aba therapy

“It Causes More Harm Than Good” – The Dark Side of ABA Therapy

ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is a type of psychological intervention that is based in an concept that’s explained in this distressing 1965 Life Magazine article: “forcing a child’s outward behavior” would, “effect an inward psychological change”. Basically, if I can get my autistic child to act like they’re not autistic, they’ll start behaving more neurotypically. The ultimate goal of ABA is to make autistic people seem like they are “less” autistic.

Most autistic people will tell you the same thing: it doesn’t work.

The dangers of ABA therapy

Imagine society telling you that your way of thinking and the way your brain operates is wrong. Additionally, we’re told our behavior needs to be changed to be of any value. Living in a world that fundamentally rejects who you are and insists that you must change in order to have worth can be a deeply painful experience.

For some autistic individuals, sensitivity to sounds is a common challenge (as an example). Because our brains have developed differently, we experience the world in a unique way. However, in an ABA therapy setting, we are often taught to simply “deal with” and ignore our increased sensitivity to sound. We are expected to “act normal” even when loud or sudden noises cause us physical pain. In this approach, our needs and our reality are entirely dismissed, and the only value is placed on our ability to pretend to be “normal”.

It’s important to note that this is not an indictment of parents who enroll their children in ABA programs, or even ABA practitioners themselves (in most cases). Many parents and professionals genuinely want what’s best for autistic children. However, the issue lies in the belief that the best approach for individuals with autism is to ignore who they truly are, as well as their needs and the physical differences in their brains. The message is that they must conform and appear “just like everyone else,” rather than accepting and celebrating their unique selves.

People with autism are speaking up

Autism became more recognized (and, as a result, more commonly diagnosed) in the last several decades. People who were diagnosed with autism as children are all grown up now. The first victims of ABA therapy are adults now too. And we have some thoughts about ABA.

ASAN, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a group made up of autistic people to speak out against these practices that are harmful. They recently released a study titled “For Whose Benefit? Evidence, Ethics, and Effectiveness of Autism Interventions“. This study evaluates the effectiveness and the impacts of ABA therapy. Their findings? “Hiding autistic traits has been linked to worse mental health outcomes and increased suicidality in autistic adults.”

Imagine that, being told over and over again that who you are is “wrong” can cause long-term problems. (ASAN have authored a number of reports on this topic, check out another one here.)

A better alternative to ABA therapy

Neurodivergent affirming counselors offer therapy that validates the experience of having autism. Psychoeducation, the act of educating a client about how their brain works, is a huge part of the process. When we equip our clients with the knowledge of what makes them unique, they’re better able to navigate the world around them. Autism isn’t something that needs to be pushed away and hidden. People with autism shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of who they are. We create a space that provides acceptance and safety for our clients to better understand who they are. I’m not just neurodivergent-affirming. I’m neurodivergent myself and specialize in helping autistic clients.

Who makes the decisions?

Who should have the final say in how autistic people are treated? The answer is clear: when neurotypical individuals call the shots and try to force neurodivergent people to be something they’re not, it causes harm. Organizations like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network are the most reliable sources. Autistic people are able to speak for themselves (nothing about us without us!). It’s up to us to listen. “Passing” (acting so normal no one knows you’re autistic) isn’t the end goal. The end goal should be to find a life of happiness, fulfillment, and joy.

And the only way to do that is to accept who you are. Fully.

Ashlyn Baker is an autistic therapist who specializes in working with clients who are autistic or think they might be. Click here if you would like to schedule a free consultation with her.

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