young child lining up playdough in the colors of the rainbow from red to violet.

Invisible Abuse: ABA and the things only autistic people can see11 min read

If you want to upset a self-described Autism Mom, all you have to do is tell her that ABA is abusive.

This argument breaks out on social media so many times every single day.

Autism is an unusual condition because the community is so sharply divided.

On one side you have the neurotypical parents and families of autistic children, and on the other you have the online community of adult autistic people, many of whom are parents to autistic children.

The two sides disagree on virtually everything, but arguably the most contentious subject is Applied Behaviour Analysis Therapy.

ABA Therapists and many families of autistic people hail it as the most effective, most scientifically proven way to help autistic children develop life skills such as speech, potty training, and going to the grocery store without going into full meltdown mode.

Autistic adults– many of whom have been through ABA as children– say that it is abuse.

You can imagine how that statement sounds to loving parents whose children adore their ABA therapist and who would never knowingly abuse their beloved child.

You can imagine how it feels to be told that the gold-standard treatment which is bleeding your finances dry so that you can help your child is actually abuse.

The difficulty is that when people hear the word “abuse,” they think of pain and violence.

ABA has a big history of those things, too.  Its founder, O.  Ivar Lovaas, used electric shocks to stop children from engaging in their obsessive, repetitive behaviours.  He systematically trained them with equal combinations of love and pain to behave more like non-autistic children.

He thought he was saving them, turning a raw bundle of nerve endings into something resembling a human being.

One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is you have to construct a person.  You have the raw materials but you have to build the person.

-Lovaas

Whenever ABA comes up, so does Lovaas.  Autists point out that he used these same techniques to pioneer gay conversion therapy, which, like ABA, has also been proven to be deeply harmful to the human psyche.  They also point out that while fewer ABA therapists use things like electric shock, it is still used and considered important by several institutions.

“But ABA has changed,” people argue.  “My ABA therapist never uses punishment.  It’s all positive and reward-based.”

That is very true for many people.  Most ABA therapists don’t set out to hurt children.  And yet, despite making ABA therapy fun and positive, the underlying goals of ABA have not changed.

And it is these goals that, like gay conversion therapy, do long-term damage to the human psyche.

The reason parents and ABA therapists can’t see it as abusive is because they can’t see it from an autistic point of view.

Let’s take a moment to look at some ABA in progress.

 

 

 

So?  Did you see any child abuse?

Probably not.

How about here?

Or here?

Sure, the child was unhappy in the first video but the teacher was patient and she recovered, right?

And in the second video, they’re trying to teach children not to be disruptive, but they aren’t punishing the child or anything.

In all of these videos the children are never yelled at, scolded, shamed, or injured.  They are praised and rewarded when they get things right, and often the kids seem to be enjoying the games.

No electric shocks, no aversive, nothing to make the experience traumatic, right?

Wrong.

Allistic people can’t see it, because they don’t understand how it feels to be autistic.

Let’s go back to that first video.

While they do not address it in the voice-over, if you watched it again you would notice how often the therapists take the children’s hands and fold them into the children’s lap.

You would also notice how often the child’s feelings are ignored.

In the first video, several of the children begin rubbing their eyes and looking tired, but they do not address this.

In the video with the girl in the supermarket, an autistic person can spot that she was getting overstimulated, exhausted, and was increasingly desperate to escape this environment.

In the video with the crying child, an autistic person wonders why she is so unhappy.  Is she exhausted?  Overtired?  Overwhelmed?  And when she stops fussing and goes back to doing the work, we can see the resignation on her face.

She isn’t happier.  She’s just accepted that her feelings don’t matter and the fastest way to escape the situation is by complying.

In the last, you can see that ABA therapists deliberately ignore attempts to communicate or produce behaviours that have not been demanded by the therapist.

The child wants his mother’s attention.  Would I ignore my child while trying to listen to what his doctor was telling me?  Probably.  But I would “shhh” or pat his arm to let him know that he was heard, and I would be with him in a minute.

Notice that ABA doesn’t tell you to go back to the child after and find out what they needed or wanted.

And that is the problem with ABA. 

Not the rewards, not the silly imitation games. The problem with ABA is that it addresses the child’s behaviours, not the child’s needs.

Think of those happy little children in that first video.

Now understand that sessions like this are not a couple of hours a week.  ABA therapists recommend that small children between 2 and 5 go through 40 hours a week of this type of learning.

40 hours a week.

No WONDER those kids are rubbing their eyes.

My allistic eight year old doesn’t do 40 hours a week of school.  He goes to school from nine to three and gets a half hour recess and a half hour lunch.  That’s 5 hours a day five days a week.  25 hours of active learning.  And much of his class time is actually quiet reading, playing with learning materials, gym, or talking in a circle with his peers.  So make it less than 20 hours a week of being actively taught.

Imagine asking double that for a preschooler.

Now consider that ABA is designed to ignore any protests the child might make.

ABA is not designed to consider the child’s feelings or emotional needs. 

I’m not making a jump when I say that.  You can go to any ABA website and read what they say and you’ll see that there will be no discussion of the child’s emotional welfare or happiness, only behaviours.

To ABA, behaviour is the only thing that matters. ABA considers autistic children as unbalanced kids who need to be balanced out, and if you balance their behaviour, they are fixed.

“…what you need to do is reduce those excesses like the self stimulatory behavior, repetitive behaviors, and increase the skills.  And then what will happen is after the child really learns a set of foundational skills; then they will start relating more to other people.”
— Deborah Fein PhD

 

As you can see from the above video, “self-stimulation”, one of the “excesses” of autism behaviours, is considered a kind of boredom fidget– something useless that replaces real learning and interaction.

When they are erased and replaced with “life skills,” then this is celebrated as a success.

Any autistic person will tell you is that this is NOT what stimming is.

Stimming isn’t just like doodling when you’re bored, or throwing a basketball.

Stimming is a comforting self-soothing behaviour which helps us reduce stress, feel more comfortable in uncomfortable environments, and regulate our emotions.

Many of us feel that our stims are a form of communication – just as a smile or a frown communicates something about our internal states, so do our stims, if you would just pay attention.  Moreso, in fact, since many autistic people smile when they are anxious or frown when they are perfectly content.  Studies show that non-autistic people are terrible at interpreting our facial expressions. 

If my husband sees me stimming more than usual in the middle of the day, he frowns and asks if my day is going okay.  But many times he mistakes my emotions based on my facial expressions.  My stims are better at translating my emotions than my face is, unless I’m actively animating my face in an allistic way for the benefit of my allistic audience.

Which is exhausting, by the way.

40 hours a week is too much for me so I can’t imagine how a small child manages it.

Grabbing my hands when I stim the way ABA recommends would NOT help my day go better. 

It would be an excellent way to piss me off and make me feel frustrated and anxious, though.

It’s one thing to stop a child from hurting themselves by banging their head.  It’s another to stop a harmless stim like hand flapping.  You’re causing the child emotional discomfort just because the behaviour strikes you as weird.

Go back and watch some of those videos again, noting how often the autistic children are interrupted from hand-waving, making noise, crying, or otherwise trying to express and relieve their emotions.

Notice how often they get the child to make eye contact.  Many autistic people find eye contact extremely uncomfortable.  The way the children’s bodies are touched and manipulated so frequently, in corrective redirection, is upsetting the children.  Their faces reflect confusion and sometimes distress.

But learning to tolerate discomfort is what ABA is all about. 

Watch that child enter the grocery store.  See how she looks all around?  The noise and the lights are stressful and distracting.  She wants to please her family and get the cookie pieces so she goes along with the act of putting food in the cart, but after a while she is worn out and can’t stand it anymore.

The mother comments that if they relented at this point and took the child out of the store, her daughter would be rewarded for behaving this way.

That is probably true.  If you are in pain, and you scream “Ouch!”  and someone comes running and relieves your pain, you’ll probably yell “Ouch” again the next time something hurts you.

Is that…  bad?

The parents say the ABA really helped their daughter.

Did it really help the child, though?  Or the parents?

The grocery store isn’t any less noisy or bright or overwhelming.  And the child obviously still finds it difficult to go in.  Instead, she has learned to keep her feelings to herself, to try and focus on pleasing her family, and bottle up her stress inside until she can’t take it any more.

That’s a healthy thing to teach a child, right?

With time she may become excellent at this.  She may be able to go to the store, put items in the cart, and go home without a meltdown.

But the meltdown WILL come.

It will come over something minor, some silly thing that seems like nothing and pushes her over the edge where she was already teetering.  And they will wonder where it came from.  They’ll talk about how unpredictable her meltdowns can be.

It isn’t unpredictable to us.

We can see it coming.  We can see that her autism hasn’t been treated to improve her life so much as to improve her family’s life.  And while that is important too, wouldn’t it be better to find a solution that works for everyone?

Did they try ear defenders, and dark glasses?

Did they try encouraging her to stim if stressed?

Did they teach her a polite way to let them know when she has had enough and needs to leave the situation?

I don’t know.  I don’t know them.  I don’t know their child.

But I do know what autism feels like.

I know that ear defenders are not part of standard ABA protocols.  Instead of teaching them to understand their sensory needs and self-advocate for having their needs met, they are taught to ignore them.

I know that ABA demands the child’s attention but refuses to give attention back when the child demands it.

I know that ABA aims to be positive and rewarding for the child, but doesn’t allow the child to tap out whenever they need to.

I know that ABA considers vital emotional regulation tools to be problems that must be extinguished.

I know that neurotypical pre-schoolers are not usually expected to learn for 40 hours a week.

I know that neurotypical children are encouraged to express their emotions, not smother them.

I know that ABA believes in removing a child’s language tool like the iPad when they are naughty.  I notice that the ABA therapist working with the 8-year-old boy only handed him his communication tool in between “discrete trials.”

I know from activists like Cal Montgomery that even adult autistic people have their communication tools routinely taken away from them if they don’t “comply” to the demands of their therapists and caregivers.

I know that if I ask someone if they think it is abusive to remove a child’s only way of contacting their parents, or to ignore a child in distress, or to force a child into a situation that they find uncomfortable/painful, or refuse to help a child when they are suffering and overwhelmed, they will say yes.

As long as I don’t mention that the child is autistic, anyway.

Autistic kids are different, apparently.

Whenever autistic people protest ABA, we are told that we don’t understand, that we don’t know how hard autistic children are to live with.  They talk about improving the child’s independence and argue that it isn’t cruel to teach a child to write or play with toys.

They don’t see how weird it is to try to systematically shape a child’s behaviour to teach them to play with a toy the “right” way.

They don’t see that 40 hours a week of brainwashing a child to put up with stress and discomfort without expressing their feelings might be a bad idea in the long run.

They don’t see how wrong it is to teach a child that their way of feeling comfortable and soothed is wrong and that ignoring your feelings and physical needs is good and gets you approval from your teachers and parents.

They don’t see that it is abusive to ignore a child’s attempts to communicate because they aren’t “complying” with a demand that makes them uncomfortable.

They don’t see how dangerous it is to teach a child to do whatever they are ordered to do, no questions asked, and to never object or say “no.”

They don’t think about the fact that 70% of people with ASD have experienced sexual abuse by the time they are college age.

They don’t think about how this person will learn to stand up for themselves or advocate for their needs when they were systematically trained in preschool never to disagree, speak up, or disobey.

Do what I say. 

Put your hands in your lap.

Don’t cry.  Don’t complain.

Listen to me.

I won’t listen to you.

This is not abuse.

…But, you know, the kid gets bubbles and tickles so it’s obviously safe and totally okay.

What do we know?

Our feelings don’t matter anyway.

 

 

C.L. Lynch

C.L. Lynch is an award-winning fiction author and socially awkward autist living in Vancouver, B.C. with one husband, two children, several fuzzy animals, and uncountable unwashed dishes. She enjoys smashing tropes and hiding from adult responsibilities.

If you enjoyed this article, consider buying her a diet pepsi: https://ko-fi.com/cllynch

206 Comments

  1. Great job guys…
    You read an article about how autistic people truly feel about a therapy that’s aimed to “help” them…
    They tell you that it completely ignores their emotional health, it’s abusive and they just want to be heard.

    AND YOU WANT TO ARGUE WITH THEM?! 

    NO!  IT’S GREAT!  BECAUSE I’M CERTIFIED IN IT!  YOU’RE NOT BEING ABUSED!!! 

    AGAIN, reinforcing the “Stop doing that, do this, and don’t complain about it.”

    I’m neurotypical by the way.  It’s just that obvious judging from the responses in this post alone. 

    Do some self reflection.  This is fucking heart breaking.

    Ps: tiffany, you are not the authority in the way someone with autism experiences the world because you have a degree.  Cut it out.  Its obnoxious.

    1. I would like to clone an army of you <3

      Thank you.  A million times, thank you for being an ally.

    2. Lol never said I was.  I said that this is not an accurate depiction of what ABA is.  Did not mention anything about anyone’s feelings or experiences with the world 🙂

      1. And yet, this reply, in itself is one of the most telling and accurate commentaries one could make on how an autistic experiences the world…

      2. Any and every NT person (parent, teacher, and otherwise) who believes ABA is acceptable is simply not listening.  From one NT mom and teacher to another, sit down, zip it, and listen — to our autistic spouses, children, students, and adults we haven’t even met in person.  Our job is to learn not to make *them* more like *us.*

        1. HOW do we KNOW how we/our child would have turned out if we had/not had ABA?
          Then I have a lot of problems we what is currently called autism as a diagnosis of any problem.
          Autism is a description of certain behaviour patterns, not a diagnosis of what is the cause of those problems. 
          I have seen far too many ‘mentally retarded’ kids diagnosed as ‘Autistic’.  These kids/people need help to survive in our society, maybe ABA really does help many of these people.

  2. I am the parent of a (now grown-up) autistic woman and I would NEVER put her through this dangerous, degrading crap.  I’m NT and all you NT’s thinking “but it’s for the best to make them fit in” Just NO!  You are destroying them, that is not the act of a loving parent.  Don’t inflict ABA on your children!

  3. I think the end goal of every parent, especially for the parents of non-verbal individuals, should be at least attempting to get their child to learn basic self care.  Toileting/Hygiene, picking up after themselves and making easy, basic food, that way, even after the parent passes on, one can be at least somewhat able to take care of themselves. 

    Reducing stimming?  Fuck that noise.

    Reducing non-verbal vocalizations?  Fuck that noise.

    All the autistic behaviors that harm none (even the autistic individual) should just be accepted by NT’s.  How does hand flapping harm YOU?  it doesn’t!  My stim is jiggling my leg.  I don’t flap, I jiggle my leg.  How does someone making non-verbal sounds harm YOU?  It doesn’t, unless you have a migraine, then take your meds and go lie down in a dark room.  BUT, helping one get a basic grasp of self care, goes a very long way in basic human dignity for the Autistic person.  I know I wouldn’t want to be in diapers my entire life, or be bathed by someone else for my life.  I would want to be able to do that myself, and I have that, so does my Autistic daughter. 

    I have a feeling teaching the big three can be done without using the abusive tactics of ABA.

    1. It’s not about teaching.  It’s about validating inadequate and resentful NTs.

  4. I feel bad for not noticing all this in the first videos.  I’m autistic myself (although I have Asperger’s, which is kind of different I guess) and all I thought was that they’re doing everything so quickly and expect the child to keep up.
    These videos were overwhelming to watch because I really felt like the kids couldn’t breathe.  Also, it’s like they’re dogs.  A handle to hold the child?  Just…  Wow.

    1. I noticed her putting the hands down right away.  It made me crazy.  Then the jumping from one thing to the next!!!  Why?  It takes longer to process and think things out sometimes.  Go slow.  Flap stem.  Think about it.  We let our guy do what he wants in the stores.  We get weird looks all the time.  Honestly he’s a great kid, why would I want him to suffer.

    2. I wouldn’t treat a dog like that!!  It is abusive for dogs as well as humans.
      Treat the cause, NOT the symptoms.


  5. This article was really interesting and informative, thank you!  I’m NT and the only things I really picked up on in the videos was how loud the therapists were and how much touching and grabbing they did, which seemed like it’d be distressing to the kids.  It kind of drives me crazy that this therapy is ostensibly meant to help autistic children, but when adults who’ve gone through it show up with a huge list of reasons why it’s harmful and what are better alternatives, they’re turned away as not getting how stressful it is to raise an autistic kid, completely missing the point of how stressful and damaging the therapy is to the children themselves.

  6. Thank you for this article.  I always had the sneaking suspicion that this type of therapy and other methods similar to it were abusive, but it’s so so nice to have some proof.  I’m not autistic, but I have SPD, which is basically experiencing senses in a different way than most people, plus being extremely sensitive to sensory overloads.  To all the parents of autistic or neurodivergent kids reading this article, please dont do this yo your kids.  I’m paying a heavy price down the line for complying with this as a kid.  It leads to all sorts of social issues with other kids, and huge self esteem issues.  This type of “therapy” tells you as a very small child that you are not good enough as you are, that you have to change to fit everyones standards.  Then you spend your whole life believing them I’d you’re not careful.

  7. It’s abuse.  If you saw it being done to a POW or political dissident, you would immediately recognize it for what it is. 
    Unless of course, you were the oppressor; then you would just call it Behavior Modification. 
    But it would still be abuse.

    1. Shame truly.  This entire article is just an opinion, nothing factual other than others agreeing, which is easy for people to agree and disagree.  Have studies been done to make this claim about ABA being sooo extremely abusive?  Probably not, as it’s pretty ridiculous to claim a service as a whole, as abusive. 

      Are some companies teaching in a manner that could follow your article sure, have some expressed abuse through ABA sure, I’m not saying it hasn’t happen.  But do not generalize the entire ABA industry on your experience.
      Have you gone out your way to visit different centers and see their teaching, asking to sit in, talking to the doctors who run these clinics about it to support your claims?  Probably not.  It’s not fair to generalize the entire ABA community , when I personally know very affectionate, loving and caring therapist on my end. 

      Studies have been done though about the success rate of ABA.  I work with they most amazing doctor I know, who has never once ignored the NEEDS of our kiddos. 

      In fact their needs are just as important!!  And yes, I’m a ABA therapists, and I LOVE each kid I work with, with ALL MY HEART. 
      We don’t put demands on them when they are sick or tired.  And kids who aren’t diagnosed and out in general Ed classes, still go to school when they are sick, so isn’t that abuse?  By your logic. 

      Are teachers abusive because they are telling students to line up and follow the rules when certainly those kids don’t want to stay in line or follow the rules?

      1. Yes.  But DO you understand them???

      2. As I understand it, ABA is ‘formalised’.  This is what you do “IF .  .  .  “. 
        All autistic kids are different.  There are many reasons for a “problem behaviour” and a one-size-fits-all response is unlikely to help them.
        Maybe it is the ‘diagnosis’ that is failing these kids?
        Would it not be better to help these kids
        I got that as a kid.  Nobody cared at all that I found somethings totally unpleasant./distasteful.  Just do it!  Then I was in trouble for all my stress illnesses.  “It’s all in your head.  Imaginitis 🙁 Just pull up your socks, You are so cranky.”
        Would it not be better to help these kids cope with a world they find confusing/weird/ unpleasant rather than trying to make them simply outwardly comply?
        As for ‘generalising the ABA community’ I think it is the ABA community that has generalised them selves.
        I am Asperger’s enough to know that I HATE HATE HATE inflexible rules of conduct.
        I have personally had association with the ABA dog trainers.  “Do this this way!  No you are wrong, do it THIS way.  Deliver the food this way!  Your treats are too large, too small, wrong food” and worse,
        I’ve had over 20 dogs in my life time and I know each of them needed training/socialisation in their own way.
        By the way, release from stress is NOT a sensible ‘reward’ to use.  It is NEGATIVE reinforcement.  It is very stressful for the recipient.

  8. This is very interesting to me.  I don’t have autism but I’m not neurotypical either, having ADHD, and an array of the bits and pieces that go along with basic neurodevelopmental differences. 

    I have a 3 yo who doesn’t have autism and I would never allow him to endure that intensity of interaction and control purely because it would be utterly overwhelming.  Destructive in extreme because there’d be no room for him.  Suffocating.  Traumatizing.  Erasing.  Learned helplessness = depression.  So 40 hours…  hell on earth.  I see how that’s so so abusive. 

    To train key functional tasks that my child was not intrinsically motivated to learn, or couldn’t learn through modeling and encouragement, I’d use the behavioural techniques for sure.  But not on that type of schedule.  It’s interesting isn’t it that the recommended weekly amount coincides with 1 x FTE job…  basic economics.  Keeping people employed. 

    Like others, I don’t think the problem is the techniques – it’s not the science.  It’s how it’s applied and the implicit dehumanizing value set it can bring.  Something that this post makes explicit really well.  Behavior without values/choice is autopilot, obedience, subjugation.

    We need to make room for the individual to thrive and guide their development in all their uniqueness, within their own emergent value set, within any functional training program.

    1. Author

      Very well put!

  9. Neurodivergent kids are allready under more stress with operating in a world designed by the majority, for the majority.  Whilst I can understand why a parent of an Autistic kid might be desperate to have their child appear to be more conforming to societies norms, there might be a few key missing points when they think this way:
    1) An autistic child is much more unique than the majority of people
    2) An autistic childs uniqueness is central to who they are and it always will be
    3) An Autistic childs uniqueness is also the core of their unique potential and talents
    4) Whilst this may be uncomfortable and challenging for some, it is a good thing
    5) Your child is already under more stress bridging their mind to the world which rarely accommodates for their uniqueness.
    6) Supressing or forcing an autist to mask the way they are will invariably have a negative impact on the child and all the potential they have.
    7) Any treatment has to invariably be as unique as the child is.  There is no copy and paste solution, because of the childs uniqueness.

    So why on earth would you exert extreme stress on the child to force them go mask what comes naturally?

    So what are the answers for tools for living an independant life for some Autists (toilet training, dressing, hygiene)?  The answers will be as unique as each Autist is unique.  To unravel this, you need to understand what is behind everything.  Do your homework, be patient, get to the root of things, Learn, think, but most of all, don’ t try and change your child just so they fit in with societal norms.  Throwing money at strangers to try and fix something is bound to fail. 

    The best people to help the child are the people who know them best.  The parents.  Step up.  Don’t abdicate.

    My Advice?  Get used to our home motto.  In our house, we don’t do normal.

    I am writing this as an undiagnosed adult autist, with a diagnosed Autistic Son.  Was potty training hard?  You bet it was.  Dressing and self care.  ohh yes, you bet.  Is our son successful. 
    Absolutely.  Kind, polite, considerate, deep thinking.  Tick.  Extraverted? 
    Tick.  Stims a lot in class (yep, running back and forth across the classrom).  Tick.  Do teachers care?  (nope, they know more is going into his head than the kids sitting down ) Mainstream schooled?  yep.  5As in this years report, tick. 

    And would we have ever considered a treatment to mould him into something he simply is not?  No way.  We chose to learn what works for the way he is, not the other way around.  If we did the opposite we would be seriously emotiinally broken, low self esteem, flunking at school, getting into trouble. 

    Why do I think that?  Because he would be working overtime being two people, not one.  Bugger that for a life

    Each to their own, I am not looking to argue any points.  Just providing a perspective based on our experience and I completely recognise, each parent and each childs situation and challenges are completely unique and that our experience may not work as well for others.

  10. Im sorry that you feel that us neurotypical mums are all on the one side….  my son was diagnosed when he was nearly 10.  We had both suffered incredibly and would suffer more.  ABA always seemed disgusting to me because it ignored his whole body experience.  I was left with nearly NO information but found Aspergers Experts and then eventually Dr Holly Bridges.  Im absolutely certain there are quiet, determined, “not on social media” parents who ran from ABA and sought a love response to the gift that is their autistic child.  Don’t forget about us.  We have always been “other centered” love people.  Seeking more for our child.


  11. I am a NT mother of a 24 year-old autistic son who just graduated from university.  I did not use ABA, nor would I!  I am totally against ABA!  So, how about you learn about us NT mothers of autistic kids before you go around saying that we all defend ABA!!  We do not!  Autism is not an illness!  It is not something that needs to be “cured”!  Society needs to learn to adapt to our awesome kids, not the other way around!!

    1. Problem with this is, it’s a bit like the “not all men” argument in feminism.  Not all NT parents are the same, for sure.  Some are amazing allies.  Like you (and I completely agree with your last couple of sentences, being autistic myself).  But as long as the majority stamp on the minority, the minority’s allowed to complain in very general terms.

  12. Hi everyone.  My son is 4yo and was diagnosed just after his second birthday.  With help from our local regional center, we were able to start center based early intervention almost immediately, and ABA therapy a few months later.  He started with 20 hours of ABA and is now at 14 1/2.  I fight with the scheduling coordinator because they want him at 15, but that means a 4 hour Saturday session.  It’s too much.  Well, I feel embarrassed that I’m fighting over 30 minutes when I’m reading about how terrible ABA is for autistic children.  And I’m feeling overwhelmed and broken hearted.  Acceptance, self love and equality are extremely important to me and have been love before I became a parent.  So the thought of doing something so harmful to my beautiful boy is too much to bare.  And now I feel so confused.  He is such a happy child, always singing and dancing, giving hugs and kisses, laughing and playing with us.  ABA taught me to communicate with him when he was non-verbal.  It’s taught me how to make transitions easier for him, it’s given me patience to handle and understand meltdowns.  I have worked with women and men with family members and siblings who are autistic.  They’ve given me so much guidance.  They loved Logan and were so encouraging.  I never felt like they’ve pushed him too far or overworked him.  But they have said they would place less demands on him if he seemed sick, sleepy, or generally fussy.  ( I’m assuming this would be the soda scenario…he woke up ready to blow).  I literally have only become aware of the harm of ABA within the last couple of months.  So, I feel lost.  I feel scared.  And I feel like I’m letting my son down after what I’ve read.  So, if not ABA, then what?

    1. So how exactly has ABA been abusive to your son?  I think I missed something in your write-up.

    2. The type of therapy your son is getting may not be actual ABA but may just be classified as ABA for insurance reasons.  Either way though, it’s good that you’re questioning it.  Are there any forms of Augmented Alternative Communication (AAC) that you’ve found helpful for communicating with your son?  PECS is a really good one.  With picture-based systems you may have to use actual photos of things around your house though, because some kids have trouble connecting the picture with the abstract idea that “this picture of a bed represents every bed, including mine.”  So taking a picture of the actual objects can help.

      DIR/Floortime is a great alternative therapy to ABA, but you have to be careful that whoever administers it doesn’t combine it with ABA principles.  Same with OT. 

      Thank you so much for wanting to help your son.  I can’t imagine how confusing all of this is for you.  That you want to learn how to help, listen to and respect your son is already proof that you are a good mother.

    3. Don’t give up mama, it could just be a matter of changing to a different supervisor or even vendor.  I was lucky to have found early intervention through our regional center and the ABA company was great.  They always considered how tired my child was or if he needed a break.  I always expressed my concerns and talked about my child’s feelings.  My boy is doing so much better.  He can comunicate better and I feel like ABA is needed, at least until you can establish a comunication system (for those who remain nonverbal).  The world out there is harsh, we need to prepare the for it.

    4. Don’t fall for this my friend.  Im an ABA therapist of 13 years and I have clients who thank me to this day for the work we did together.  Don’t give up and ABA is not abuse.  Fyi I’ve never ignored the “needs” of my clients.  You need to do more research and speak with your providers.

      1. Just because some parents thank you doesn’t mean all parents feel like thanking you — or that all parents necessarily understand their problems their child is going though.  it does not mean the child feels any better.  Nor does it necessarily mean that you are a good therapist.
        I did ‘therapy’ as a pre-schooler because my Mother thought I was ‘mentally retarded’.  SHE said I wasn’t yet talking — I thought on the other hand she was just being rude to me by pretending she didn’t understand what I was saying.  I was lucky, I think, my therapist taught me poetry which I loved 🙂
        I thought other people both adults and children were very rude — I did not want to be touched, talked to or in any other way have anything to do with strangers — especially those wearing perfumes and cosmetics ad going into a hose where Ammonia was use as a cleaning agent was horrific to me.  I always hos the horrors because my M-I-L always wanted to ‘do’ the social kiss.  Yuck.  Why????

    5. I believe that ABA can change a life for the better if done right.  I think the key is really to find the best place to do this helpful therapy.  ABA Treatment Miami has great therapists with a lot of experience working with children who find it difficult to cope in what we consider everyday experiences.  I really love how sensitive they are to meet your family’s needs and how they make the environment for your child to feel so natural and happy.

  13. I can’t believe what I have watched.  I have worked and lived with autism for years now.  These are thinking, feeling, sensitive children ….not dogs to teach tricks to with rewards!!  So called rewards…  how many hyper sensory children can bare to be tickled.  If you are trying to encourage a child to make decisions and choices but can’t, so grab their hands and manipulate the action (like forcing a thumbs up) quite frankly you have failed to get through or teach anything lasting.  Done well, 1:1 positive game play stimulation can create a safe space to encourage better understanding of the world around an autistic child.  There shouldn’t be shortcuts and there should be a core understanding of individual needs.  Patience and the development of trust with a therapist brings lifelong self belief.  Reward based bullying breaks down identity and we need to build up these kids!!! 
    Sorry I have gone on but am frustrated at well meaning but damaging practices!!!!

  14. I’m not getting in the debate; I have no clue.  However, as a highly observant aspie who has done far too much research, I am always bewildered at how many parents of kids on the spectrum consider themselves neurotypical.  , 🤔 Some of you are, but then your partner must not be.  At least one parent is on the spectrum.  That’s how soyou created an autistic child.  🤷‍♀️ There is no need for all the guessing as to what we feel like or how we see things.  Because at least ONE of you gets it.

  15. Thank you so much for this article.  My 5 yo was diagnosed with autism a few months ago.  Our OT recommended we check out the open house for the new ABA therapy group in town.  The facility was lovely but when they told me they wanted 40 hours per week, or at least 20, I balked.  That’s insane!  I’m not giving up that time with my kid!  I’ve since had some other moms recommend it and wanted to hear from adults with autism what they thought of it.  This was eye opening!  Those videos made me sick.  There is nothing wrong with my daughter, she’s amazing.  Sure, I would love for her to be better understood by peers and to more easily function in the classroom but in neither of these situations is she the one who needs to change.  I would love some suggestions on therapies that are helpful and not abusive, from people who have actually been through them.  I am so thankful for you and this community and the work you are doing to help autists be better understood and accepted. 

    I don’t think most NT parents would put their children in ABA if they understood this.  At least I certainly hope they wouldn’t.  So thank you for putting this out there.  Your perspective is so valuable.

    1. can’t speak for all autistic people, but my mum inadvertently did a lot of good training with me when I was young, basically because she wanted to share art and film with me.  I was raised on a lot of films, from various eras and genres (As in, I didn’t realize “colour” was standard until I was about 8-9.) and, while I may be a little more dramatic or quotation-oriented than NT folk, It actually really helped me develop a base for interaction, because it’s scripts.  scripts intended to feel natural.  scripts I can analyse, rewatch, learn, develop to, and integrate.

      In terms of school, my mum went the homeschooling route after 5th grade, which helped, but other things before that were things like a teacher recognizing how much movement distracted me, so making a special “room” for me to take tests in (A cardboard box around a desk with drawings, tbh) A bit much, but the basic premise is sound in that she saw what was causing my lack of focus and worked around it.

  16. Thank you, this has finally put the reasons why ABA is seen as abuse in a way that I can understand it. 

    I’m a late diagnosis, this year in fact, along with my 2yo son.  So I understand not only how it feels to be autistic and have those feelings ignored, and how it feels to desperately want to be “normal” but not understanding why I’m not, and also how it feels to want to do everything I can to give my child everything he needs for a good life.  It’s been hard for me to exactly understand what “it’s abuse” means when that’s all people generally say.  I’ve had trouble my whole life understanding short blanket statements, it’s like, “yes I believe you, but I don’t have an understanding of what exactly you’re telling me.”  My son is in ABA, and does love his therapist and armed with all of the things that I understood to be abusive I chose our ABA provider.  They agreed that stimming is important, he doesn’t need to sit and remain sitting for an activity, he can take breaks whenever he needs, and they’re working closely with our OT whoes #1 concern is sensory needs.  That being said I will be paying very close attention during his ABA sessions next week to see if I can spot any of these concerns.  It probably happened even more than the providers realize.



  17. I’m surprised if people don’t see abuse in the first few videos.  It’s pretty obvious I think.  For starters, they’re constantly invading the child’s space…  isn’t this what Autistic children are often in trouble for?  Invading space?

    They are loud and overwhelming…  another thing children get in trouble for.

    They’re constantly touching them…  again

    They’re very repetitive…  hmmm

    They keep feeding them junk.

    I wouldn’t cope with this for 5 minutes let alone 20-40 hours per week.

    There’s no consideration for those children at all, these therapists are condescending, in your face, dominating, overstimulating, repetitive, loud, way too hands on.  They would never treat their allistic children this way and allistic children would never stand for it either.

    The later videos such as the shopping trip…  why is this even necessary?  What are they training her to be, a child slave?

  18. Thank you C.L Lynch for a well reasoned and concise summary about the effects of ABA.

  19. The author of this article is Canadian.  There’s no socialized healthcare in the USA so the “40 hours of ABA a week” entirely depends of what the private health insurance authorizes and not about the clinician recommendations.  What it means is that if the insurance plan is crappy , the clinician will ask for 40 hours to at least obtain 10 hours, if they ask for 10 then they would get 5.  It’s rare that a private health insurance authorizes 40 hours and usually it’s because both parents work full time and daycares for neurotypical children won’t accept autistic children not potty trained and with behaviors so their only choice is to send their autistic children to an ABA clinic all day .  For that many hours the therapists are actually LAZY and will only make sure the kid is safe.  This author knows nearly nothing about how ABA works

    1. Upon reading this, I actually felt my IQ drop.

    2. OK so maybe there is no “socialised health care” in the USA (I presume you mean public health care which funds treatments like ABA), but that’s an anomaly in the Western world.  Most countries have public health care, and 40hours/week ABA is still recommended, so…


  20. I agree with some of what you say and disagree with other points.  As a mom it is my job to teach both my NT and ASD children how to behave, the proper way to play, work, communicate etc.  in this world live in.  So I set the same goals for both my kids.  Each needed help with this and needed to to taught in their own way.  But we did care (as did our therapists) about what they were feeling and what was over stimulating them.  For both our kids we gave them more appropriate ways of coping with stress and a code word when they have had enough.  My NT kid could pick up things by watching peers and copying them.  My ASD son needed to be shown step by step multiple times.  We and his therapists knew and understood that his brain just processes differently and we needed to work with that and the real world and using ABA we were able to teach him all he needed.  We set the goals the same for both just took different paths to get there.  Today my NT kid is a speech therapist and my ASD son is studying to be an OT.  I read this article to him and his response?  “It didn’t bother me.  It helped me.  I took comfort in the schedules, routines, and it gave me time to learn new things doing it over and over until I got it right.  I can still stim but now I don’t look so different doing it.  Maybe they didn’t have as good of a therapist that I had.” I hope parents and therapists can find a compromise.

  21. Invading their personal space and yanking things out of their hands over and over would never be tolerated by NTs.  I know the third vid was important for informative purposes but it’s apparent that the client is aware of being filmed and objects.  Has the client since agreed to the use of this video?

  22. I’ll be honest, I’m a bit at a loss as to what we *should* do.  There are so many articles about what parents of kids on the spectrum shouldn’t do…but then how do we address some of these behaviors?  I don’t mean stimming, my son can stim all day long if he pleases.  But what do I do when he’s so anxious over everything that it’s impossible to leave to house with him?  We’ve had to start homeschool because his meltdowns were that bad.  Nevermind the constant stress from people telling us we aren’t socializing him but forcing him to socialize seems problematic according to this.  What do we do when he won’t let me brush his teeth (they must be brushed, I’m sorry).  What do we do when he will only eat 5 foods and his health is paying the price?  What do I do when he wants to eat the insides of his diaper?  What do I do when he has no awareness of safety?  What do I do when he’s hurting and can’t tell me how or where?  It’s never been about making him “normal” but about making him safer.  School wasn’t a right fit, we’re on a waitlist for ABA and I’m hearing terrible things, speech would probably be deemed bad according to this author because my son hates it although learning to use his AAC is helping.  I’m just.  I’m at a loss.  As much as I wished I lived in a world where my nonverbal son could just stay at home and eat 3 foods, it’s not possible.  I won’t live forever.  His health won’t tolerate some of his behaviors forever?  Do I allow him to do damage to himself or do I inflict the damage with ABA? 

    …not a NT mom, but not on the spectrum either.

  23. How many of you on the spectrum complaining about ABA would be non-verbal, incontinent and not able to complain about ABA if you hadn’t gone through an ABA program?  Not all ABA therapies are abusive – like anything else it depends upon who is doing it and how they are doing it.  Would you rather be indignant and injured by ABA and be complaining about it or in a diaper and unable to talk right now?  Life isn’t perfect and people do the best they can in difficult situations.  If YOU had a child diagnosed with autism and was non-verbal and low-functioning would you just let them sit there undisturbed or try to help them?  The worst form of abuse is neglect and warehousing.  Autism spectrum disorders cause lots of problems and people with even mild symptoms of autism have a tough time of it but it isn’t all the fault of parents trying to help their children.  My son, who went through ABA is now going to graduate school and is a professional musician – life isn’t perfect for him but he wouldn’t be living independently if it wasn’t for therapies we did that included a form of ABA when he was small.

    1. And by the way, I am on the spectrum myself.

    2. Dear Sue,

      You are making a sharp distinction in which you seem to think that anyone who says ABA is abusive is saying to never do anything with your child and simply allow them to decay.  Which no one has EVER said.  There are multiple alternatives to ABA that are not abusive dog training.  Presuming competence also matters.  I was nonverbal until I was nine and I was never put through therapy that was so dismissive to my feelings and perceptions – but here I am, with a law degree. 

      In short, fuck your ableism in the face.  How’s that Stockholm Syndrome treating you, Schrodinger’s autist?

      Bite me,
      an autist with the wild idea that we’re people


  24. I don’t know — but the ABA interventions shown here would have totally freaked me out as a child.
    I never could stand Adults treating me rudely like this.  Keep your hands to yourself and TELL me what you want.
    I’ve never considered that I needed ‘changing’.
    But I have as an adult and on antidepressants learned to cope with rude and intrusive behaviour from others.  Still don’t like it.

  25. OK.  Stop knocking “NT” people.  There is a very very wide range of “Normal”.  Though maybe we should say “Within the Normal Range”.  And the normal range is not a flat graph but a 3 dimensional ‘mound’.
    At what percentile in any direction do you decide that something is NOT normal?
    Surely one ‘treats” what is a problem, for the individual (and being totally reliant on others to care for you IS a problem for adults).

    1. Or “Do not do unto others what is hateful to them.”  Do NOT touch us!  Do not make us do things that we find unpleasant or highly stressful.  If what we are doing bothers you then you can leave the room — or let us leave the room and do NOT call us back and tell us how horrible we are.


  26. Please don’t lump all ‘autism moms’ together.  We all come in different flavors just like our kids.  Ever heard the saying ‘you met one autism mom then you’ve met one autism mom’?  No, because it doesn’t exist but it’s still true.  I would never send my kid to ABA.

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