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Neurodiversity Series Part 3 - All You Need to Know About ABA

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Nurture Speech Pathology aligns with the autistic community with our view around Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) - we do not endorse, encourage or use any compliance training. Our team of speech pathologists acknowledges and respects neurodiversity and the autistic community's consensus and lived experience that ABA training is considered abuse and is trauma-inducing.

This week, our speech pathologists will explore what ABA is and the confusion around ABA being the "gold standard" of "autistic interventions".

Read Part 1- Introduction here

Read Part 2 - Double Empathy Problem here

Applied Behavioural Analysis

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a way of altering one’s behaviour using positive and negative external reinforcement. This works to change and minimise behaviours. ABA aims to consider behaviourist theory proving that their actions and attitudes are determined by environmental stimuli - punishment would help minimise the behaviour and reward would encourage it.

ABA treatment has in the past been considered the go-to solution for young autistic individuals as many studies deem it to be effective. However, it is important to note that these neurodiversity studies only looked at those who have an IQ of 70 or above, which excludes most, if not all, nonspeaking children. Although nonspeaking autistics are the main population who receives ABA services on a long term basis, there is barely any research available on the effectiveness of ABA with this particular group.

It is also important to note that according to Behaviour Analysis Australia, ABA Therapists as well as Registered Behaviour Support Practitioners, who usually are the ones delivering the program, are not required to have any specific qualifications or fulfil any educational requirements. Supervision by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and/or professional development is recommended but not required.

Resource taken from Association for Behaviour Analysis Australia here:

Read more about aversives and torture in ABA here
Read a statement condemning ABA aversive practices here

Learning from traumatised autistic ABA survivors

The principles of ABA effectively ignores the voices of autistic individuals. We know that all behaviour is a form of communication however instead of trying to figure out what the behaviour is communicating, ABA simply aims to change/eliminate the behaviour. Autistic children are being taught that their voices do not matter and that positive things or experiences must be earned.

Long term consequences of ABA includes trained compliance, and often produces prompt dependent/adult reliant individuals with low self-esteem, and self motivation. Having their favourite toys, food or items withheld on a consistent basis creates learned helplessness - it is both stress and anxiety provoking which often leads to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Because they are conditioned to be compliant and obey others, autistic individuals are therefore more vulnerable to being groomed, manipulated and/or abused.

Some parents/therapists might rave about the positive benefits they have seen from ABA therapy. Is this however because the child has learnt to mask their behaviours/intentions? (We will dive into autistic masking in the coming weeks).

If you have power over someone in the way that behaviour therapists do, children are going to be highly motivated to please you which is often a type of trauma-response.
Read more about ABA and the link to PTSD here
Read personal stories from those formerly enrolled in ABA here.
Watch a Ted talk about how compliance is not a goal here.
Read more about why a child might appear to like going to ABA therapy here

How about "new/modern/good" ABA?

Is compliance/changing of behaviour still what you are are after?

"New/modern/good" ABA still teaches the child that

  • Other people's desires are more important than their desires, or even their needs

  • If he/she tolerates distress (e.g. from not being able to engage in self-regulatory strategies such as stimming), the child be rewarded

  • They can't say "no" or that their "no" will not be accepted.

"New/modern/good" ABA still resorts to emotional manipulation (e.g. If you don't do this, it will make me sad), and bribery (e.g. If you take another bite of your meal, you can have a whole box of cookies). No one is hit, yelled or physically manipulated in these scenarios; but the child's sense of self, autonomy, trust, and emotional safety are being disregarded.

Knowledge and skills can be taught in a nurturing learning environment that respects a child's voice and experience. When a child exhibits a fight, flight, or freeze response, let's wonder how we may help to make things better and not to resort to ABA to simply stop the distress response. Let's investigate and address the reason behind these behaviours/distress response in a respectful and empathetic way.

Resource taken from Neuroclastic here:

Read about why "new ABA" is still problematic here
Read about Louis' personal experience with "good ABA" here

Speech Pathologists Adelaide

Speech Pathologists at Nurture Speech Pathology are passionate about learning directly from autistic individuals themselves to educate us on how we can better understand and support them in an empathetic and respectful way. We hope that you join us in our journey to learn more about how to be neurodiversity-affirming and to spark a change in the way we interact and support neurodivergent individuals.

Will you be an autistic ally and advocate for health professionals to move away from compliance training and stop focusing on making the child fulfil everyone’s needs of them?

Download our ABA parent handout here:

Nurture Speech Pathology_ABA parent handout
Download PDF • 159KB

why cHOOSE Speech Pathologists Near Me?

Looking for neurodiversity affirming Speech Pathologists in Adelaide? Contact us at 0403 118 979 or to discuss whether we are a right fit for you and your child.

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