aba

Appearing to enjoy behavior modificiation is not meaningful

One common response to criticism of ABA is to claim that people subjected to it enjoy it:

  • “My child loves his therapist and asks to go to sessions!”
  • “All of my clients smile and have fun!”
  • “My ABA is play based!”

What people forget is that affect is a set of behaviors, and that behavior modification methods work as well on affective behaviors as they do on anything else:

  • You can reinforce people to look happy
  • You can reinforce people to praise therapy
  • It doesn’t have to be an explicit part of the behavior plan to happen
  • And it can keep happening even after you fade direct prompts or direct intentional reinforcers

ABA programs give the therapist massive power over the person. That power in itself can cause people to look happy, through a more subtle reinforcement mechanism than takes place on a behavior plan:

  • If you have power over someone in the way that behavior therapists do, they’re going to be highly motivated to please you
  • If they figure out that you want to believe that they are happy, they are very likely to act like they are
  • If you treat them better when they display the affect you want or praise you, they’re likely to act happy.
  • It doesn’t mean they’re actually happy
  • Or that what you’re doing is good for them

(Also, affect often is an explicit part of someone’s behavior plan. It is not at all uncommon for ABA programs to involve actively ignoring distress and withholding attention and rewards until someone looks happy. It is not at all uncommon for ABA programs to involve teaching people to smile, to hug, or to otherwise do things that would out-of-context indicate happiness, enjoyment, or affection. It doesn’t have the same meaning if it’s prompted or trained.)

Also, programs based on positive reinforcement involving controlling someone’s access to stuff they care about:

  • The first step in a program based on positive reinforcement is to find out what someone most enjoys or cares about
  • (This is called a preference assessment or a reinforcement inventory. Here’s an example.)
  • And then making sure they have no access (or limited access) to those things outside of sessions or other situations in which someone is actively reinforcing them to do something
  • Of course if someone’s only access to everything important to them happens in sessions they will ask for sessions
  • That doesn’t mean they like the fact that someone has that level of power over them
  • (No one likes being manipulated that way.)
  • That doesn’t mean they like the things that the therapist makes them do
  • That doesn’t mean the power dynamic is harmless
  • That doesn’t mean ABA is a good approach to teaching

People who can’t say no, can’t say yes meaningfully. Looking happy isn’t meaningful if you’re rewarded for affecting happiness and punished for looking visibly distressed. Making the best of a bad situation isn’t consent.

Not being believed

Content note: This is a post about ABA, and not being believed about the harm ABA does.

Anonymous said to :

People don’t believe me when I say I was a victim to ABA abuse, not even my parents.

I was misgendered routinely, I could not drink water even though this was harmless and was often asked to write my name even though this was effectively pointless.

How should I convince people I was really abused?

Am I just whining and should I “get over it” because that’s not “real abuse” and I’m not autistic?

realsocialskills said:

It’s not your fault that therapists hurt you. It’s not your fault that people don’t believe you. What people did to you matters, even if no one believes you.

ABA is degrading on a level that it can be very hard to recover from or even describe. The basic methodology of ABA is finding out what you care about most and using it to get compliance with arbitrary demands.

I’ve written some here and here and here about the kind of damage that does, and that’s only scratching the surface.

Increasingly, one of the things behavior therapists demand is that you pretend that they’re not controlling you. They often go so far as to demand that you act like you like what’s happening and believe that it’s both necessary and enjoyable. And they do that even as they make you do obviously pointless things (like writing your name over and over), and even as they do obviously awful things to you (like denying you water and misgendering you).

That kind of thing can mess with your mind really badly, especially when you’re surrounded by people who don’t believe you.

It’s not your fault that people don’t believe you. They can refuse to acknowledge what people did to you; you can’t make it go away. It matters even if no one around you cares.

You will probably always have to deal with people who don’t believe you. Most people are reluctant to believe that therapists ever hurt people in ways that matter, and ABA has a particularly effective publicity machine. Some people will say that you’re whining, that you’re lying, and that the things you’ve described don’t happen. They’re wrong. It matters that people hurt you in the name of helping you. It’s horrible that people who you should be able to trust don’t believe you.

Some of them may eventually come to understand. Sometimes people come around, in the long term. But you don’t have to wait for that in order to be ok, you don’t have to explain it to them if you don’t want to, and what happened to you matters whether or not people believe you.

Also… You are not alone. What happened to you shouldn’t happen to anyone. There is a community of people who know that it’s wrong to treat people that way. Making connections with people who believe you might help a lot.

It’s much easier to hold on to your perspective if you’re not doing it alone. This is hard. It’s also possible. You’re ok.

tl;dr Abuse matters even if no one believes you. That said, making connections with people who believe you can help a lot. You are not alone, even if really important people in your life don’t believe you.

ABA therapy is not like typical parenting

withasmoothroundstone:

realsocialskills:

Content note: This post is about the difference between intense behavior therapy and more typical forms of rewards and punishments used with typically developing children. It contains graphic examples of behavior programs, and is highly likely to be triggering to ABA survivors.

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

I just read your thing about people with disabilities and their interests. Don’t people do the same thing to typical children? Restrict access to things enjoyed until act ABC is completed? For example, growing up, I was only allowed to watch tv for 1 hour a day IF I finished all of my homework and schoolwork related things first.

realsocialskills said:

It’s not the same (although it has similar elements and I’m not a huge fan of the extent to which behavior modification techniques are used with typically developing children either.)

Here’s the difference: Most children actually should do their homework, and most children have interests other than television. Typically developing children are allowed to be interested in things, and supported in pursuing interests without them becoming behavior modification tools.

(Another difference: intense behavior modification is used on adults with developmental disabilities in a way that would be considered a human rights violation if done to typically developing adults.)

Using behavior modification tools for one or two things in a child’s life isn’t the same as doing it with everything in someone’s life. Intense behavior therapy is a violation on a level that it’s hard to describe.

Intense behavior therapy of the type I’m talking about typically involves:

  • Being surrounded by people who think that you’re broken, that all of your natural behavior is unacceptable, and that you need to be made to look normal in order to have any hope of a decent future
  • Having completely harmless things you do pathologized and modified (eg: having hand flapping or discussing your interests described as “a barrier to inclusion”)
  • Having those things conflated with things you do that actually *are* a problem. (eg: calling both head banging and hand flapping “sensory seeking behavior” and using the same reinforcers to eliminate both)
  • Being forced to stop doing things that are very important to you, by people who think that they are pointless and disgusting or “nonfunctional” (eg: using quotes from TV shows to communicate)
  • Being forced to do things that are completely arbitrary, over and over (eg: touching your nose or putting a blue ball in a red box)
  • Being forced to do things that are harmful to you, over and over (eg: maintaining eye contact even though it hurts and interferes with your ability to process information)
  • Having everything you care about being taken away and used to get compliance with your behavior program (eg: not being permitted to keep any of your toys in your room)

(Behavior therapy often also involves legitimate goals. That doesn’t make the methods acceptable, nor does it make the routine inclusion of illegitimate goals irrelevant.)

Here’s an explicit instruction from a behavior expert on how to figure out which reinforcers to use for autistic children:

Don’t assume that you know what a child with ASD likes. It is important to ask a child, observe a child or perform a preference assessment. When asking a child about reinforcers, remember that multiple reinforcement inventories can be found on the Internet.

You can also simply sit down with a child and ask them questions like “What do you like to do after school?” or “What’s your favorite food?“or “What toys do you like to play with?”

When observing a child, set up a controlled environment to include three distinct areas: food, toys, and sensory. Then allow the child somewhat free access to this environment.

Watch and record the area that the child goes to first. Record the specific items from this area that the child chooses. This item should be considered highly reinforcing to the child.

Continue this process until you have identified three to five items. Remember that simply looking at an item does not make it reinforcing, but actually playing with it or eating it would.

Notice how it doesn’t say anything about ethics, or about what it is and isn’t ok to restrict access to. This is about identifying what a child likes most, so that it can be taken away and used to get them to comply with a therapy program. (Here’s an example of a reinforcement inventory. Notice that some examples of possible reinforcers are: numbers, letters, and being read to).

People who are subjected to this kind of thing learn that it’s not safe to share interests, because they will be used against them. That’s why, if someone has a developmental disability, asking about interests is often an intimate personal question.

This isn’t like being required to do your homework before you’re allowed to watch TV.

It’s more like:

  • Not being allowed to go to the weekly meeting of the science club unless you’ve refrained from complaining about the difficulty of your English homework for the past week

Or, even further:

  • Not being allowed to join after school clubs because you’re required to have daily after school sessions of behavior therapy during that time
  • In those sessions, you’re required to practice making eye contact
  • And also required to practice talking about socially expected topics of conversation for people of your age and gender, so that you will fit in and make friends
  • You’re not allowed to talk about science or anything else you’re actually interested in
  • You earn tokens for complying with the therapy
  • If you earn enough tokens, you can occasionally cash them in for a science book
  • That’s the only way you ever get access to science books

Or even further:

Being a 15 year old interested in writing and:

  • Being in self-contained special ed on the grounds that you’re autistic, your speech is atypical, and you were physically aggressive when you were eleven
  • Having “readiness for inclusion” as a justification for your behavior plan
  • Having general education English class being used as a reinforcer for your behavior plan
  • Not being allowed to go to English class in the afternoon unless you’ve ~met your behavior targets~ in the morning
  • Not being allowed to write in the afternoon if you haven’t “earned” the “privilege” of going to class
  • eg: if you ask questions too often in the morning, you’re “talking out of turn” and not allowed to go to class or write in the afternoon
  • or if you move too much, you’re “having behaviors that interfere with inclusion”, and not allowed to go to class or write
  • or if you mention writing during your social skills lesson, you’re “perseverating” and not allowed to go to class or write

Or like: being four years old and not being allowed to have your teddy bear at bedtime unless you’ve earned 50 tokens and not lost them, and:

  • The only way to earn tokens is by playing in socially expected ways that are extremely dull to you, like:
  • Making pretend food in the play kitchen and offering it to adults with a smile, even though you have zero interest in doing so
  • You gain tokens for complying with adult instructions to hug them, touch your nose, or say arbitrary words within three seconds; you lose two for refusing or not doing so fast enough
  • You lose tokens for flapping your hands or lining up toys
  • You lose tokens for talking about your teddy bear or asking for it when you haven’t “earned” it
  • You lose tokens for looking upset or bored

Or, things like being two, and loving books, and:

  • Only having access to books during therapy sessions; never being allowed unscripted access to books
  • Adults read to you only when you’re complying with therapy instructions
  • They only read when you’ve pointed to a picture of a book to request it
  • You’re required to sit in a specific position during reading sessions. If you move out of it; the adult stops reading
  • If you rock back and forth; they stop reading
  • If you stop looking at the page; they stop reading
  • If you look at your hand; they stop reading
  • Adults interrupt the story to tell you to do arbitrary things like touch a picture or repeat a particular word. If you don’t; they close the book and stop reading.

Here are a few posts that show examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about:

tl;dr Intense behavior therapy has some things in common with methods that are used with typically developing kids, but it’s not actually the same. Intense behavior therapy involves violation and a degree of control that is not considered legitimate with typically developing children.


withasmoothroundstone said:

I was part of a behavior program where I was locked, with only one other child (we were banished from the adolescent unit for being too socially immature or some crap like that, I think the real reason was we’d banded together to take a stand against abuse that was happening in the institution on a daily basis), on the children’s ward of a mental institution,, and not allowed to go outside or walk to the cafeteria or do damn near anything normal unless I earned enough poker chips.  I also had a therapist who systematically struck me harder and harder in the leg until I made eye contact for a certain period of time.  These things are real and they are not like having to do your homework before you can watch TV.  At all.  Even slightly.  

A behavior modification aftermath

Content note: This post is written with parents and professionals in mind. It’s about a common way that rewards-based behavior modification hurts people, and the importance of being aware of that effect in work with people who might be ABA survivors.

I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning people who are trying to fix special education and adult disability services say things like “you have to find out what they’re interested in and incorporate it.”

This can be good advice. It’s also important to realize that this is loaded, and that not all disabled people are going to be willing or able to show you what they’re interested in.

For people with disabilities, “what do you like?” can be a deeply intimate personal question. It can be very dangerous to let people know what you are interested in.

Autistic people (and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities) are often subjected to intense behavior modification. This is often aimed at silencing them, getting them to pretend to be non-autistic, or otherwise change in ways that deny fundamental things about who they are.

You have to take some pretty extreme methods to get someone to comply with that kind of behavior program. One traditional way is to use painful punishment like starvation and electric shock. These days, that’s considered distasteful, and most therapists prefer to use positive methods.

In practice, what that often means is that anything a disabled person expresses interest in will be taken away and used as a reinforcer for a behavior plan. The more they care about something, the more their access to it will be contingent with compliance with what powerful people in their life want.

Even if the thing they care about is something like math. Or books. Or access to fresh air. Or their teddy bear.

People subjected to this kind of thing learn quickly that when they express interest in something, it will probably be taken away.

And beyond that, they learn that when people know what you care about, they will use it to manipulate you into doing awful things to yourself. In many cases, this includes being manipulated into maintaining a grateful affect and praising the therapist.

When people have experienced this type of violation, sharing their interests with anyone is a big risk. Particularly if that person has power over them. Particularly if that person is a member of a professional culture that largely approves of what was done to them. (And if you’re a teacher, therapist, direct support professional, or similar, you have power over them and your professional culture approves of misusing it.)

It’s important to keep in mind that people you work with have every reason to believe that it is dangerous to tell you what they care about. They don’t know what you will do with that information, and have every reason to believe that you will use it against them. (Or that information they give you will get back to people who will do so.) It might take a long time before some people are willing to share their interests. Some people may never trust you. The way you teach and offer support needs to take this into account.

tl;dr It’s important to be aware of the loaded nature of asking disabled people to express interest in things. It’s important to make space to incorporate interests; it’s also important to allow people to keep their interests private.

Why I oppose ABA as a method of instruction

Content warning: This is a post about ABA.


The primary reason I think ABA is irredeemable: ABA uses behavior modification as a primary method of instruction. I think that is inherently demeaning, counterproductive and dangerous. 

ABA therapy relies on continuous extrinsic motivation, which means conditioning the person it’s being done to to comply with a lot of things that they’re actively unwilling to do for several hours a week over and over. It means making them do things that make no sense to them, over and over for many hours a week. That’s dangerous. It’s especially dangerous for people with disabilities who have complex communication needs.


It’s dangerous to make a kid do things that make no sense to them over and over and over while relying on extrinsic reinforcement. That teaches them that people in positions of power can do whatever they want to them, and that they have no right to protest or understand or influence things. ABA leaves people subject to it very, very vulnerable to abuse. Extreme conditioned obedience is dangerous, and it’s the most persistently reinforced behavior in ABA therapy. It’s generalized to other environments, and does not go away once therapy ends. 


There’s also a few secondary problems with ABA, which are deeply embedded in the culture of the BACB:


The goals of therapy are often bad in themselves. Eg:

  • Teaching a kid not to stim
  • getting them to say a few words by rote
  • insisting on eye contact
  • making a kid spend hours and hours on facial expression flash cards at the expense of age appropriate academics

(For some good discussion of the issue of bad goals, see “Would You Accept this Behavior Towards a Non-Autistic Child?“ by an SLP specializing in AAC.) 


The reinforcers are often unethical even when the goals have merit.

  • ABA depends on extrinsic motivation in order to make people subject to it cooperate.
  • This used to routinely involve pain and food deprivation, and sometimes still does.
  • (Neither is actually prohibited by the ethical guidelines of the BACB, although they do mildly discourage it).

Aversives have fallen somewhat out of favor in recent years, partly due to public outcry over them. That does not solve the problem, and a lot of common reinforcers are not much of an improvement.


ABA therapists talk about using things like bubbles, tickles and praise - but those things are not, in the long term, reliably sufficient to get anyone to comply with many hours a week of boring therapy.


What does work is taking everything a child (or adult) cares about, and making their access to it contingent on compliance in therapy. That’s an awful thing to do to someone, and it can seriously impair their ability to care about anything or communicate about anything. If you know that showing interest in something means it will be taken away, it’s going to be hard to show interest. 


I think that’s inherent to this kind of therapy - ultimately, you have to either get intrinsic motivation or use really invasive extrinsic motivation. But even if that problem was solvable, I’d still be opposed to ABA as an educational method, because of the primary problem that behavior motivation is not defensible as a primary educational approach. Educational approaches should be about teaching, not about behavior modification.

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).

The problem with errorless learning

Content warning: This is a somewhat graphic post about ABA that links an even more graphic post.

There’s a particular variant on ABA called “errorless learning”, which works like this:

  • You break a task down into small steps
  • Then do discrete trials of the steps, over and over (If you want to know more about what discrete trials are, this post by a former ABA therapist explains it).
  • When someone does it right, you reinforce in some way (either by praise or something concrete)
  • When they do it wrong, you either ignore it, or prompt and reinforce a correct response

This is considered by many to be a kinder, gentler form of ABA than punishing incorrect responses. (And maybe in some sense it isn’t as bad as hitting someone, taking their food away, or shocking them. But that’s not the same as actually being respectful. Respecting someone takes much more than refraining from hitting them.)

Errorless learning is not actually a good or kind way to teach someone. It is profoundly disrespectful.

When you ignore responses that deviate from prompts, that means that you’re ignoring a human being whenever they did something unexpected or different from what you wanted them to do. It means you’re treating their unscripted responses as meaningless, and unworthy of any acknowledgment.

That’s not a good thing to do, even with actual errors. When people make mistakes, they’re still people, and they still need to be acknowledged as thinking people who are making choices and doing things.

Further - not every response that deviates from the response you’re trying to prompt is actually an incorrect response. There are a lot of reasons that someone might choose to do something else. Not all of them are a failure to understand; not all of them are incorrect in any meaningful sense.

For instance: they might be trying to communicate something meaningful:

  • They might be putting the story pictures in a different order than you’re prompting, because they have made up a different story than the one you’re thinking of
  • They might be giving you the boat instead of the apple when you say “give apple” because they are making a joke about the boat’s name being Apple

They might be intentionally defying you in a way that deserves respect:

  • They may be of the opinion that they have better things to do than put the blue block in the blue box for the zillionth time
  • They might know perfectly well what you mean by “give apple”, but think that eating it is a better idea
  • They might be refusing to make eye contact because it hurts

They might be thinking of the task in a different way than you are:

  • They might choosing to use a different hand position than the one you’re prompting, even if they understand what you want them to do
  • For instance, they might have discovered that something else works better for them as a way of tying their shoes
  • Or they might want to try different things
  • Or the position you’re using might hurt

People do things for reasons, and those reasons aren’t reducible to antecedents and consequences. People have an inner life, and their thoughts matter. Even children. Even nonverbal children who need a lot of help doing things. Even adults with severe cognitive impairments. Even people who have no apparent language. All people think about things and make decisions, and those decisions are meaningful. All people deserve to have their thoughts and decisions acknowledged - including their mistakes.

When you teach someone something, acknowledge all their responses as meaningful, whether or not they are what you expected.