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  • Writer's pictureTisha Moon

Understanding the Impact: A Closer Look at ABA Therapy for Neurodivergent Individuals

Today, I'd like to explore an important topic that impacts many individuals in our neurodivergent community: the role of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy in supporting neurodivergent individuals. As a therapist with extensive experience working with autistic individuals, I feel compelled to share my insights and concerns regarding the implementation of ABA therapy for children. 

Before we dive in, I want to establish an inclusive and respectful framework for this blog. In discussing neurodiversity, I choose to use the term “autistic individuals or children”  versus “with autism” to honor the evolving understanding of autism. This choice reflects our commitment to recognizing the diverse ways in which neurology manifests and refrains from labeling autism as a pathology.

The heart of this blog lies in recent research findings, clinical observations, and lived experiences that highlight the potential limitations of ABA therapy. Here's a closer look at some important considerations:

  1. Exploring Effectiveness with Compassion: Recent research shows that the effectiveness of ABA therapy in creating significant, long-term improvements in symptoms is uncertain. Many individuals who have experienced ABA therapy displayed minimal to negligible changes in their symptoms. Given the unique circumstances of each child and student, it's vital to prioritize interventions that hold the promise of fostering lasting positive outcomes.

  2. Navigating Potential Symptom Changes: It's noteworthy that some studies have pointed to the possibility of certain individuals experiencing a temporary increase in symptoms after undergoing ABA therapy. While all interventions have potential pros and cons, we should always strive to ensure that any approach contributes positively to a child’s overall well-being.

  3. Valuing Different Perspectives: Research highlights the differing viewpoints among parents, educators, and professionals when it comes to symptom presentation and progress. Autism's complexity means that ABA therapy might seek to extinguish “behaviors” that are actually supportive strategies for the child.  This creates a skewed sense of progress in addition to rewarding a child for masking or disguising stimming that is actually regulating their nervous systems. This underscores the importance of understanding a child’s or student’s true needs and progression accurately.

  4. Emotional Well-being Matters: Another aspect of concern is the potential impact of ABA therapy on emotional well-being. The repetitive nature of ABA interventions, coupled with societal pressure to conform, can lead to increased emotional distress. For students facing unique challenges, it's crucial to approach interventions with careful consideration of their emotional needs.

To summarize concerns of ABA therapy:

  • Emphasis on objectives often leans toward molding children to fit neurotypical behaviors rather than nurturing self-acceptance and self-awareness.

  • The approach lacks child-led dynamics, failing to reflect the genuine needs and aspirations of the child. A truly child-led approach cannot be steered by preconceived adult goals.

  • Concerns arise from the historical origins of behavioral theory, which clash with practitioners aligned with attachment-focused orientations.

  • A considerable portion of neurodivergent adults strongly oppose all forms of behavioral therapies due to a variety of reasons.

  • Despite their apparent engagement, these therapies inadvertently uphold ableism and inflict harm by not considering individual needs.

Man in therapy office

These interventions fall short of promoting an authentic and fulfilled life. They propagate the idea that neurodiversity is a flaw in need of fixing and that compliance with therapist instructions is the sole solution, even when uncomfortable, contradicting the development of self-awareness.

All valuable and beneficial objectives of behavioral therapy can be achieved through alternative approaches that respect and acknowledge the uniqueness of each individual.

In light of these findings, it's essential to explore alternative interventions and support strategies that cater to the holistic well-being of students and children. This encompasses emotional, social, and academic growth. I'm passionate about collaborating with multidisciplinary teams to develop personalized support plans that account for individual strengths, challenges, and specific needs.

The core belief guiding this perspective is that a collaborative, adaptive, evidence-based, and affirming approach truly empowers neurodivergent individuals. This discussion isn't about finding fault; it's about nurturing an environment that supports success and well-being in every child’s individual journey.


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