Should You Use Punishment During ABA Therapy?

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Punishment is a controversial teaching strategy in the autism community. Advocates say it helps children learn how to regulate their emotions and encourages good behavior, while opponents argue that punishment can actually make things worse by causing anxiety or making kids digress into self-harm behaviors like tantrums. This post will explore some of these arguments and provide suggestions for parents of autistic children who are interested in using punishment during ABA therapy.

Punishment procedures are an important part of ABA therapy. They can be used to help children with autism learn new behaviors, or stop bad behavior. However, some parents worry about the use of punishment during ABA therapy. This article will provide examples of punishment procedures and discuss their pros and cons.

Should You Use Punishment During ABA Therapy?


Applied behavioral analysis therapy is one of the most well-known and well-established modalities of autism treatment, although it is not without its detractors.

Much of the criticism leveled towards ABA is based on outdated techniques, such as the use of severe punishment. Positive reinforcement is the emphasis of today’s ABA.

Many anecdotal stories online warn of traumatic or abusive situations, prompting Spectrum to wonder if methods of helping autistic individuals overcome the impulse to behave inappropriately use cruel methods. The notion of punishment in ABA lies at the heart of all of this, prompting many parents and caregivers to wonder whether punishment should be employed at all during ABA treatment.

What Is Punishment and How Does It Work?

The term “punishment” has a completely different connotation in applied behavioral analysis than it does in daily use. Most people consider punishment to be punitive acts taken in response to some kind of infraction. Punishment, on the other hand, in ABA treatment refers to the likelihood of a behavior occurring again being reduced as a result of anything that occurs after the behavior.

In human psychology, this is a well-known notion. Because of what occurs following an action, people are less inclined to repeat it.

Punishment, despite its implications, is neither necessarily good or harmful. It simply explains how behavior shifts.

Punishment is used in ABA treatment only after a variety of other rewarding tactics have failed. When it comes to punishment, it should always be combined with reinforcement. Punishment alone will never be sufficient to induce acceptable conduct.

Positive & Negative Punishment

Positive and negative punishment are the two forms of punishment recognized by applied behavior analysis. These concepts are taken from human psychology in general.

When something is introduced after the behavior happens, the behavior is terminated (and decreased) as a consequence of the addition. In a broad sense, a person may be cited for parking in an area where they are not permitted. Because they don’t want to pay another fee connected with a future citation, the individual is more inclined to avoid parking there in the future. The ticket is the penalty in this case.

In an ABA situation, how does this look? Positive punishment may be used by an ABA therapist to reduce a child’s improper conduct.

For example, the youngster may be given a specified period of time to keep on task, with a reward if the instructions are followed (reinforcement). The therapist may restart the timer if the kid gets distracted, begins talking, or walks away, therefore adding time as a positive punishment. Resetting the timer and adding extra time before the reinforcement is considered a positive punishment if this succeeds — if the youngster realizes that leaving their seat is an undesirable conduct and thereby lessens their distractibility.

But where does the concept of negative punishment fit in? Negative punishment is when something is taken away from the environment. If they are effective in modifying undesirable behavior, the (temporary) withdrawal of perks, privileges, and other rewards might be deemed negative punishment. Negative punishment also includes removing a kid from a setting if the youngster is acting badly.

Punishment is therefore a sort of natural learning. Everyone, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, learns through having desirable things taken away or unwanted things forced on them until their behavior is sufficiently altered and future conduct corresponds to expectations.

The Debate Over Punishment

According to Psychology Today, punishment is a contentious subject in applied behavior analysis treatment because some people believe it is overly restrictive. In certain circumstances, punishment (either positive or negative) is used wrongly, to the harm of a youngster who does not grasp the link between their action and the punishment.

To prevent this, a behavior therapist should confer with support staff and other caregivers to evaluate if punishment is the best way to change a child’s behavior. The adequacy of the punishment is assessed by whether it will genuinely assist the youngster improve their conduct in the future. If the conduct does not decrease or perhaps increases, this is a warning indication that the punishment technique isn’t working and should be abandoned in favor of a different approach.

Therapists should keep in mind that applying positive or negative punishment might initially increase undesired conduct before the intended reduction occurs. Even during challenging treatments, it is critical to maintain a constant approach. A therapist should also be prepared to decide that the punishment is ineffective and should be discontinued if they believe it is not truly assisting the child in making better behavioral choices.

Appropriate Punishment

In ABA, neither positive nor negative punishment should be employed carelessly. In reality, before using punishment as a technique of behavior modification, board trained behavior analysts are obligated by their qualification to get parental agreement. The therapist must also examine how to execute sanctions in such a manner that they not only elicit the desired behavior as effectively as possible, but also cause the least amount of disruption to the kid and the learning environment as feasible.

After all other alternatives have been explored, punishment is included to a rehabilitation plan. Punishment should never be employed as the first line of defense when dealing with a behavioral issue.

Years of study show that using reward as a key method of behavior modification is typically more successful. When working on behavioral changes, all ABA therapists will be educated and should understand that they should first look for anything to improve rather than merely focusing on a behavior that they wish to cease.

Punishment in a Healthier Way

Punishment, whether positive or negative, should be used sparingly, according to certain experts. Positive reinforcement (offering a kid a reward for completing a task or not behaving improperly) is considered the most compassionate and effective method of changing undesirable behavior.

Establishing the consequences in advance is one technique to make the punishment method more effective. Having frequent and visible reminders that a certain action will result in a specific punishment, and then following through on this every time, can help the kid develop and strengthen the link between the two factors in his or her memory.

Because the kid needs to understand why they are being punished, punishment should be accompanied with a verbal signal. If this isn’t established — either because a verbal signal isn’t supplied or because the person’s autism is severe — the punishment approach is undermined and shouldn’t be utilized.

Punishment in a Negative Light

Another consideration when using penalties is that they might be exclusionary, like when a person is removed from an area as a kind of negative punishment for unacceptable conduct. This takes the individual out of a setting they may want to be in but are unable to express, as well as depriving them of valuable learning time.

Being taken away from a kid may unintentionally promote harmful habits. In certain situations, removing a kid from an area may be beneficial to the youngster if the space is one they desire to avoid. Rather than learning to control that unwanted impulse, they may come to associate acting inappropriately with achieving their desired escape.

It might be as basic as the kid want to avoid performing a job activity that they dislike, or the youngster wishing to get one-on-one attention in the most direct manner possible. Negative attention is still attention, and many youngsters will intuitively prefer it over no attention at all.

The message here is that the behavior analyst should think about how they’re employing the punishment strategy and if it’s truly working to change the child’s behavior. Other essential factors to consider include how the youngster feels about the procedure and if the behavior change will be long-lasting or merely temporary.

Punishment vs. Reinforcement

When it comes to utilizing punishment in ABA treatment, the general consensus is that both punishment and reinforcement are effective techniques for regulating behavior in autistic children. While reinforcement is used to introduce or promote a desirable behavior, punishment is most effective when used to lessen or eliminate an unwanted habit.

Punishment, when handled correctly, may be an effective ABA treatment tool for any learner in any setting. However, the key to applying discipline in ABA is to do it consistently and completely.

If a therapist thinks that using positive or negative discipline would assist a kid, they must see the process through to the finish. If the aim is to assist the kid improve their future conduct, discontinuing punishment because it momentarily makes the youngster sad will not result in any major learning or behavior improvement.

Similarly, some children will not respond well to any sort of punishment treatment used in ABA. They may be too young to understand the process’ logic, or their autism may be so severe that any effort at positive or negative punishment is overwhelming and perplexing.

Many incidents of ABA punishment being used too freely have resulted in traumatization of youngsters who lack the cognitive capacity to understand what is required of them or even what is occurring to them. Punishment, on the other hand, is never meant to injure or wound when done correctly. It may be a healthy and natural element of learning and growth.

Even yet, in ABA treatment, it should only be utilized as a last option. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, is the favored approach of behavior modification.


The Debate Over Autism’s Most Common Treatment (2016, August). Spectrum.

The Effectiveness and Preference of Punishment and Extinction Components in Function-Based Interventions. (2005, Spring). The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis is a publication dedicated to the study of human behavior.

Operant Conditioning and Positive Punishment (In May of 2020). Mind, you’re a genius.

In ABA Parent Training, Punishment is used (March 2019). Today’s Psychology.

Autism Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy Autism Parent Magazine is a publication dedicated to parents of children with autism.

Psychology’s Study of Punishment. (In April of 2020). Mind, you’re a genius.

Here’s Why Rewards Are Better Than Punishment. (From September 2008) Today’s Psychology.

The “5 types of positive punishment aba” is an article that discusses different ways to use positive punishment during ABA therapy.

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