A basic problem with ABA

Content note: This post is about ABA and abuse culture within ABA. Proceed with caution.

Applied Behavior Analysis and other forms of behaviorism combine these things in a disastrous way:

  • Behavior analysts with highly idealized notions of What People Should Do and How People Learn
  • Highly developed behavior modification techniques that can be effectively used to make people do complex things at the direction of the therapist
  • Disabled people who are socially devalued to the point that behavior analysts are given free rein to modify their behavior
  • A hierarchy of behaviorists, in which lower level behaviorists have to rigidly follow the plans of those above them in the hierarchy (and take data proving that they have done so) regardless of what the person they’re doing it to communicates

This is present at the heart of ABA culture. Behavior analysts have a notion of how they’d like the world to be, and they use powerless people with disabilities as props to make the world look that way.

Some BCBAs mean well; some don’t. Most BCBAs probably believe that they are helping vulnerable people to learn in the only way possible. Some BCBAs even teach some of their students useful skills using the principles of behavior analysis. None of that solves the core problem in behaviorist culture. The combination of ideology and power is dangerous, no matter how well-meaning those who wield it are.

All behavior therapists have far, far more power to control their students than anyone should ever have. Complex effective behavior modification techniques create a dangerous level of power in themselves. In a better world, this could be moderated by a professional culture that acknowledged the danger in this power and had rigorous standards about using it in consensual ways. Behaviorist professional culture could be like that, but it isn’t.

All of them are part of a professional culture that constantly gives them the message that the level of power they have over their students is necessary and important, and that it’s the only possible way their student can be ok in any way. (They may even be getting the message that they don’t have enough power over their students, and taught to lament the fact that they don’t have enough power to be truly effective.)

It’s possible to use behaviorist principles to teach someone how to dress themself. It’s just as possible to use the same principles to teach someone that she must wear only feminine clothing or that he must never wear a skirt. And that’s an easy line to cross without even realizing it. Behaviorists have highly developed techniques for controlling behavior. They don’t have highly developed techniques for *refraining* from controlling behavior, or being ethical about *which* behavior they’re controlling. They have vaguely defined professional ethics about not hurting people, but that’s nowhere near good enough.  

This problem plays out in any number of ways. 

It’s like – a hydra. Some of the heads are things like electric shock and starvation. And other heads are taking away everything a victim loves and making them earn it back with compliance. Or training children that stimming and other forms of autistic body language are wrong. Or forcing children to enact the therapist’s stereotypes of appropriate play.

Some of the heads are much subtler. Some of them don’t have words yet. Any head of the hydra, by itself, represents a serious violation. None of them is the entire problem.

Any BCBA can cut some of those heads off the hydra, and say “Not all BCBAs are like that!”. Or “nobody uses electric shock anymore; that was in the 70s!” or “My ABA is play-based” or “I give kids frequent breaks; no 2-hour sessions of DTT here,” or “I would never extinguish stimming.”

But cutting off some of the obvious heads, or even all of the heads that self advocates have found words for, doesn’t solve the basic problems.

The hydra is still there even if all of the named heads are cut off. Cut off all of the heads anyone has found words for, and you still have the basic problem of people with extreme levels of power to modify the behavior of people with disabilities in arbitrary ways. Behaviorism will never be ok until that problem is solved.

It might be possible to be a behaviorist without being part of the hydra. If anyone’s doing it, it’s Dave Hingsburger and some of his students. But people who want to use principles of behavior therapy in a respectful (or even just non-abusive) way face a tremendous barrier to entry in the field. In order to become a BCBA high up enough in the hierarchy to write programs following your values, you have to spend a lot of hours doing entry-level behavior therapy works. That means following someone else’s program. That means doing a lot of harm to innocent people with disabilities, unless you can somehow find a supervisor who goes against the entire culture of behaviorism to treat people with disabilities as fully human.

tl;dr Behaviorism has some potentially legitimate applications, but the professional culture of behaviorism is deeply committed to abuse of power. It’s nearly impossible to be a behavior therapist without doing profoundly degrading and damaging things to people who deserve better. (And if you think you’re doing so, I’d like to hear about how you’re managing that).