Autism Acceptance Week and Applied Behavior Analysis

Autism Acceptance Week and Applied Behavior Analysis

Every year in the month of April, neurotypical people try to support autistic people. And usually without realizing it, they end up supporting charities (such as AS) that support and promote Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

What is ABA? It is what is written on that sheet of paper above from the NHS Leeds Community Healthcare. ABA is a therapy where the goals are not made by the client, but instead the goals are made by the ABA therapist (you know, the person getting paid to do this service) and the autistic person’s parent. And even if the goals are good (usually they aren’t), the way they are implemented only instills fear, pain, and control in the autistic child.

If a neurotypical parent withheld water from their 5-year-old kid until they answered a calculus problem right, would our society in general consider that abuse? I certainly hope so. This piece of paper from the NHS is something that was given to a parent of an autistic child for how to help “support” them. They list different situations where an autistic child could practice communicating.

Let’s focus on the second situation first, as this may seem the most obviously cruel. This guide tells the parent to put milk in front of the autistic child while they’re thirsty but without giving them a straw to drink it. Then, the parent is supposed to wait. Yes, wait. Not prompt the child, not ask the child to do something, not communicate to the child, just wait. The goal is to force the child to “initiate interaction” as if there is no other possible way for the autistic person to initiate interaction with their parent.

Then, after the child initiates interaction, because you know, the child is thirsty, the parent is supposed to force the child to do a task (“Do you want a straw or a plate?” which again, seems pretty obvious which one the child needs). The child is required to point to either a straw or a plate. The child must point (not explaining any of this to the child) to which object is the straw. Of course, it doesn’t say what to do if the child points to the wrong object or doesn’t point at all.

What if the child has dyspraxia and has difficulty pointing, or has light sensitivity and can’t see the objects? Should the adult keep waiting while the child becomes even more thirsty and potentially upset? These situations are why ABA is a breeding ground for meltdowns. The only way ABA knows how to “train” a child, to “motivate” them (as if they were lacking in motivation before this), is to negate their needs or take away their joy. This scenario used their needs as motivation for the task. ABA therapists will tell parents that it’s necessary to use these techniques to “reduce negative behaviors” but by negating their needs, they are the ones prompting that “negative behavior” in the first place (which is communication by the way). They’re creating an artificial problem and then telling us that continuing to negate autistic children’s needs and taking away their joy is the solution for instilling compliance.

These situations are why ABA is a breeding ground for meltdowns. The only way ABA knows how to “train” a child, to “motivate” them (as if they were lacking in motivation before this), is to negate their needs or take away their joy.

ABA Rebuttals: “We Don’t Use Punishments Anymore”

Let’s talk about the first scenario at the top of the page. In this scenario, you are supposed to use their joy and their hobbies against them. And they often call it “rewarding” the child when really all they’re doing is taking something away from them. At first glance, many people might say that this is fine because it’s not punishing the child. However, taking away an activity after starting it can be very dysregulating to autistic people, especially autistic people who may not be able to communicate easily to allistic people.

This situation is all about giving the child a fun activity, then taking it away and withholding it from them until they comply. The parent is supposed to blow bubbles, and again, wait. This seems to be a theme. The parent isn’t supposed to tell the child what they want from them, so the kid just gets to guess. Apparently, the parent should wait for the child to make eye contact with the parent and vocalize. It says that usually a child would try to reach for the bubbles “but with encouragement [they] can also give brief eye-contact and vocalize.” In ABA, “encouragement” is withholding joy and needs. And again, it doesn’t say what to do if the child doesn’t make eye contact or vocalize. Without any further instructions, it’s essentially telling the parent to continue to do this until the child reads the parent’s mind and makes eye contact and vocalizes, even though there is scientific support that eye contact is painful and overwhelming for autistic people.

If a neurotypical parent stopped in the middle of an activity and withheld the fun activity until a neurotypical 5-year-old kid put their hand on a hot stove briefly, would our society consider that child abuse? I think they absolutely would. And since emotional pain and physical pain are not too different in terms of brain responses, why do we treat them so differently, especially in autistic people?

ABA Rebuttals: Preparing Autistic Children “For The Real World”

ABA therapists would argue that they are “preparing autistic children for the real world” and “helping the autistic child go to mainstream school” and “helping the autistic child to be more independent” and “helping the autistic child learn social interaction.” Would preventing a 3-year-old from drinking water until they tie their shoes correctly “help the child be more independent”? Technically. Would it be ethical or necessary for that child’s development or independence? Not at all.

The interesting part to me is how compartmentalized ABA is compared to general society. Many ABA therapists will argue that “everyone uses ABA in their lives” and “parents use ABA all the time.” This is when I ask why autistic people need a special separate kind of ABA from the rest of neurotypicals, if ABA is already everywhere? I usually get something like “It’s so they can be supported to be more independent.” And I would argue that, it might be for the autistic person to be “more independent,” but it’s actually so they can be traumatized into being more independent. Plenty of autistic people who have experienced ABA have said as much. And one of the biggest mottos in the last few years regarding child development is “A child will do well if they can.” Yet somehow, ABA therapists and ABA practices exempt autistic children from this philosophy.

ABA Rebuttals: Autistic Children Need More Motivation

The document goes on to say that parents can intentionally put their autistic children into frustrating situations where the autistic child has to request something from the adult in order to do the task or meet a need:

 “Adults can provide lots of reasons to help their child communicate by creating little obstacles and then waiting and looking expectantly for the child to indicate what they need or want: for example by, placing favourite toys out of reach, giving the child a paintbrush but no paints, giving them half of an orange/biscuit or by not filling the glass to the top with milk/water.”

Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust
Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust 
Means to communicate 
Communication can be verbal. for example, babbling, making noises, saying words and sentences or non-verbal, for example, crying, facial expressions, showing emotions. pointing, signs, gestures, pictures, symbols. It is important for all adults in the child's environment to be aware of the child's preferred method of communication whether it is verbal and/or non-verbal. If you are not sure, please speak to your speech and language therapist for advice. It is important that the child has access to an environment that supports their communication method; for example, staff that are trained in Makaton sign language or the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECs) and/or symbols around the classroom. 
Reasons to communicate 
We all need a reason to communicate. The first reasons young Children usually communicate are being hungry, or happy or feeling poorly. Later, 
they learn to communicate to convey a range of intentions, for example, to 
make requests, reject, comment or share an interest. They could do this non- 
verbally and/or verbally, for example by shaking the head and by saying, •Nor 
Adults æn provide lots of reasons to help their child communicate by creating 
little obstacles and then waiting and looking expectantly for the child to 
indicate what they need or want: for example by, placing favourite toys out of 
reach, giving the child a paintbrush but no paints, giving them half Of an 
orange/biscuit or by not filling the glass to the top with milk/water. 
Opportunities to communicate 
The Ü1ild needs opportunities to communicate with others in order to develop 
their communication skills. It is important that adults give the child time to 
respond to and to initiate interaction. Where possible, try to ensure that 
others, such as siblings or close peers, do not communicate for the child. 
Peers may often interpret what a child wants, for example, they may approach 
tie adult to say, 'He wants a drink', which then means that the child's 
opportunity to communicate has been taken away. Children need access to 
adults and peers who understand their method of communication and will respond at the correct level, 
Children's Speech and Language Therapy Service 
Leeds Community Healthcare NHS July 2013

They tell the parent to intentionally frustrate the autistic person while “waiting and looking expectantly for the child to indicate what they want or need” – apparently forgetting that this child is autistic and will probably wonder why the parent stopped talking and is just staring at them! How strange is that? And if an autistic child can’t speak or communicate in the way that is expected, are they supposed to not be able to get their toy, or drink their milk, or do a fun activity? Are they supposed to suffer? It doesn’t even say what to do in that case. These artificial scenarios used to force communication from autistic kids without telling them is a way to harbor frustration and resentment from autistic children. This is not a healthy way to learn to communicate, especially when most autistic children are already communicating in the way that makes sense to them – it’s just that therapies like this don’t consider that to be the “correct” way of communicating.

If an autistic child scrapes their knee at recess, is that a “communication opportunity” for them to ask for a band-aid? Is it more important for autistic people to communicate in the way neurotypicals expect or for an autistic child to develop in an emotionally healthy way?

It’s as if there’s an assumption being made that autistic people don’t want to communicate in any way or form to other people, ever. And this assumption is dehumanizing, further traumatizes autistic people, and reinforces the “they’re stuck in their own world” trope that tells allistic people we’re not really human. This is why treating abled neurotypical children this way is not normalized and why so many ABA therapists who are more critical in other areas of their lives somehow have blinders on when it comes to autistic children specifically. If an autistic child scrapes their knee running around at recess, is that a “communication opportunity” for them to ask for a band-aid? Is it more important for autistic people to communicate in the way neurotypicals expect, or is it more important for an autistic child to develop in an emotionally healthy way? Because it certainly seems like this strategy is prioritizing the former.

And even worse, they specifically encourage parents to make sure that the autistic child’s siblings or peers do not help them when the siblings and peers can understand what they are asking for:

“Where possible, try to ensure that others, such as siblings or close peers, do not communicate for the child. Peers may often interpret what a child wants, for example, they may approach the adult to say ‘He wants a drink,’ which then means that the child’s opportunity to communicate has been taken away. Children need access to adults and peers who understand their method of communication and will respond at the correct level.”

Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust

They’re contradicting what they said about different forms of communication being valid. If the autistic child’s peers and siblings know what they are trying to communicate – then what that child is doing is communicating. How can they “take away” the opportunity to communicate when the autistic child has done just that in a way that their peers and siblings understood?

ABA Rebuttals: The Field Has Changed

Person who thinks ABA therapy is good says “Oh no, it’s different now, that was the old ABA. This one is good.” Continues to the right box, but also links to the middle box: Traumatizing and Gaslighting of autistic people’s experiences. Right box: Autistic child is put into ABA therapy by their parent. Child does not have agency, is manipulated to do tasks for rewards. Parent perceives child as doing “better” and “being obedient.” Child starts struggling due to ABA therapists pushing them to do things that hurt them, not meeting the needs of the child. Child eventually learns to mask because knows the consequences are worse if they do not, as they won’t get rewards or will be ignored. They may even “seem happy.” Child grows up, finally has autonomy in their life. Likely still masks. The now adult finds out that ABA is still being promoted as “helping people with autism.” Autistic adult talks about traumatic experiences they had in ABA, hoping people will listen. Links back to 1st box.

You will hear this argument a lot from ABA therapists and other therapists who use ABA – “The field has drastically changed, we don’t do that anymore.” And to that I say, this paper was given to a parent in February 2023. You can’t get much more recent than that.

And by the way, you might be thinking “well why are you mentioning 3-year-olds, that’s clearly too young!” This person’s autistic child who had an evaluation there is currently 3 years old. They gave this to the parent of a 3-year-old autistic child.

ABA therapists can argue all they want about how this article seems unfair or biased. Trust me, it is biased. I am an autistic person who has heard from many autistic people who have experienced ABA. I listen to primary sources. And what this document tells me is that we have a long way to go to support autistic children without inadvertently traumatizing and abusing them.

Autistic people are not going to stop speaking out about this. Please spread the word, and if you are a parent that feels guilty about turning down ABA therapy, please do not feel guilty. You are doing the right thing for your child. Autistic people deserve a happy childhood and to be able to develop in their own way. And by the way, autistic people make friends with other autistic people – no eye contact necessary.

This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ABA therapy practices. Note that, sadly, any therapist can use ABA techniques. The person who handed this to a parent is a speech therapist. ABA techniques are very common in speech therapy and can even be found in some occupational therapy.

Lastly, if you want to know what the equivalent of ABA therapy would look like for a neurotypical child, I have written about this below. Please continue to lift up autistic voices and speak up. One day autistic people won’t have to fight so hard to be heard.

Addendum: You know, I could have filled in this post with a handful of links about autistic people’s experiences of ABA and why ABA is bad. In fact, I’ve already done that. If you’re wondering why I didn’t do it here, it is because autistic people are full human beings who should not have to share their trauma to be listened to. We shouldn’t have to find “hard evidence” when there are primary sources explaining their experiences on a personal level. We shouldn’t have to be doing any of this. If there was even a 10% chance that a neurotypical child was being abused during a therapy, that therapy would be called into question. Our society allows this traumatizing therapy to continue for autistic children as long as it looks like they are assimilating and complying on the surface. Personally, I would rather an autistic person be alive and need more support than have C-PTSD or have died by suicide. There are people who have shared that their experiences of ABA caused C-PTSD, preventing them from doing things in their life that they were able to do before ABA. I mean, it doesn’t even work in the long term. It just hurts people.

What Neurotypical ABA Therapy Would Look Like

Rewarding a child for not making eye contact.

Rewarding a child for stimming and taking the reward away when they don’t stim anymore. Expecting a child to hear the fluorescent lights buzzing, and “correcting” them when they don’t by pointing to where the lights are and saying “ow! that hurts!” and doing it over and over again until they do it themselves without prompting – only then do they get a reward. Rewarding a child for looking away from you, and if they keep looking at you, you ignore what they say to you because they’re not “listening with their ears.”

Only listening to their needs when they orient their ear towards you, not their face, even if they’re hungry. Only let them play with their toys when they do all of the tasks above “correctly” and have the parents restrict access to toys, so the NT kid can only have them while they’re in therapy to be used as a reward. Ask them to tell you that the food they like to eat is “yucky” and if they eat the food they like, don’t give them a reward.

Ask them to use sign language, and when they don’t know how to sign and won’t do it, take away the fun activity they were going to do next. If they don’t stim while doing a task, do hand-over-hand and make them flap because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do, that’s how you’re a good listener and student.

If they keep using metaphors or vague comments that aren’t accurate, correct them & tell them “No.” If they are playing and “pretending” objects are not what they are, make them stop by taking their hands off the toy. Show them how to “play correctly” by lining up the toys, and if they don’t do it, just keep showing them until they do. Make them do it over and over again. Tell the parent that they’re “playing incorrectly” and that the parent should reinforce “correct” play at home. Pretending an object is a different object is wrong, and it’s not healthy development for growing neurotypical children. If the neurotypical children become upset by any of this, don’t listen to them, especially when they make eye contact with you, because they’re not communicating correctly. They need to learn to communicate with their signs and be literal with their words to fit in. If they’re stressed out by what you’re doing, just ignore them and keep reinforcing the task, such as lining up the toys. Make sure they don’t get to do any “fun” activities that day like playing computer games or getting their comfort items. This will ensure that the child enjoys the therapy at all times.

Ignoring them when they are upset will promote self-regulation and make sure they learn to do things correctly, because you’ll give them attention and rewards when they do these things correctly.

7 thoughts on “Autism Acceptance Week and Applied Behavior Analysis

  1. OMG! Thank you for this article it means so much to me. I took my son out of ABA therapy when he was 4 1/2 years old.I didn’t see any changes with him after 4 years of ABA therapy 3 therapist. I saw my son having more meltdowns than anything which broke my heart.He is now 8 years old and doing well being in school and having a supportive family is the best thing we can do for him, he also has multiple disabilities and he will always just be himself. We love our son for who he is. God blessed us and God doesn’t make mistakes.🙏🏻❤️😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. FANTASTIC- hope nt people read this and listen. My son was subjected to ABA which led to continuous restraints I was not aware until I had mental health team unto observe as his behaviour was extreme. They advised me the school was not the right place for him (off record) and told me about the ABA. Age 8 years old my son could not walk into a school again, specialist took 6 months and peozac and hypertension (anxiety/stress) meds to build him up to 1/2 a day so traumatised. We had no choice but to home educate due the damage this experience caused him. He’s 15 now still can’t enter a school/classroom like setting but does attend a tech provision x2 days a week. You might not understand but take from those of the ND community who can tell you. Its wrong and you may not sew the bad effects now but later in life you will.


    1. I am so sorry he experienced that. No one should be traumatized from any “supports” or education that they receive. There are too many of these stories for autistic people. I hope he finds (or has found) interests and hobbies and things that bring him joy. And I hope you have too.


  3. The worst part is that we don’t even expect dogs to understand and follow the same rules as humans. Yes, we do teach dogs commands such as, “sit,” “stay,” “lay down,” “leave it,” “drop it,” among other commands, and only hand the dog an exciting treat or chew toy once they do as told. But we don’t teach them to act like humans when they are not. Why do we teach autistics to always act in ways that are less likely to make neurotypicals uncomfortable, when we don’t expect dogs to always act in ways that are less likely to make humans uncomfortable?

    The sad thing is that even those of us who never received any ABA therapy may have received the same message from our parents/guardians, teachers/school faculty, or other significant adults in our lives, that we are not OK just the way we are, and that we need to change, so as not to make others uncomfortable.


  4. Until I was a half-century old, I didn’t know about my own crippling ASD condition. It’s still an unofficial [self-]diagnosis due to the large fee charged within our [Canada’s] supposedly universal health-care system; for, within it are important health services/treatments that are universally inaccessible, except for the high-incomed to access in for-profit clinics.

    While low-functioning autism seems to be more recognized and treated, higher-functioning ASD cases are typically left to fend for themselves, except for parents who can finance usually expensive specialized help. … But a physically and mentally sound future should be EVERY child’s fundamental right, especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

    I’m sometimes told, “But you’re so smart!” To this I immediately agitatedly reply: “But for every ‘gift’ I have, there are a corresponding three or four deficits.” It’s crippling, and on multiple levels! …
    As a boy with an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder [not to mention high sensitivity and resultant also-high ACE score], my primary-school teacher was the first and most formidably abusive authority figure with whom I was terrifyingly trapped.

    I cannot recall her abuse in its entirety, but I’ll nevertheless always remember how she had the immoral audacity — and especially the unethical confidence in avoiding any professional repercussions — to blatantly readily aim and fire her knee towards my groin, as I was backed up against the school hall wall.

    Luckily, she missed her mark, instead hitting the top of my left leg. Though there were other terrible teachers, for me she was uniquely traumatizing, especially when she wore her dark sunglasses when dealing with me. … Thus, a school environment can become the autistic child’s traumatizer; the trusted educator, the abuser.

    But rather than tell anyone about my ordeal with her and consciously feel victimized, I instead felt some misplaced shame: I was a ‘difficult’ boy, therefore she likely perceived me as somehow ‘deserving it’.

    Perhaps not surprising, I feel that our educators could/should receive mandatory training on children with ASD, especially as the rate of diagnoses greatly increases. There could also be an inclusion in standard high school curriculum of child-development science that would also teach students about the often-debilitating condition (without being overly complicated).

    If nothing else, the curriculum would offer students an idea/clue as to whether they themselves are emotionally/mentally compatible with the immense responsibility and strains of regular, non-ASD-child parenthood.

    From my observations, while low-functioning autism is relatively readily recognized and treated, higher-functioning ASD cases are basically left to fend for themselves [except for parents who can finance usually expensive specialized help].

    It would explain to students how, among other aspects of the condition, people with ASD (including those with higher functioning autism) are often deemed willfully ‘difficult’ and socially incongruent, when in fact such behavior is really not a choice. … And how “camouflaging” or “masking,” terms used to describe ASD people pretending to naturally fit into a socially ‘normal’ environment, causes their already high anxiety and depression levels to further increase.

    Of course that exacerbation is reflected in the disproportionately high rate of suicide among ASD people.


  5. The most disturbing thing of all is the people who invented behaviorism were using it to train ANIMALS. We are dealing with behavior modification techniques which leaves out the cognitive process altogether as if autistic people, like animals, do not have a cognitive process.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.