Evaleen runs AuSome Training and is one of the foremost autistic advocates in Ireland.
ABA is marketed as a therapy for autism. Firstly there is no therapy for autism because Autistic people are human beings and there is no therapy for just being human. There is no need to therapise Autistics just for being Autistic.
Remember gay conversion “therapy”, which is still used in parts of our world today. That too was created as a solution to a problem which did not exist outside of the medical model and religious and social discrimination. Autistic people are not a problem, we do not need therapy. We need Acceptance.
So that’s the first problem with ABA. It claims to be something which is cannot be because Autistics do not need therapy for being Autistic.
When people say ABA “works” it’s the same as saying that the “therapy” my mother received in her schooldays for being left-handed “worked”. Her left hand was tied behind her back so you could say this approach “worked” to make her write with her right hand but at what cost to her?
ABA claims to be an “evidence based” therapy but what does that mean? Well it means that it has created its own evidence. And here’s a brief outline of how that works.
An ABA “therapist” meet an Autistic child. They then work out goals for that child. When the child reaches those goals then this is what ABAers call “evidence”. More often than not these “goals” are based on non-autistic development and behaviour.
So if I was an ABA “therapist” I could meet a child and decide that their goal was to do handstands, I could work 40 hours a week with the child, rewarding them for every effort and punishing them when they got it wrong (because the removal of a reward is a punishment). I could say a communication goal was to make the child look me in the eyes for 10 seconds, I could say that pointing to an object was a goal, basically I’m free to set out my own goals for this child as I see fit. I will use manipulation, coercion and compliance until they do it and then I can tick my “success” box.
I can tell the parents “ look your child has reached all their goals this week”, so ABA works, it is a success because it makes up its own goals for the child.
The problem of course is that ABA looks at the Autistic child as a faulty child. It says that the Autistic child is deficient, and works to make the child less deficient. But those deficits don’t exist in the first place. When you view an Autistic child as fully whole and human and perfect as they are you get a very different insight into who they are.
ABA is compliance training
The problem with ABA and many behaviourist approaches is that it focuses solely on behaviour and the manipulation of human beings. When a child is denied their favourite toy until they do what is asked of them ABAers say that the reward or reinforcement works as a motivator. But there is communication in behaviour, even in the behaviour of behaviour analysts so when a toy is withheld that child also receives a message that they have no power, no choice and no consent in this situation. They learn that the only way to get their toy is to do what an adult is demanding of them, they learn that they have no choice but to comply.
ABA which claims to be a “scientific” therapy ignores science, it ignores psychology and it ignores decades of research which says the exact opposite of what it claims.
Now, if you don’t see what’s wrong with a child complying let me explain it further. If this happens to a child over and over again well they also learn that their “no” doesn’t matter, they will learn that they must give into the person in authority or power in other situations and they will learn to put the needs of others ahead of their own needs. This is grooming a child for abuse.
ABA knows nothing about how Autistics actually learn
Autistics are autodidactic learners, that means we teach ourselves. We think a lot, we notice patterns and relationships and we are always learning from our environment. We are natural problem solvers. ABA claims to teach Autistics through repetition which again ignores science because we know humans learn when we are motivated to learn so instead of allowing us to use intrinsic motivation they try to manipulate us into learning that is meaningless to us but will help them to tick one of their boxes and collect their “evidence”.
I recently spoke to ABA survivor Jay Jay Mudridge who explained they had memorised The Raven by Edgar Alla Poe by age 12. They were being subjected to ABA as a young child. ABA “therapists” were trying to teach Jay Jay very basic tasks and skills through repetition and reinforcement. But Jay Jay explained that while the therapists broke down tasks into simple steps they never explained the overall task or the purpose behind it. This is exactly what ABA does, it assumes that the Autistic child isn’t capable and misses out an actual learning opportunities. Because Jay Jay was a non-speaking child then there were massive assumptions made about their cognitive abilities. ABA teaching is often meaningless to the child. As an Autistic once I have learnt something that means I fully understand it or how to do it. Going over it repetitively would actually drive me nuts.
ABA ignores motor-neuron conditions
ABA seems to ignore very real difficulties that some Autistic children and adults have with motor skills. Many Autistics have conditions like Apraxia and dyspraxia which means that their brain doesn’t send messages to make movements the way it does for people who don’t have apraxia or are dyspraxic. Often these conditions go undiagnosed and instead are used to categorise autism into perceived levels of “severity”.
Imagine what it’s like to be a child with an adult who only gives you access to your reward once you can, for example, touch the red cup. What if you know where the red cup is, and you want to touch it but your hand won’t do what you’re telling it to ? Imagine what it’s like to be forced to try to do something which is immensely difficult for you to do. And for what? What’s the point of it all? Why does the touching the red cup even matter? It “matters” because it means the “therapist” can tick a box and gather “evidence” that ABA “works”.
This also extends to speech. No therapy will make a child who cannot speak speak. Any Speech and Language Therapist worth their salt will tell you the same thing. Some people with oral motor apraxia will never speak and instead of trying to force them to make mouth sounds they should be facilitated in learning AAC. Another thing that any Speech and Language Therapist who’s worth their salt will tell you.
Autistics, whether we have the ability to speak or not would benefit from AAC. Adult AAC users have explained how much energy they used up trying to force themselves to speak all the time. They tell us that having another way to communicate means that they have more energy to do other things and that it has a positive effect on their executive function. But that wouldn’t fit with the “goals” of ABA because all that matters is ticking that box.
ABA has no idea what Stims are for
Countless times I have asked ABA therapists what stimming is. They either don’t know or rattle off some definition imposed on Autistics by non-autistic professionals. Many ABAers think that stimming impedes learning but what does that show us about their lack of understanding of human behaviour in the first place? We can of course learn when we’re moving. In fact stimming helps us to filter through data and to learn efficiently. Autistics are particularly good at doing this so the idea of stopping us from stimming so we can learn is senseless.
No longterm “evidence”
I could go on and on picking holes in the ideas behind this abuse and the reasons why vulnerable parents fall for the marketing but really the most concerning point is that the “evidence” was created by the industry itself. The “evidence” was gathered from third parties who based their ideas as a non-autistic observer. There is no data collected from the actual people who were put through this. And there is no study on the long terms effects ABA has had on them. The fact that this is even acceptable to people to proclaim ABA to be “evidence-based” reflects an issue we have in wider society, the idea that Autistics cannot represent ourselves. Imagine if you were buying a car and the testimonials about the performance of that car were gathered from neighbours of people who had the car but never from people who actually drove the car. Would you consider that “evidence”?
ABA is not evidence-based