Applied behavior analysis

A neurodiversity paradigm asserts the basic fact that autism doesn’t need to be fixed; it simply needs to be understood and accepted. This is important, because people who see it as needing to be fixed often put their autistic kids in tenuous situations like applied behavior analysis (ABA) “therapy.” They often believe that their child needs, and will get, a new operating system – that the therapist will, if all goes well, replace the autistic brain wires with a neurotypical OS. 

This kind of thinking is frankly foolish and deeply harmful. Many parents are scared when their kids begin in infancy or childhood to show common traits of autism; for example, self-regulatory behaviors, or stimming. Maybe they repeat a comforting phrase in an unusual tone while flapping their hands. Or maybe it’s worse – maybe there are meltdowns that threaten harm to the child or others. The parents freak out and send their kids to ABA, assured by the practitioners that the therapy will stop those behaviors and make their child act “normal.” A stated goal of ABA is to make autistic children “indistinguishable from their peers.”

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

ABA doesn’t change an autistic into a neurotypical – it just teaches them to act neurotypical so they won’t be punished. There are much healthier ways of accommodating an autistic person’s differences and supporting them toward integration into society than the rewards-and-punishment system that is ABA. It’s like conversion therapy for LGBTQ teens, It does not change their orientation and in fact inflicts lifelong trauma on most people who are subjected to it. Conversion therapy has been largely discredited by the medical community.

We are still mid-journey on the ABA front: many doctors and mental health experts do not know any other course of action, and ABA has yet to be supplanted by something healthier and widely recognized. Many doctors still recommend it to families searching for help. Universities training teachers and special education professionals still teach it.

One reason I wrote this book is to take part in leading from the inside. This is a case where you want to weigh medical advice with the hundreds of terrible stories told by autistic people themselves. I personally know many autistic adults who carry awful wounds from ABA, from therapists who punished them for stimming and other (normally) harmless behaviors that in fact – under the autistic OS – have purpose, meaning, and even richness. ABA causes trauma. Autistics don’t need any more trauma than what we already attain from daily navigating a social world built by and for people with neurotypical brain wiring. 

From  “On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity” by Daniel Bowman Jr.