As a career behavior analyst who has learned, taught, and practiced in the field for over 25 years, I have heard many mischaracterizations of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). These are not new, but they are pervasive, divisive, and most importantly, may lead to people not accessing supports that could be life-changing for themselves and their families. Here are five misconceptions that I still hear, and my considered response to each.
1. ABA is abusive
It is heart-breaking that this misconception still exists. Yes, ABA professionals have engaged in abusive behavior towards individuals with disabilities. So have doctors, priests, parents, teachers, psychologists, and literally anyone else in any position of power. That doesn’t mean that medicine, religion, parenting, education, or psychology are abusive. It doesn’t mean that the abusive practices were part of the practice of behavior analysis.
The Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts clearly outlines behavior analysts’ responsibility to clients, which includes holding client rights in the highest regard, respectfully assessing behavior, obtaining informed consent for all assessments and interventions, and avoiding restrictive and harmful procedures (BACB, 2014). If a behavior analyst is abusive towards a client, they should be reported and certification should be revoked, just as in any profession where abuse can occur. Abusive acts are not part of the practice of ABA.
2. ABA is a treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Although very frequently associated with the treatment of ASD, to say that ABA is a treatment for ASD is a gross misconception (Chiesa, 2006). ABA is a science that leads to technology that is useful for teaching skills that are lacking and for helping people to overcome behavioral challenges. That ABA is frequently applied to such teaching for individuals with ASD reflects the demonstrated effectiveness of these technologies in supporting individuals with ASD (NAC, 2009), and not that it is only effective for ASD.
In fact, ABA is defined by its principles and methods (Lerman, Iwata, & Hanley, 2013) and not by the populations that it serves. Decades of research have demonstrated that ABA is an effective means of helping people with a variety of concerns, including those resulting from various disabilities (e.g., ADHD, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities), lifestyle and health challenges (e.g., obesity, medication adherence, addiction), organizational needs (e.g., staff training, safety), and even stages of life (e.g., parenting, geriatrics). In short, ABA can help with any kind of behavior of any kind of person.
3. ABA is only for people with severe impairments
This misconception is related to a view of ABA as a treatment of ASD. Even within the ASD community, there is misunderstanding about the many levels of support that ABA can provide. I have heard that students were “too high-functioning for ABA” and that some students have “graduated from ABA.” The fact is that if anyone is learning anything, it is because of the principles of behavior, whether or not they are labeled as ABA in these situations.
To appreciate how a systematic and well-supervised application of ABA technologies can help people at all levels of life, one needs only to look at the vast research on ABA in a variety of educational and organizational environments. If ABA can teach a non-verbal child with ASD to speak, and also teach a college student to stay organized, what can it not do?
4. ABA violates autonomy and human rights
Sadly, the assumption is often made that behavior analysts force people to change their behavior against their will. This could not be further from the truth. If a behavior analyst is following the ethical code, then they are obtaining client input and informed consent for all behavior change procedures (BACB, 2014). If a behavior analyst is not obtaining informed consent and failing to tailor the program to the clients’ needs, wishes, and preferences, then they are practicing unethically. The ultimate goal of any ABA intervention is to fade out added supports and promote independence given the same supports and strategies that others in the natural environment benefit from. For example, a token board might be implemented to support a child in learning from his teacher, but the goal is for that token board to eventually be systematically removed and for the child to learn from his teacher through the same naturally-occurring reinforcers as same-age peers (e.g., praise, grades, feeling of accomplishment). To take a more extreme viewpoint, the ultimate goal of teaching someone to use the bathroom independently is to improve the likelihood of freedom, dignity, and safety for that person for a lifetime.
5. ABA leads to robotic, scripted responding
This misconception comes from the misuse of ABA strategies by poorly-trained, unethical providers. Unfortunately, the terminology associated with ABA can be misused, such that consumers may have a hard time discriminating true ABA strategies (that are conceptually systematic with the science) from those that are mislabeled as ABA. The scope of this discussion is much broader than can be addressed here, but the basic lesson is that ABA is not something that can be photocopied out of a book or downloaded from a website and applied to everyone in the same way. Here are some red flags to watch out for as potential indicators that an intervention is not truly based in the science of behavior analysis:
- Extensive/excessive drilling; all intervention is 1:1, knee-to-knee, table-top
- No data collection, or data collected but not assessed
- Scripting of learner responses without plans for generalization
- Infrequent assessment of preferences (or not at all)
- Intervention is combined with other strategies or is practiced for limited time periods (e.g., “we do ABA for 1 hour per day”)
- Intervention is limited to one setting, with little or no parent/caregiver training or involvement
- Behavior reduction without prior assessment and proper consents
Hopefully misconceptions like these and others can be reduced by continuously representing ABA as an ethical, effective science. True to the values of ABA, by spending more time talking about what ABA is, we can spend less time explaining what it is not.
Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2014). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. Littleton, CO: Author.
Chiesa, M. (2006). ABA is Not a Therapy for ASD. In M. Keenan, M. Henderson, K. P. Kerr and K. Dillenburger (Eds.) Applied Behaviour Analysis and ASD: Building a Future Together (pp. 225-240). Jessica Kingsley.
Lerman, D. C., Iwata, B. A., & Hanley, G. P. (2013). Applied behavior analysis. In G. J. Madden (Ed.), Handbook of applied behavior analysis: Vol. 1. Methods and principles (pp. 81–104). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
National ASD Center (2009). National Standards Report. Randolph, MA.
About The Author
Dana Reinecke, Ph.D., BCBA-D is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA). Dana is a Core Faculty member in the Applied Behavior Analysis department at Capella University. She is also co-owner of SupervisorABA, an online platform for BACB supervision curriculum, forms, and hours tracking. Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities. She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism. Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education. Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA).