The ABA Controversy

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The American Academy of Pediatrics has recently created a new policy that limits the ways in which autism can be treated. Many parents are left wondering if this change is for their best interest, and some worry it will hurt them more than help.

The “why is aba harmful” is a controversy that has been present for a while. The ABA was originally created to help people with autism and has had a negative impact on their lives.

You may be shocked by the results if you spend a few minutes typing “Applied Behavior Analysis Controversy” into the Google search box. The applied behavior analysis autism dispute is one of the most divisive of the current hot-button issues in autism, with both supporters and detractors holding strong opinions on ABA. We think that a lot of the debates around ABA treatment are the result of misconceptions and false information about how ABA works and how we research it.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): What is it?

Think about the following ABA definition from Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007):

The science of applied behavior analysis uses experiments to pinpoint the factors influencing behavior change while using the analysis of behavior’s guiding principles to enhance socially meaningful conduct.

This term may be interpreted to mean many things depending on the context. The door is left wide open for ABA criticism and dispute when these factors are combined with a murky history of practitioner misconduct in the early days of ABA.

How is ABA treatment carried out?


Some autistic kids had conventional conversation treatment before ABA. This treatment did not work well for this disease for obvious reasons. Families with autistic children often faced a difficult choice. Keep their kids at home and provide them continuous, lifelong care, or send them to a facility?

The future of autism treatment and therapy was altered when Dr. Lovaas developed the concept of ABA in the 1960s. Dr. Lovaas established the UCLA Young Autism Project in the 1970s. The Project’s objective was to use his ABA techniques on autistic kids. His program evolved into what is known as ABA today. He wanted autistic youngsters to seem as normal as he could. Parents were cautiously hopeful that their loved ones may finally get therapeutic treatment. However, early ABA had several drawbacks as well. ABA has thankfully developed and become better over time.

The concept that there are visible connections between the environment and how one acts is shared by modern ABA practitioners. ABA seeks to alter people’s lives by examining the “what, why, and how” of these interactions. ABA is a science as well as a kind of treatment.

Positive reinforcement is a technique used by ABA therapists to promote desired behavior and squelch potentially damaging negative behaviors. People are more inclined to repeat specific behaviour when they get a valuable reward for them. The hope is that this will lead to a reduction in kids acting out inappropriately. Rewards may sometimes take the form of material goods, such as a snack or a tiny toy. The reward might also take the form of a high five or a praise. Every person responds differently to positive reinforcement, which is one of the benefits of ABA.

The several stages of ABA enable therapists to customize the treatment to the requirements of the individual. Therapists that use applied behavioral Analysis gather and analyze data, including information on what occurs in the environment before to and after a behavior. ABA therapists may alter the chance that a reaction will occur in the future by comprehending these factors and changing the environment. The goal of ABA is to promote pro-social behaviors like play and conversation while reducing harmful and maladaptive behaviors like violence and self-harming behavior.

ABA Therapy Disputations


Why is ABA treatment debatable? Even though the goal of ABA is to enhance the lives of others, the field has encountered opposition throughout the course of its very brief existence. Behavior therapy did not prioritize positive reinforcement in the 1960s. For instance, Dr. Lovaas’ study placed emphasis on Discrete Trial Training, which included both rewards and penalties. Parents and adults who got ABA treatment as kids tend to criticize it the most. The effectiveness of ABA in comparison to other therapies has sometimes been a source of worry for certain researchers in other fields. These worries include:

Issue 1: It’s very formulaic.

According to some detractors, ABA depends excessively on a set of systematic principles. These ideas are sometimes characterized as rigid and dogmatic. Some claim that ABA primarily disregards cognitive functions like:

  • thoughts
  • feelings
  • problem-solving

Although an ABA therapist also employs data analysis, ABA does place a strong emphasis exclusively on actions that can be seen and quantified. For those who are not specifically schooled in the procedures and terminology, it may be difficult to grasp.

 Second controversy: It opposes neurodiversity.

One of the pioneers of ABA autism treatment and several other early ABA programs, Dr. O Ivar Lovaas, said that one of his aims was to assist people with autism spectrum disorders become “indistinguishable from their classmates.” Toe-walking and hand-flapping were two such habits that were identified as problematic and actively worked to minimize. One of the greatest complaints against ABA is this. On the question of whether or not certain behaviors need to be addressed in conventional ABA treatment, there is disagreement among autism supporters.

Autism, in the opinion of Ari Ne’eman, co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and an advocate for disabled people, is both a disability and a neurological difference. He does not believe it to be a condition that has to be treated. He compares left-handedness or homosexuality to autism. It is just a little change, but one that has to be taken seriously. Contrary to conventional ABA assumptions, ABA shouldn’t concentrate on attempting to blend autistic persons into the general population. Cognitive skill development should be a priority in behavior therapies and treatments for autistic persons, in addition to those that pertain to:

  • social
  • living independently
  • communication

Beyond autistic spectrum disorder and ABA, there is controversy. On the use of ABA, parents of kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder disagree. Some believe that children with ADHD should be accepted for who they are and their peculiarities. Children shouldn’t be seen as having to be repaired, according to advocates.

In all honesty, there is no right or wrong response to this. Many parents of autistic children genuinely want their children to acquire the knowledge and abilities necessary to have healthy, satisfying lives, just like their peers of the same age. Some parents and supporters of autistic children disagree and think that the world should strive toward accepting everyone for who they are, differences and all. The ABA dispute in this area is likely to continue in the future given how sensitive it is to specific families with autistic children.

Conflict number three: It’s too demanding.

Another critique of ABA treatment is that it is overly demanding. Research studies and several early intervention ABA treatment programs recommend that children get up to 40 hours of therapy each week. Although it has been shown that children with autism benefit from this degree of intensity, some proponents of child development claim the course of therapy is too strenuous.

The majority of genuine ABA treatment regimens provide 10 to 20 hours per week for autistic youngsters. Each therapist who works with children will conduct their own session. A suggestion for a 40-hour intensive ABA program is quite uncommon. Nevertheless, some who oppose ABA continue to believe that the time restrictions are excessive.

Fourth point of contention: The emphasis is more on “poor conduct” than on abilities like play.

As was already indicated, some ASD proponents think that ABA treatment primarily emphasizes problematic behaviors like violence and self-harm rather than skill development objectives like language and play. Given that high-quality ABA is tailored to each learner, an ABA therapist may argue that for a specific learner, problematic behaviors interfere with the acquisition of other skills and need immediate attention. Others argue that focusing on language and play skills initially might help people rely less on demanding behaviors.

Argument #5: It’s difficult to compare to other treatments.

It is difficult to compare applied behavior analysis (ABA) to other therapies, particularly for autism, which is one of the main reasons applied behavior analysis criticism persists. ABA is often investigated on a smaller scale, with sometimes less than 20 participants in a study, in contrast to pharmaceutical trials where significant group comparisons between treatment and non-treatment groups may be conducted.

Finally, unlike medication treatments, therapy is seldom compared to a placebo or “lack of treatment” model due to the ethical ramifications of withholding it from children and people with developmental impairments. This makes evaluating and contrasting ABA with other treatment modalities difficult.

If the emphasis is on removing behavior rather than skill development, controversy #6.

Another criticism of ABA is that although pupils are taught what to do wrong, they are not taught what to do well. If the goal is to lessen tantrums, what should the youngster do instead of tantruming?

A young kid may acquire functional abilities in areas like communication and language development via developmental therapy, according to those who argue against ABA. Unlike other therapies, ABA is often reimbursed by insurance. There may not be many services outside of ABA accessible to children with recently diagnosed autism. As a result, parents are left to foot the bill for speech and occupational treatment, which can wind up being more advantageous for their kid.

The Range of ABA’s Advantages


We do know that ABA seems to have a range of outcomes and advantages for people who undergo therapy, much like autism. The majority of behavior analysts agree that not everyone responds well to ABA procedures. Before a kid makes development, a variety of behavioral treatments and procedures may need to be used.

Although there are a wide range of results, ABA treatment success rates are typically good. Systematic analyses of ABA studies conducted by both government organizations and academic academics have shown that the majority of autistic children benefit in some way from ABA treatment. Both the American Psychological Association and the Centers for Disease Control accept ABA therapy as an effective treatment for autism and other developmental problems. In reality, several states’ state-funded insurance systems provide coverage for autism treatment. Enhancements include the following:

  • intellectual capacity
  • social interaction
  • self-reliance in everyday life abilities

After undergoing ABA, some ASD patients no longer satisfy the diagnostic criteria for the disorder.

For the Controversy to Be Solved, Improvements Are Required


Is ABA bad? In no way. In order to correct some of the misunderstandings about ABA therapy we ultimately need to make changes to how we research it and how we tailor treatment models. To determine which kids are most likely to benefit from ABA and which approaches could be more effective, we need better tools. Behavior analyzers must improve their skills in personalizing therapy for each client, including person- and family-centered treatment planning. Parents need guidance on how to speak out for their kids while taking into account what they value in their own definitions of successful outcomes.


When trying to understand how people with autism see ABA treatment, it is always a good idea to talk to those who are on the spectrum. To acquire their opinions and insights, you might also talk to family members or other therapists. You should gather as much information as you can before choosing if ABA is the best treatment for your kid or a member of your family. Even while ABA isn’t the best option for everyone, when done properly, ABA treatments may be helpful.

Amy Sippl

Behavior Analysis in Applied Settings | Saint Cloud State University

Psychology Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) | University of Minnesota

rev. June 2022

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The “what is aba therapy” is a controversy that has been going on for many years. It is about the treatment of autism spectrum disorders.

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