I am a mom to two special needs kids and both of them are currently in ABA therapy. Both children started ABA therapy at age two. My son has been in ABA therapy for just about five years now and my daughter has been in ABA therapy for one year.
ABA therapy has drastically changed our lives for the better. Even now, as I look back and read the original paperwork that outlined my son’s diagnosis, I am blown away at how far he’s come. That’s why when I came across the article, “I Abused Children for a Living,” I was shocked at what was written and during Autism Awareness Month no less!
Having had plenty of experience with different ABA companies and having two children receiving ABA therapy, I wanted to write a response to the article. I’ve lived in multiple states, hired multiple ABA companies, and gone through ABA therapy with my children first-hand. I have seen the good and the bad of ABA therapy and I wanted to write a response to that article.
My Response to: “I Abused Children for a Living”
In the very beginning of the article, the author states:
“I was an ABA therapist. My official title was ‘Behavior Technician’ which in itself is really telling. I was hired off the street with no background in child development, no knowledge of autism or ABA, and no experience working with children, let alone autistic children. I. Literally. Did. Not. Know. What. Autism. Is. And I wouldn’t find out what autism is in the years that I worked there either.”
I am not sure when this person was an ABA therapist, but nowadays, there is A LOT of training that goes into being both a BCBA and a “Behavioral Technician” or what is now just called, “therapist.” If you are apart of a company that hires your therapist off the street, with no experience whatsoever, RUN. This is not a company you want to be with and the company is probably not up-to-date on what the legal requirements are for this job.
The ABA company that we use hires therapists that have, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis, Psychology, Child Development, Education, or another related field. Also, every single one of those therapists are currently doing graduate work to become BCBAs.
Next, the author says,
“To ABA, an autistic person is nothing more than the unruly embodiment of behaviors to be reinforced, shaped, or extinguished, a list of ‘excesses’ and ‘deficits’ to be tallied and managed. A defiant child to be made compliant. Basically, I was a glorified dog trainer.”
This is absolutely false of true ABA. Yes, there is training that goes into the therapy for a child with autism, but every parent trains their child as they grow up. We potty train our children, we train our children not to touch things that could burn them or hurt them, we train them to pick up their toys, and hopefully, we train them to be well-mannered and respectful. Essentially that is our job as parents: to love and train our children. We are supposed to train our children because they don’t know any better. It is our job to help them learn about the world around them and it is no different for the child with autism.
The author continues…
“We learned things like ‘planned ignoring’- how to ignore a distressed child until they comply with your demands, how to ‘properly’ restrain a 2-6 year old child, how to not show empathy when a child has a meltdown…”
This part of ABA therapy has been extremely taken out of proportion. In ABA therapy there is ignoring of attention-seeking behaviors but never ignoring of the child himself. There is a very big difference here.
So what is this “planned ignoring?” It looks just a bit like this:
You’re at the store with your child who has autism. You’re finishing up and your child is having a hard time. The lights are too bright, there are too many people, and the noises are overwhelming. Your child starts to have a meltdown. People are staring, your child is on the floor hitting himself and you don’t know what to do. The ABA therapist now comes in with their “planned ignoring” technique. This means they are going to ignore the meltdown itself, and then prioritize protecting the child from hurting himself or others.
During this time the ABA therapist does not show emotion – this doesn’t mean they don’t empathize, but in order to not enforce the behavior of the meltdown, they must remain neutral. Once the above has taken place the therapist would either gently remove the child from the situation (taking them out to the car) or they would help show the child how to cope right where they are. The therapist might sit on the floor with them and give them deep sensory input or show them how to cover their ears if the noises are bothering them. They may even do breathing techniques with the child. All of these strategies are called calm-down techniques and what is done with each child will depend on the personality and needs of each child.
The author continues listing other things she supposedly learned…
“…how to ‘desensitize’ a child to painful or uncomfortable sensory experiences (hint; they aren’t actually desensitized, just forced to endure it until they successfully and consistently don’t react), how to change the environment- not to make it more accessible, but to make it more conducive to compliance.”
If your child is having a painful or uncomfortable sensory experience wouldn’t you want to help them? If your clothes itch or your back needs to be scratched, do you let yourself scratch it? I’m assuming you do. It is the same thing when helping a child with autism with their sensory needs.
Here is a personal example of this:
My son use to be extremely sensitive to noise. Even noises that seemed soft to me, were like a freight train to him. One of the things that bothered him was our washer and dryer. The noise from them running bothered him so much he would cry and scream. Sometimes he was afraid to even go near the room they were in even if they were not running. Because I wanted my son to grow up and learn to be self-sufficient, I must teach him ways he can learn to cope in spite of the noises associated with it.
When learning from our ABA therapist about how to help my son in this area, I realized it would take time. We showed him videos about how washing machines and dryers worked and what they did. We showed him the washer and dryer when it was not on and let him touch it, look inside, and really see how it worked so he could see that it was not scary or harmful to him. We worked on strategies such as covering your ears when you hear a loud noise or wearing noise-reducing headphones if he wanted to come in the room when they were running. These things were never forced on him, they were shown to him so he could continue to learn important life skills.
Now? My son knows how to start a load of laundry and put it in the dryer. He loves being able to help out!
The author continues to write…
“Sensory overload? Executive function or sensory-motor difficulties? Exhausted from 40 hours of child labor? Different style of communication work better for you? Upset about being treated like a circus animal? Not my problem, kiddo. I’m here to lure you with candy and manipulate you into doing my bidding, no questions asked.”
What the author states in the paragraph above is an example of bad ABA techniques and training. True ABA is child-based and works toward sensible and age-appropriate goals so the child can accomplish and do what is asked. Play is incorporated into all sessions and goals. If the child gets overwhelmed or needs a break, they are taught how to verbally ask or sign for it (if non-verbal).
When done correctly, ABA therapy is done in brief spurts within the child’s natural environment. Your child wants to have a dance party? Great! Questions or “work” will be incorporated into it naturally or during five minutes pauses or breaks.
As far as what the author says about stimming…
“Need to stim? Don’t worry, do enough tricks for me and you can earn the privilege to move YOUR body the way YOU want to…just 4 more tokens to go! Until then, quiet hands!”
My children have never been forced to stop stimming or even told to. Instead, they were shown an environment where they could safely stim and where they could get the input that they so desperately needed without hurting themselves or others. For example, letting the child hit their head on a firm pillow versus letting them slam their head into a wall. See the difference? It’s about teaching them ways to regulate their bodies that are safe, not forcing them to stop altogether.
The author briefly states that she was asked about the tracking of data that ABA therapists must do. The tracking is not done for the child or the parent’s benefit. The tracking is absolutely and 100% for insurance purposes. Yes, it helps the therapists and parents see where the child is, but insurance companies require extremely detailed data and proof that the child needs and will continue to need ABA therapy so they will cover it.
Several paragraphs down, the author talks about shock therapy and ABA, the history behind it and how ABA companies still use it today. I have never in my life heard of any ABA company using shock therapy for treatment. I have lived in different states and used multiple ABA companies and not once was this mentioned. Are there companies out there that use it? I don’t know, but I do know that if they do, they are not doing true ABA therapy.
The next statement from the author is perhaps the most harmful:
“The ultimate objective of ABA is to make the child “indistinguishable from peers.” This in itself is abuse because you are teaching the child that the only way that they will be tolerated is if they pretend to be like everyone else. They must sacrifice 40 hours a week instead of playing because there is something “wrong” with them which they have to spend all day everyday trying to fix. This not only gives the child internalized ableism, but also forces the child to move, communicate, play, and socialize in ways that are unnatural, uncomfortable, and often painful in the hopes that they will possibly not be treated poorly by their so-called peers. It is an act that often results in autistic burn-out later in life.”
The ultimate objective of ABA is NOT to make the child “indistinguishable from peers,” it is not about pretending they are normal or making the child be normal. True ABA is NONE of that. A person with autism isn’t taught to make themselves “tolerated” instead they are shown different ways to do things and given choices as to these things. My son would go to a friend’s house and immediately go over and knock over all their toys. We didn’t tell him to stop it because it wasn’t normal, no, instead we showed him ways and choices he could play with toys. Instead of knocking over the blocks we showed him how to build blocks. It’s not about making them normal or indistinguishable, it’s about showing them and giving them choices so that they can develop into the person they are going to be.
One of the things that shock people is the length of hours per week ABA therapy is used. When you hear 20 or more hours per week this is not therapy where you sit at a table 20 hours a week and look at flashcards. This is a therapy that interlocks with your family’s day-to-day life. Need to run errands? The ABA therapist goes with you and the child. Want to take your child to the park, but you’re worried about your child’s social skills? No worries, the ABA therapist will go with you and show the child how they can interact with their peers. It’s not about telling them what to do so they can be robotic and be like everyone else, it’s about showing them the choices they have.
For example, my son would only talk about superheroes when he was around other kids. He didn’t understand how to ask questions or how to relate to his peers in any way. The therapist would go to the park with him and would help prompt him to ask questions about the other child. Does the other child have a favorite toy? Does the other child like superheroes? He was given choices and then shown how he could take those choices and use them to make friends.
Toward the end of the article, the author talks about compliance. Yes, compliance is a scary word, but it just means obedience or listening to and doing what someone asks. The author says,
“Compliance. This is possibly the most abusive part of ABA. The child might not even realize he’s being abused because he’s distracted by candy, or balloons. But there is a power imbalance. And little Timmy’s brain is picking up on all of this and filing it away.
Some of the things getting filed…
- People with more power than me can force me to do whatever they want.
- Nobody, not even my parents will come to my defense.
- Other people are in charge of my body and it’s OK for people to physically move me if I’m not doing what they want me to do.
- I’m not allowed to say no, or protest.
- If I am having a hard time, adults will ignore me instead of helping me; they don’t care.
- My parents must hate me too because they won’t even give me a break (a big deal is made in ABA about ‘consistency’ and making the parents and everyone the child is around use ABA on them in the off hours too).
- I am the sum of my behaviors, I have no inherent value.”
1. “People with more power than me can force me to do whatever they want.”
This is absolutely not true. No on is going to make the child do anything with the exception of making sure they don’t hurt themselves or others. Does ABA work on teaching the child that it is important to obey? Yes. Does ABA make sure that the child follows through with a tax and doesn’t get out of it if needed? Yes.
An example of this is if my daughter has a meltdown about picking up her toys. She might run and hide or run to play with a different toy. If we set expectations for her, we need to follow through. We tell her she can take a break, but she still has to pick up her toys when done. We sit there with her and calm her or give her the sensory input she needs, but in the end, she still has to pick up her toys and she does not get away with not doing it.
2. “Nobody, not even my parents will come to my defense.”
This one hurts me a lot. I can’t imagine a therapist not letting us be there during therapy or letting me help my child if needed. I am the parent to my children, not the therapist. In the end, I still have the final say about the therapy techniques and if I don’t want the therapist to do something. You as a parent are your child’s advocate so yes, if you feel like something is not right, don’t sit there. Say something, come to your child’s defense!
I have spoken up several times in the past about the treatment of my child during ABA therapy. At one company, we told them that a particular therapist was not allowed to work with my son because we did not like her attitude and the way she was treating him. We never saw her again, and the therapist that was sent instead was a great fit!
3. “Other people are in charge of my body.”
Again, this is not true. The only time a therapist has moved my child’s body is in the case of the “hand-over-hand” technique and even that is only used as a last result. The hand-over-hand technique is just what it sounds like. The therapist will take the child’s hands in theirs and show them how to do what was asked. So if my daughter needed to pick up her toys, a therapist might (as a last resort) use her hands to take the child’s hand to pick up the toy and put it away. It is a visual technique to help the child understand what they need to be doing.
4. “I’m not allowed to say no, or protest.”
Our therapists have never once told my child that they couldn’t say no or protest. My son has been told that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to not want to work on chores, but you still have to do it. My son is allowed to be angry, but he’s not allowed to use that anger to hurt others or himself. Do you see the difference?
5. “If I am having a hard time, adults will ignore me instead of helping me; they don’t care.”
I talked about this above. The ignoring is not of the child himself, but of the behavior. Our ABA therapists care about our children very much, they are not just another number in the crowd.
6. “My parents must hate me too because they won’t even give me a break (a big deal is made in ABA about ‘consistency’ and making the parents and everyone else around the child do ABA on them in the off hours).”
Yes, consistency is key. But that doesn’t mean I am forcing ABA techniques on my child 24/7, no, I am teaching my child that I will still follow through with what I say – that essentially I mean what I say. If bedtime is 7 pm when the ABA therapist is there, the child’s bedtime will still be 7 pm when they aren’t there even if the child doesn’t like it. I am consistent in what routines I set for my child. Again, this is and should be the same whether you’re parenting a child with autism or not.
7. “I am the sum of my behaviors, I have no inherent value.”
I am not sure where the author gets this one. There is a lot of praise and celebrating in ABA therapy. It’s a big deal when a child reaches a goal or is able to do something they weren’t able to do before. Every child has value and you as the parent have the job of showing them that.
In conclusion, I believe that the author of this article was simply not taught the “how” and “why” of ABA therapy and its techniques. Are there different types of ABA therapy out there? Are there bad ABA companies using some of the techniques the author talks about? Absolutely, yes. But it is our job as parents to protect and advocate for our children. Research in-home ABA versus center-based. Learn the difference between NET ABA – Natural Environment Training and DTT ABA– Discrete Trial Training.
If you do your research and find the right ABA techniques, your child is going to thrive because true ABA is not abuse. I’ll leave you with the words of my son who at age two and three was still non-verbal and now has learned speech beyond anything I thought possible:
Does your child attend ABA therapy? Why or why not? What do you think of this article compared to the original? Who do you agree with?