What is ABA?
ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA is a type of therapy that focuses on improving behaviors such as social skills, communication, reading academics, etc. ABA is often used on children and adults with psychological disorders and neurological differences. It uses a small subset of psychology called behavioral psychology or behaviorism. Some methods are operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and other dog training techniques. Its goal is to make a child appear typical. There is no room for a child to have emotions or feelings throughout the process. It leaves the child to feel over time that they are not good enough and they need to mask.
They must never show their true self. If a child does not comply, they have been known to restrain, take away a comfort item, etc. It has been known to cause PTSD.
History of ABA
ABA’s roots are in behaviorism.
In the 1950’s Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas started his work in institutional settings where treatments were used using approaches practiced by behaviorist BF Skinner. People who were self-injured were given hugs and given love (no body autonomy there)
Ivar Lovaas, saw stimming as an obstacle to normalization. He originally got involved with “treating” autistic children who stimmed by injuring themselves. He used electric shocks to try to stop it. He is who we have to thank for the Judge Rotenberg Center for using it today.
Lovaas sought to eliminate stimming as a whole. In the book neurotribes, Steve Silberman said that Lovaas “would say things like, ‘they have eyes, they have ears, they have noses. But they’re not really people. You have the raw materials of a person, but you have to build the person.'”
Lovaas called stimming garbage behavior. He believed that if a child was stimming, they were unable to learn. Lovaas came to this conclusion because children in his labs were in conditions of extreme stress. The stress of being there was likely the cause of the children not being able to learn. Not the stimming. The stress was the cause of the stimming.
There was a theory that they were acting out because their parents did not show them love or were incapable of doing so. In 1960, Dr. Leo Kanner described parents of autistic children as “happening to defrost enough to produce a child.” This is where the term “refrigerator parent” came from. Bruno Bettelheim promoted the use of the term. Bettleheim felt the children would benefit from a “parent ectomy” or being removed from the home. They would be better served in a clinic or an institution. This was when autism was viewed as a disorder of faulty parenting.
Don Baer, Montrose Wolf, Sid Bijou, Todd Risley, James Sherman, and Ivar Lovaas were establishing behavior modification at the University of Washington. Lovaas introduced behavior modification to institutions for people’s self-injury behaviors. Some were severe enough to cause premature death.
Treatment included no longer providing hugs and love when engaging in self-injurious behavior. Love and hugs were given when the patients were not injuring themselves. They would apply punishments. One example is electric shock. The results of the data showed on most occasions self-injury was a result of prior learning, not traumatic childhood events. It could be modified by altering contingencies following their occurrence. Self-injury was acquired through positive social attention and reduced when removed. Attention, the first behavior function, was identified.
In the 1960s, Lovaas attempted to “help” children avoid the path to institutions by creating an intervention to teach language to autistic children. The hope of it was language would generalize other core differences that autistic people experience. This is when they started to pathologize play. Children received 40 hours a week of this training for about thirteen months. After thirteen months, children were discharged to their homes or institutions. The second phase was years later. The treatment and no treatment phases were a result of the loss of acquisition funding. This lead to a research design known as AB-BA reversal. This is now considered unethical, along with everything he did. This study was the first to demonstrate young autistic children could learn at an accelerated rate. New parameters for treatment were discovered. This was the first intensive early intervention study.
In 1993, Lovaas published “Long-Term Outcome for Children With Autism Who Received Intensive Behavioral Treatment.” This was to answer the question of “What happens to the children after they receive therapy?” The findings show 8 out of 9 had maintained their masks. They no longer acted autistic.
During the 1980s, practitioners were working off the strengths and limitations of the 1973 study. These were significant steps to alter the way autistic children received treatment. A study called ‘Behavioral Treatment and Normal Intellectual Functioning in Young Children with Autism” was published. 60 children were put into three groups. Two groups received 40 hours a week. The control group received 10 hours per week of the same “therapy.” Lovaas was known as the “father of ABA after this study.
Even Katie Wright of Autism Speaks Says it Didn’t Work for Her Son
“The Lovaas (ABA) was frequently quoted to me. … if you could just good early intervention, which everybody is for, and we got for him, …there’s a 50% chance he’ll be a typical child in 5 years.
So that sounded like good odds. Little did I know that’s never been replicated. … and, you know, didn’t include kids like Christian,” said Katie Wright about her son Christian.
What the Science Says
ABA Doesn’t Work
For two years in a row, the US Government has reported that ABA does not work. In the biggest study on autism which had 15,928 autistic participants, “improvements” after 12 and 18 months were looked at. They concluded that “the changes are small and may not be clinically significant.”
The ABA industry is a $17 billion a year industry. The force that drives the use of ABA within the autistic community is money. There are laws in all 50 states that compel insurance and Medicaid to cover it.
The report stated that the scores worsened with more ABA hours. The more ABA, the “worse” they got. “There does not appear to be a correlation between the outcome measures and the number of hours rendered. In other words, the number of hours rendered does not appear to impact outcomes. If the amount of direct ABA services was correlated with improvement, the trend line would demonstrate a statistically significant negative slope.”
According to this study, “The current treatment options for these children not only goes against current knowledge and research on ASD but while unintended, creates lasting damage and abuse which also goes gains the very oath professionals take to do no harm.”
ABA Leads to Misinformed Treatment of Self Injurious Behaviors
Self-injurious behaviors are a “class of behaviors, often highly repetitive and rhythmic, that result in physical harm to the individual displaying the behavior.” In the autistic population SIB are classified as non suicidal self injurious behavior. This can be someone hitting themselves in the face, head banging, etc.
The current approach is unscientific that assessing SIB. There is research that has been published on SIB, however, many professionals and paraprofessionals neglect best practices and attempt to differentiate SIB in the autistic population. They view it as a different “symptom” or psychosis.
The most popular assessment for SIM is the Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). The purpose of this assessment is to determine the “function” of the behavior. This is widely used in ABA. It is typically conducted by a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA).
The BCBA looks for anecdotal and consequence of SIB in order to determine the “function” of the behavior. It isn’t clear why they would assume an assessment would be appropriate to assess thoughts, feelings and other internal processes. All they seem to worry about is the behavior, not the reason the behavior exists in the first place.
Instead of approaching the SIB and understanding them in the way they are understood in other populations, BCBA misapplied the FBA in an attempt to measure them despite they cannot be measured. This makes the FBA unscientific and methodologically flawed.
My Experience With ABA
Everyone raves about ABA and how wonderful it is. Not a lot of people have asked an autistic adult about their experience with it. I had blocked out my memories of it until I got involved with an autistic support group prior to my diagnosis.
My mother called it “therapy to make her normal”. I am the only girl so it was me. I was forced to maintain eye contact through the tears. When I did, an M & M was placed in my mouth like you would a dog during a training session. While that happened, I remember my parents calling me dog names. “be a good doggie for the nice lady trainer” and other things like that.
I was made to sit on my hands when I would clap or flap. It hurt. She would call me bad. I was a very sensitive child. Having ADHD would do that.
I was often trapped in a red plastic desk that she brought with her. The top would open and it would lock shut.
My stim as a child was squeezing and petting a plushie. It was always taken. The therapist told my mother I should never be allowed to do that. It would allow me to retreat into my own world.
The therapist told me I would not eat or a preferred toy if I did not look at her. She even slapped my hands when I started to fidget. Just the name of the therapist caused a bad reaction with me. Her name was Rebecca. The only major meltdowns I had as a child were during these sessions.
My true self was being suppressed and caused major depression as I continued to do this. When I close my eyes, I see myself in these “therapy” sessions. Its almost like I relive them.
I was not diagnosed then but my parents paid out of pocket for this to make me normal. They started this soon after my ADHD diagnosis. They even gave my other brother pills to try to stop a head tick.
To this day I do not make eye contact, I do not like it. I fake it by staring at a person’s forehead when necessary. Just because I am not looking you in the eye, does not mean I am not listening to you.
ABA stopped when I was mainstreamed into general education classes. I had to use what I was taught to get through school and be abused less at home.
This is not made for sympathy, but I want people to be aware of the dangers of it. This was very painful to write. I had these memories blocked out for years. It resurfaced when a friend of mine was doing her job in spreading awareness of this harmful practice. I thank her for unburying it for me so I can educate people from my experience.
I teach my children to love themselves for who they are. They do not need to change who they are. They do go to therapy like speech, OT, and play therapy. Nothing like I experienced
Conversion Therapy and ABA Compared
You see it often. ABA is compared to Gay conversion therapy in the autistic community. It leaves the same effects yet only one is considered in mainstream society to be abusive and the other is alright because it deals with disabled children.
Let’s explore conversion therapy. Anderson Cooper did a documentary on this very subject. There was a little boy treated at UCLA with the experimental therapy. . To this day, conversion therapy enthusiasts consider it a victory. His family said he was never the same after therapy. This therapy was supposed to treat effeminate young boys. It was an experimental therapy funded by the government and its goal was to reverse perceived feminine behavior.
“The only thing they did was destroy our brother,” said his brother.
Their mother was concerned because of his feminine behaviors. “I wanted him to grow up to have a normal life.”
This group of behaviors was later called “sissy boy syndrome.” George Reckers was the therapist. At the time he was a medical student. He later graduated and became a founding member of the Family Research Council. the FRC sought to prevent gay marriage, and gay adoption and stop laws that protect the LGBTQ. He believed that homosexuality can be prevented.
To treat his behavior he was put in a room repeatedly. This room had a large table. One side of the table had toys marketed to boys and on the other side there were toys marketed to girls.
He was observed through a one-way window. He also had costumes to choose from.
His mother was brought into the room. She was instructed to ignore her son when he chose perceived feminine toys or costumes. In ABA this is called planned ignoring. She was to compliment him when he picked up the toys marketed to boys.
When ignored, he would cry. He would beg for her attention, he was in distress. He would “throw tantrums (their words not mine).” His mother was instructed to continue ignoring him. According to his sister, he once got so upset, he had to be removed from the room. After this incident, they would tell his mother that it is working. After a short break, they would bring him back in the room and start the process all over again.
The “therapy” continued outside UCLA. At home, there were poker chips being given. Red chips for feminine behavior and blue chips for masculine behavior by instructions of UCLA. His brother was doing it to reinforce Kirk. If Kirk received red chips, it resulted in physical punishment by spanking from his father. His brother even took red chips from his brother to protect him. “Whipping every Friday night. His mother said, “His father beat him so hard, there were welts up and down his back and on his buttocks.”
After this went on, Kirk changed. He was no longer outgoing but he started to behave in a way his parents wanted him to. The impact of this therapy lasted his entire life.
In the experiment report, they called him Kraig to protect his identity. The doctor considered his work a success because he acted like a “normal boy.” He used it as proof to say homosexuality can be reversed.
His family says they just recently discovered the report and they are outraged. “He is gay. He acknowledged himself as gay but would not allow himself to have a committed relationship.” He focused on his work. He started a career in the US Air Force where being openly gay was impossible. He went on to have a high-profile position with a finance company in India.
Kirk took his own life in 2003. He was deeply depressed and struggled with being a gay man. His family blamed his short life on this therapy. His sister stated, “What they really told him was that the very core of who he was, was broken.”
His mother said they were manipulated. They had no idea that Kirk was used as an example of a boy who no longer has feminine behaviors. “He would have been better off if we did not take him.”
When Dr Kreeger was cornered about Kirk’s death, he was very apathetic and unempathetic. When he was asked what he thought about the family blaming him “That is scientifically inaccurate.” He went on to say that the therapy happened decades before his suicide.
When Kirk was evaluated by Dr. Richard Green evaluated him when he was 18. Kirk told him that he tried to kill himself the year before by swallowing aspirin. “I do not want to grow up to be gay.”
Years later, This same doctor was caught hiring a male escort. He said he did not have any sexual contact but the escort stated he was giving the doctor sexual massages. After this scandal, he resigned from the FRC.
His research is still being cited. “This was a little boy who deserved respect, dignity, and unconditional love.”
The documentary is here:
“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense. They have hair, a nose and a mouth. But they are not people in the physiological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.” This was said by Ivan Lovaas. He was the founder of ABA and Conversion therapy.
After watching the above documentary, so many similarities between the ABA I experienced and what this poor boy went through. Everything was acting what they wanted or face the consequences. Stimming was discouraged. I was forced to sit on my hands or I would be tied to a chair with an apron.
I was forced to make eye contact. It physically hurt. If I did not, they would shine a light in my eyes. A comfort item I had was routinely taken from me.
When I had a rough time, I was beaten because I was a disappointment.
ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. It exists to make us “better” or to “recover” us or to make us “normal.” Children are in ABA for about 40 hours a week and no child needs to be in any type of therapy for those many hours. It’s a full-time job and if they are in school, they will have time for nothing else. They are not able to be children. This amount of time segregates children from their peers.
ABA robs us of our dignity, power and self-worth. Nearly half of people exposed to ABA went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is compliance training.
The goal of ABA is to decrease or increase targeted behaviors. The child is conditioned to a cue. The child does the correct behavior. Then the child is given a reward. Very similar to conversion training. If the child does an incorrect behavior, there is something called “planned ignoring.” This means the therapist or parent will ignore the child, with no indication that the adult is paying attention to the child. This causes distress to the child. If the child knows that this stress will be placed on them if they do not do it correctly, they will do what the adult wants. An item is also taken away.
There is no consideration for the child’s emotions or well-being. They only focus on the behavior.
Let’s use my experience as an example. If I would hand flap, my plush cat would be taken. This item brought me great comfort. I hand flapped and it was taken away for five minutes, I would cry, beg for it back and slowly work my way into a meltdown. Then I would be yelled at to stop. It would just get worse. I would then take a break and they would try again.
The child is told they need to be a certain way. If they act or think the way they are, it is wrong. What similar ways of thinking did to Kirk, it did to me. I have attempted suicide many times but did not know why for a long time. My ABA experience became a blocked memory until it became unblocked. It became unblocked when I got involved with the autistic community and it all came back like a vivid movie. I needed intensive therapy for that. My husband was there to help me through it. I swore I would never do this to my children and I never did.
ABA Has Not Changed
ABA enthusiasts say that ABA has changed. I was in ABA when I was a child. The other day, my husband was on his google drive because he was doing something for AIM USA and saw these were shared with him from Palm Beach School for Autism, the school that nearly killed A by trying to give him insulin when he was already LOW.
This same school had their BCBA tell my husband and I separately that the Neurodiversity movement is a hate group. Yes, the very people they are supposed to be serving are a hate group. G-d forbid autistic people be proud of who they are not feel like we are broken all the time. We are not a tragedy.
When ABAers tell you that ABA is changed, check this out. This is proof that it didn’t. This is dog training BUT when I train dogs, they are treated A LOT BETTER and actually with AUTONOMY, unlike this person is subjecting this poor child to. This teacher should be ashamed of herself. We are not dogs, we are people with emotions, needs, and boundaries.
Unfortunately for us, this school was the only choice. I made sure there was NO ABA written in all thier IEP. I showed this to my kids and the expressions they gave us told us they weren’t subjected to this.