Is ABA Bad?

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

December 29, 2022

Origins of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

ABA, also known as behavior therapy or behavior modification, encompasses science-based methods derived from the principles of behavior (e.g., attention, access, escape, self-stimulation). This therapeutic approach has been successfully applied across various fields such as mental health, education, child abuse, marriage counseling, general counseling, and business for a range of populations including those with autism or other developmental disabilities.

Over the past few decades, a growing amount of evidence has demonstrated that early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) in the form of ABA promotes improved intellectual performance and developmental progress in young children with autism. The impact of ABA in children under age 3 who have autism under age 3 has been particularly significant.

Is ABA Bad?

Although there is evidence for the effectiveness of ABA for autism treatment, some people still wonder whether ABA is bad. The short answer is ‘no’ and the skepticism may be attributed to the different types of ABA that are offered. Furthermore, one of the most common criticisms is that the earlier versions of ABA involved the use of gentle punishments and specific rewards. However, punishment is no longer used as an ABA technique, but some individuals still dislike the repetitive nature of ABA therapy.

Currently, many interventions build upon the original ABA principles and have shifted toward more natural, child-centered (child-initiated) strategies that are developmentally appropriate tasks. This is in contrast to dependence on repetitive discrete trials, including DTT. 

Specific approaches used for ABA therapy programs now include:

  1. Creating a reason for communication that is child led
  2. Fostering learning through play
  3. Building language skills by engaging children with playful activities
  4. Modeling appropriate language use
  5. Offering a reward for the appropriate use of language 

However, the strategies a therapist uses also depend on each child’s mode of communication. The following are examples of commonly used strategies for children with autism who have communication difficulties:

  • Using short sentences – “hat on” or “shoes on.”
  • Using age-appropriate language – Saying “playdough tastes bad,” while pointing to the mouth.
  • Exaggerating tone of voice – Being expressive while saying “ouch the tea is very hot.”
  • Encouraging communication Prompting the child to communicate (e.g., speak, sign, point) when it’s the child’s turn in a conversation. For example, ‘Point to the brown dog. What color is the puppy?’
  • Asking questions that require a response from the child – "Would you like an apple?’ If the child is non-verbal, he or she can be taught to nod the head by modeling this behavior. 
  • Giving the child enough time to comprehend and respond to questions – After asking the child if he or she wants an apple, give the child a few moments to respond by nodding, touching, or pointing to the apple.
  • Practicing communicating with the child on subjects he or she is interested in – If the child likes horses, modeling adaptive behavior with pony toys or initiating conversations about ponies may help promote communication.

Over time, most children with autism begin to apply behaviors they learn through ABA therapy and gradually use their mode of communication in more appropriate ways. As parents and caregivers observe the progress that can be made through adaptive ABA techniques, apprehensions regarding this therapeutic approach may disappear.

Different Types of ABA

There are different interventions that incorporate ABA techniques:

  1. Discrete trial training (DTT) – This structured approach entails teaching new skills in specific steps. The process involves an antecedent (a cue to trigger desired behavior), the behavior (a response to the cue), and the conclusion (result of the response). When the child successfully displays the learned behavior, a form of positive reinforcement is offered, but no reward is given if the desired response is not demonstrated.
  2. Naturalistic environment training – As children with autism begin to acquire desired skills, they can begin to practice those skills in more natural environments. For instance, while at home, a child may learn to touch a parent and make the sign for “want” to obtain a specific object and then practice this action in public or at school.
  3. EIBI/Child-centered – This specialized approach is frequently used with young children to foster adaptive, social, functional, and communication skills. It is typically highly individualized, comprehensive, play-based, and child-initiated. The play-based strategies incorporate positive reinforcement, where favorable behavior is followed by praise, a favorite activity, or other pleasurable event (e.g., hug from a parent). Additional aspects of this child-centered approach include shaping, fading, and maintenance.
  • Shaping refers to modeling favorable behavior through play and providing a reward when the target or goal is met.
  • Fading involves decreasing dependence on a therapist by using and reducing prompts or cues to encourage the learned behavior.
  • Maintenance entails the use of strategies that help ensure recently learned behaviors will persist and be applied in other environments.

In general, ABA therapy is provided in two different ways. It may be offered as a comprehensive program that encompasses intensive intervention in various situations and environments (e.g., home, clinic). ABA may also be a part of a more structured program that may involve specific situations or settings—for example, a school setting.

Research also shows that more than 50% of children diagnosed with autism who receive intensive, high-quality, evidence-based ABA interventions learn enough adaptive skills to return to general education classrooms, in cases where that particular goal is desired. In exceptional cases, children may make such remarkable progress due to ABA therapy that they may no longer demonstrate traits that are characteristic of autism. Despite these observations, some still have reservations about ABA therapy.

Conclusions

ABA has evolved in response to past criticisms to accommodate different learning abilities, communication skills, and behavioral needs for children with autism. As children with this condition fall under a spectrum, it is important for ABA to offer a flexible platform that reflects diversity.

Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them. EIBI that incorporates play-based, child-centered ABA is the focus of therapy that is offered by Songbird. Our dedicated therapists use play to help children reach their developmental goals.

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