It will display signs of interest in response to designated objects of interest. It will position itself in a given setting in accordance with programming. It will make voice sounds as taught in response to humans.
This destruction of the will, annihilation of the self, obliteration of human thought and emotion is achieved only through extreme, intensive techniques. The human spirit is not easily broken. This is applied intensive intervention, often delivered in a form called EIBI – early intensive behavioural intervention, which is used to target children at a young age before their sense of self is properly formed.
The older a person is, the more capable they are of resisting, the more aware they are of their self, their rights, and more conscious of when others are being offensive, coercive or threatening. The older they are, the more capable they are also of deceit, and thus more likely to fake compliance to minimise the hurt and engineer their escape.
The method of choice for training subjects to perform as desired is DTT, or discrete trial training. This involves fragmenting a task into discrete steps, and training the subject to perform each step to perfection, before combining them into progressively larger groups.
By its nature, this removes any meaning from each step. The subject is not assumed to have or require comprehension, only the ability to recognise a signal and to perform a learned response. This might involve breaking down dressing yourself into really basic steps, but far more often it is used to work on simpler, arbitrary tasks like matching shapes or colours.
The instruction is given, the action performed, typically hand-over-hand to guide the action, over and over until the subject is felt to be compliant. They are then instructed to perform the same task over and over until they perform it exactly as desired multiple
times. Compliance can be rewarded, non-compliance or poor execution punished, and efforts to not take part are responded to with physical coercion and planned ignoring.
The subject will perform its designated task as many times as instructed, do so without signs of distress, and complete the task correctly each time for a designated number of times. This is deemed success, that success is deemed a step in progress, and that progress is recorded as evidence that ABA works, and published in journals and books.
This is the evidence base to which all ABA practitioners turn as their first response to any and all criticism. You will hear and read the phrase ‘evidence based’ time and again from ABA practitioners, read it on websites and in books. This is the magic spell that makes ABA immune from criticism, even from other behaviourists, even from those subjected to ABA for years, even from former fellow practitioners who have found themselves unable to continue treating humans like machines.
Why on earth would people act like this?
The answer seems to be mostly because it pays well, though the common human urge to oppose evidence that they have done wrong is also important. Nobody wants to feel they have wasted years of their life and spent a lot of money learning how to effectively torture children and destroy everything that makes them human. That is not something that most people can handle.
And this is why ABA is more like a cult than anything else, pushing out doctrine in the form of propaganda relentlessly, dismissing any and all opposing ideas – including well- established science – as ignorance and bias, and pulling its members close and feeding them on a diet that praises their wisdom, encourages them to openly mock unbelievers, and issues them with huge volumes of material that purports to reveal the one truth.
It is actually quite horrifying to contemplate. What is even more horrifying is that this merely scratches the surface. There are uglier aspects of ABA – hard though that may be to believe – than even this.