you don't have to be autistic to reblog this

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.

One of my friends keeps trying to “diagnose” me with autism, even though I’m almost 100% sure I don’t have autism. It’s getting really irritating. But I don’t know how to tell her to stop doing that without sounding like I think there’s something wrong with being autistic. Do you have any advice?
realsocialskills said:
I think there are several issues here:
  • There is nothing more private than your brain
  • You get to decide whether you’re interested in hearing someone’s perspective on your brain
  • You get to decide what you think
  • You get to decide which perspectives you want to keep hearing
  • It’s not ok for friends to keep making invasive personal comments after you’ve let them know that you want them to stop

Concerns about ableism:

  • I don’t know why your friend thinks you’re autistic and why you think you’re not
  • It’s possible that some of your reasons might be ableist. (I’m autistic, and ableism is part of the reason it took me so long to figure it out. A lot of my friends knew before I did.)
  • (It’s also possible that you’re entirely right to think that you’re not autistic.)
  • Even if some of your reasons are ableist, you’re still allowed to want your friend to stop trying to diagnose you
  • The possibility that you are being ableist doesn’t entitle others to make invasive personal comments about your brain
  • You don’t have to be perfect to be allowed to have boundaries about what aspects of your personal life you are and aren’t willing to discuss

Concerns about how you’ll be perceived if you ask your friend to knock it off:

  • I think the best way to assert this boundary is to do so without much explanation, eg:
  • “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
  • You don’t have to have a reason that sounds compelling to have the right to say no
  • And if you try to explain, it’s more likely to sound ableist whether or not it is.
  • Also, if you explain, you’re talking about it, which is exactly what you didn’t want to do in the first place
  • You don’t need your friend’s permission to think you’re not autistic
  • You don’t need your friend’s permission to decide that you don’t want to talk about this
  • Your friend should respect this boundary, even if they think you are wrong
  • Part of being a respectful friend means honoring boundaries about which personal things they do and don’t want to discuss
  • If your friend tries to insist on telling you that you’re autistic, it’s not evidence that you’re doing something wrong. It just means that they’re not respecting your boundary in this area.
  • There are no guarantees about how they will react, but it’s likely to go better if you assert your boundary in a matter-of-fact way without arguing about it

Good luck. I hope that you and your friend are able to work this out.