Some thoughts on ABA and influencing people

I found this talk/Q&A session on twitter by Nick Walker – it is about neurodiversity and covers ABA and behaviourism. I definitely recommend having a listen. In fact I recommend all of Nick’s work on neurodiversity, I have read a lot of it.

Here is the link for the Nick Walker talk I am referring to:

Here are some of her points about why ABA is problematic:

  1. It can be harmful – there is starting to be research on this now (Anderson, 2022; Cumming et al., 2020; Harte, 2019; Kupferstein, 2018).
  2. In her lived experience the people she knows who are doing well in life e.g. having successful relationships, managing careers and living past the average (low) life expectancy for autistic people tend to be the ones who did not have ABA and those she know who did are still dealing with the PTSD that came from their childhood including ABA.
  3. Behaviourism stifles creativity as compliance is being taught.
  4. Teaching compliance makes already vulnerable children at an increased risk of sexual abuse as they are being taught to comply with adults without question.
  5. Behaviourism removes intrinsic motivation – the reward becomes the motivation
  6. The original evidence by Skinner did not have control groups so nobody knew if the children would have learned skills without the ABA (we now know that they do of course, as all the autistic children I know have learned skills, perhaps at a different pace or in a different way to non autistic children)
  7. Apparently (and this is new information for me) the research assistants who worked with Skinner (Skinner is now dead) now speak about some of the evidence being fake. He would stop the experiments if they weren’t going his way.

Walker argued that no universities who consider themselves ethical should be teaching ABA it should only be in universities as a historical point about the barbaric way we used to treat autistic people.

Are there any ways that ABA or any kind of extreme behaviourism can be used ethically and with a low risk of harm? My view is if it were done on adults who were able to give fully informed consent (which should obviously include being able to withdraw consent at any time) then that would be acceptable. I have never heard of ABA being done that way. Are milder forms of behaviourism useful? I have seen it used as a parent in ways that don’t cause trauma and are fun. As always it depends on the child and parents often know their child well enough to make those decisions. I can easily tell when my children are distressed despite them not always communicating it in typical ways.

There was one point I strongly disagreed with in Walker’s talk. She said somethings like if parents put their child in ABA after they have heard all of the problems with it from autistic people, they are bad people. And same with the ABA practitioners (or ‘perpetrators’). I think that is an oversimplification. In the case of parents: when you are a parent you are bombarded with information from many different sources. I do not think we should assume that parents have the time and the skills to be able to process and critique all of the information they get on the many kinds of parenting issues. This would be true of any parents but it is even more the case for those parenting disabled children when time is even more of a rarity. Often, the mainstream information you hear is still very ableist (though things are certainly improving in the UK) so it is not that surprising that lots of parents end up with ableist parenting practices. Eventually, if they are lucky they will find the autistic community and will be able to properly digest what they hear. It is sometimes too late by then.

As for ABA practitioners the junior ones are often very young, and have no knowledge at all on autism or alternative ways of supporting autistic people. They are ripe for indoctrination into the ‘cult of ABA’. Sometimes those practitioners decide to get a qualification in Autism and come on an autism course (such as the MA I did at Sheffield Hallam university or the one I teach on at Edge Hill university) where they may be taught (often by autistic lecturers and tutors) more about the alternative views on ABA. It is sometimes their first knowledge of the harm they might have been doing to the autistic people in their care. I have seen ABA practitioners become quite upset when they start to learn more. Remember you do not need any qualifications or knowledge in autism to become an ABA practitioner, even though it is extremely likely you will be working with autistic clients. I do not think the ABA practitioners are bad people. We are all subject to outside influences and for many the biased information in the mainstream comes first and it can then take time to unlearn all the harmful things you have learned about autism, autistic people and how we should be supported. It is also important to remember that cognitive dissonance makes it less likely that people will pay attention to evidence that they are making a mistake. Humans tend to believe the evidence they come across first.

How do we change people’s minds when they believe that ABA is the best way to support autistic children? I do not think attacking works particularly well. Gentle persuasion is sometimes more effective. Stephen Hassan (his website) is a cult expert and survivor and I have been learning a lot from him recently (Cults and mind control are my new autistic passionate interest so you can expect it to get a mention a lot when you talk to me nowadays). He advises on how to get people out of cults when they have been mind controlled and he uses a gentle approach. He would advise you talk about similar cults and tell stories about other people who believe inaccurate things because of mind control. He was so indoctrinated in the Moonies in the 70s, on his podcast he said he would have been capable of killing for his leader if he were ordered to. Now he uses his experience to supports other to get out of cults. I think it is a good approach. If you attack people stop listening and when supporting a cult survivor the last thing you want is for them to cut you out. In the context of ABA, we want to see newer less indoctrinated ABA practitioners to be learning about the risks of ABA and then leaving the industry and helping to spread the word. Same applies to parents, we want them to learn from autistic people and ABA survivors, because that is the issue – they need amore rounded education so they can make informed decisions.

Our job as autistic academics and activists is to keep plugging away and getting the message out. It is hard, especially when we don’t have the budgets that ABA providers have – autistic academics and researchers do a lot of work for free.


Anderson, L. K. (2022). Autistic experiences of applied behavior analysis. Autism, 136236132211182.

Cumming, T., Strnadová, I., Danker, J., & Basckin, C. (2020). “I Was Taught That My Being Was Inherently Wrong”: Is Applied Behavioural Analysis A Socially Valid Practice? International Journal of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences Studies, 5(12).

Harte, C. (2019). Reframing Compliance: Exposing Violence Within Applied Behaviour Analysis [City University of Seattle]. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

McGill, O., & Robinson, A. (2021). “Recalling hidden harms”: Autistic experiences of childhood applied behavioural analysis (ABA). Advances in Autism, 7(4), 269–282.

Published by ShonaMurphy

I am an autistic autism professional, PhD student and a mother to two autistic children. A change of personal circumstances including a late diagnosis of autism brought my banking career to an end in exchange for a more fulfilling life as an autism educator and autistic advocate. Clients have included the NHS, private companies, universities, schools and charities. I graduated with an MA in autism (distinction) from Sheffield Hallam University in 2018 and since then have been working professionally as a trainer and conference speaker. I also do voluntary work writing about autism and supporting autistic people.

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