Is ABA Therapy for Autism Harmful? Myths About Applied Behavioral Analysis

ABA Therapy for Autism: Myths and Facts

You want your child to feel accepted and thrive in social interactions. But if they’re navigating life with autism, it can be difficult. You may need to help them learn how. Whatever challenges come their way, you want them to have access to the best tools that will assimilate them with the world around them.

If you are the parent of a child with autism, you’ve most likely heard of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). As the most common method of autism therapy, ABA is used by professionals worldwide.

 The main goals of ABA therapy for autism are to: 

  • minimize problem behaviors
  • develop positive social skills
  • increase communication skills
  • learn how to practice self-care

ABA therapy for autism can build your child’s confidence and give them the tools they need to reach their full potential. But unfortunately, ABA therapy often gets a bad rap. Before we get into that, let’s discuss ABA therapy basics.

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The History of ABA Therapy

ABA therapy’s roots began in the 1960s at UCLA with psychologist Ivar Lovaas. He was passionate about studying the behavior of children with autism. He published many articles detailing his observations to give parents hope.

ABA therapy for autism began at UCLA
ABA therapy for autism has its roots at UCLA

In 1987, he published a comprehensive study about what is now known as ABA therapy. He explained how this type of autism therapy could help parents and therapists work with children with autism one-on-one to promote appropriate behavior. 

Lovaas’ student, Robert Koegel, continued Lovaas’ studies and researched, spoke about, and wrote about autism and how positive behavior interventions can help children with autism.

One of the most extraordinary things about ABA therapy is that it’s based on more than one hundred years of scientific study about how all children learn and grow. ABA therapy for autism combines that data with the studies of Lovaas and Koegel, resulting in a highly-effective autism therapy method.

But How Does ABA Therapy Work?

If you’re new to ABA therapy for autism, it’s understandable that you may feel a bit overwhelmed and confused. You may be asking yourself, “But how does ABA therapy work?” and wondering if it’s the right autism therapy method for your child. 

Your child’s ABA therapy sessions will occur either in your home or at an ABA therapy clinic. (There are pros and cons to both!)  Your child’s ABA therapy team will observe your child during each session and adapt their treatment plan to target the skills and behaviors they need to work on.

While your child’s treatment plan is tailored specifically to meet their needs, the following techniques are used to promote positive behavior and decrease unwanted behaviors.

  • Prompting

During your child’s sessions, your child’s BCBA assists them with prompts using words, hands-on help, or body language. For example, if they ask your child to sit in their seat and don’t, your child’s BCBA will gently prompt them using words or sit in the chair themselves to remind them what they were asked to do.  

Your child’s therapy team will also help you use effective prompting techniques outside of your child’s ABA sessions as a parent or caregiver.

  • Positive Reinforcement

One of the cornerstones of ABA therapy for autism is positive reinforcement. As your child learns new skills, your child’s BCBA will use reinforcers as they successfully exhibit a targeted skill or behavior. Reinforcers can be activities, food they like, a prize, or another tangible reward.

Through positive reinforcement, your child will learn acceptable and appropriate behaviors, strengthen communication skills, and learn how to interact socially. 

You may ask, "Is ABA therapy harmful?" The answer is no!
ABA therapy for autism can help your child develop strong social skills
  • Extinction

Just as good behavior and successful exhibition of new skills are rewarded in ABA therapy; unwanted behaviors are also discouraged. Extinction goes hand in hand with reinforcers. In other words, ABA therapists use extinction when your child exhibits an undesirable behavior (screaming, for example). 

Extinction’s goal is to “extinguish” any unwanted behavior. So if your child is screaming during a session, their ABA therapist won’t reward them with a reinforcer. Instead, they’ll receive negative consequences. In the case of screaming, your child’s BCBA may choose to ignore the behavior entirely.

ABA therapy requires patience, understanding, and professional guidance from an ABA therapy team. With that said, here at The Autism Therapy Group, we ensure to include you in their treatment plan. We teach you how to continue working on the skills your child learns through ABA therapy so they can continue to grow outside of their session.

Common Myths About ABA Therapy for Autism

If you Google “How does ABA therapy work?” or “Is ABA Therapy Harmful?” you’ll likely be bombarded with an onslaught of negative feedback and opinions. However unfortunate, the negative stigma surrounding ABA therapy is based on several myths, not truth.

Myth 1: All ABA Therapy Plans Are the Same

All ABA therapy plans share common principles and offer you an understanding of how behavior works in everyday life. Applied Behavior Analysis helps you to see how the environment affects behavior and understand how children learn and develop best. 

Asking "How does ABA therapy work?" is a logical question.
ABA therapists are compassionate and want wants best for your child

While each child’s ABA therapy plan looks different, depending on their individual needs. Our therapy team at the Autism Therapy Group creates your son or daughter’s treatment plan after their initial evaluation. Your child’s Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) team will assess your child and pair the best research and treatment tailored to your child’s needs. And the strategies used in your child’s ABA treatment plan change as they progress through therapy.

ABA therapy plans also fit into your family’s schedule easily. At The Autism Therapy Group, we’ll plan your son or daughter’s sessions around your needs. 

We offer in-home ABA in Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin and clinic-based ABA therapy in Lombard, IL, and San Antonio, TX.

Myth 2: ABA Therapy is Harmful and Turns Autistic Children Into Robots

This myth is a big one when parents search for answers to “Is ABA therapy harmful?” 

Some parents may have misconceptions that ABA therapy is ‘drilled’ into children with autism. You might worry your child is reciting information without really understanding it. Indeed, any teaching method has components of rote memorization, but successful ABA therapy programs work to ensure that your child can understand the context of their learning. 

Your child will be able to appreciate and understand why they are learning a particular skill and how it may apply to their everyday life. 

Myth 3: Emotions Are Not Considered in ABA Therapy

A professional ABA team will always acknowledge your child’s emotions during tasks. Modeling and reinforcing how to handle emotions is vital to any child’s growth and learning. A BCBA or RBT will help your child to access the appropriate language surrounding their emotions and help them to express themselves effectively.

ABA therapists are patient and caring, allowing your child to progress at their own speed.

Myth 4: ABA Therapy for Autism is a Cure-All

ABA therapy doesn’t “cure” autism. As a parent of an autistic child, you know people with autism don’t need a “cure.” Your child simply experiences the world differently, and they should be supported and celebrated for those differences. 

ABA therapy for autism supports your child by allowing them to learn in a way they can understand and thrive. The magic formula to teaching any individual is to tap into what connections work best for their growth and ability. 

ABA therapy does just that; it breaks tasks down into simpler language that works to keep your child engaged without frustration. ABA therapy can give your child access to more meaningful social interactions at school, work, and play.

ABA therapy for autism helps, but it's not a "cure" for autism.
ABA therapy for autism isnt a cure for autism but its a great way to ensure your child reaches their full potential

Myth 5: ABA Therapy Uses “Drilling Exercises” When Working With My Child

Most ABA programs use a variety of teaching methods. Natural Environment Training (NET) and Discrete Trial Training (DTT) are two standard methods. Discrete Trial Training has been around longer and works to break down complex skills into smaller, more manageable pieces for your child. These smaller segments are combined to accomplish a previously too complicated goal.

Depending on your child’s needs, DTT may be a program component. Many programs now focus more so on Natural Environment Training which centers around your child leading their own learning. NET allows your child to move away from the table and to have play-based and natural occurrences to develop their skill set. 

Teaching methods such as DTT and NET help your child connect complex parts of their day. For example, the process of brushing their teeth may be a time your child typically has a meltdown. These ABA teaching methods can help your child ease through their routines, whether a full day of school or a simple at-home task.

ABA therapy for autism isn't harmful at all.
ABA therapy is the most researched and proven therapy method to help children with autism

Myth 6: Only Bribes Are Used During ABA Therapy

Bribery and positive reinforcement are not the same. Bribery is when you tell your child beforehand that if they perform in a certain way, you will give them the prize they desire. Often, the reward is given before the child has completed the task. Bribery is also different because it doesn’t offer a natural moment to reward and recognize when your child engages in positive behavior.

ABA therapy utilizes positive reinforcement where desired behaviors are rewarded using motivating items such as stickers, edible treats, or tokens. Rewarding these behaviors ensures that the positive behaviors displayed by your child will be repeated and more naturally occur over time.

Positive reinforcement is a successful strategy used in everyday classrooms by teaching professionals. As a child becomes successful at a particular skill, the positive reinforcement will blend into more subtle social and verbal praise. 

ABA Therapy for Autism Improves Your Child’s Quality of Life

Your child will benefit from ABA therapy. We’ve seen it time and time again at The Autism Therapy Group.

With the help of our qualified team of professionals in three states, we can help your child learn better social and communication skills and live a more independent, fulfilling life now and in the future. 

Searching for “ABA therapy near me” can be an overwhelming task. But the good news is that we offer ABA therapy in three different states. 

The Autism Therapy Group has locations in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Texas.

In-Home ABA Therapy in Illinois: Chicago, Naperville, Schaumburg, Lombard, Northshore

In-Home ABA Therapy in Texas: San Antonio, Floresville, Eagle Pass, Del Rio

In-Home ABA Therapy in Wisconsin: Milwaukee, Kenosha, Madison

Clinic-Based ABA Therapy in Illinois: Lombard

Clinic-Based ABA Therapy in Texas: San Antonio

Contact us for more information about ABA therapy and how we may be able to help you and your child. We’ll answer any questions about “How does ABA therapy work?” and help you better understand the benefits of this proven therapy method. 

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