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.