5 Myths About ABA Therapy and Autism Acceptance

I talked with an expert at Healing Haven to learn what’s behind several common myths about ABA therapy — and how misconceptions can impact autism acceptance.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is widely considered the gold standard therapy for individuals with autism. Children, teens and adults benefit from ABA therapy methods for learning skills that are important to living as independently as possible. Yet myths about ABA therapy persist, says Jamie McGillivary, president and founder of Healing Haven in Madison Heights.

“There’s historical context that comes from early in the development of the field of ABA therapy, and many of the myths about ABA therapy that exist today come from lack of information or misinformation or an understanding of only the old-school methods,” says McGillivary, who is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

Do myths about ABA impact your understanding of the therapy’s effectiveness?

I spent time talking with McGillivary to learn the most common myths about ABA therapy and to get to the heart of how ABA therapy works to shape behavior. Some of the myths and truths may surprise you — especially as they relate to autism acceptance.

Myth 1: ABA therapy is only for people with autism

ABA therapy is based on the science of human behavior and is highly effective in teaching skills to better the lives of autistic people. “But the methods of ABA are also effective for those who don’t have autism,” says McGillivary. “It’s a myth that the science of behavioral change is just for one group of people.”

ABA therapy is effective when the goal is to teach socially significant behaviors that can transform lives, like communication, socialization and play skills. “Behavior is behavior, young or old, autism or not autism. ABA therapy addresses behavior change that can be helpful for all,” she says.

Myth 2: ABA therapy is only for very young children

While early intervention is important for children with autism, “we are able to learn at any age,” McGillivary says. “There is a push for early intervention because the sooner a child can start ABA therapy, the sooner they can make gains and address needs. It is true that our brains are more malleable when we are young, but older individuals on the spectrum can benefit greatly from this intervention as well.”

Myth 3: ABA therapy creates ‘robots’

Like many myths, there’s a shade of truth here, says McGillivary. “When people talk about creating robots, they usually mean that a child has been taught to answer questions by rote but not really understand or use the concept functionally.  It is true, if a skill is taught incorrectly like this, robotic responses can happen,” she explains. “Just like in any profession, some professionals are more skilled than others. It’s unfortunate that the missteps of some professionals have made people doubt the effectiveness of ABA, or worse — shy away from seeking services.”

Healing Haven President and Founder says to never fundamentally change who a child is

To avoid this experience, parents should look carefully at how therapists work with children. Are they guiding responses only under strict circumstances and in a very specific way? Or are they following a curriculum that is rich in naturalistic teaching opportunities where responses are practiced across multiple environments and with multiple people? Don’t be afraid to ask about how concepts are generalized so that your child can learn broadly.

Myth 4: ABA therapy is punishment-based

Part of the misunderstanding here takes place between the terminology within the field of ABA and everyday language.

A punishment, in ABA terms, is defined as anything that decreases the chances of a behavior occurring again as a result of an event that directly followed the behavior — but many people equate the term “punishment” with something angry or mean. This would never be the case in ABA therapy at Healing Haven, says McGillivary.

Take, for example, this common scenario. “If a child takes a toy and bangs it on a glass window, a caregiver may decrease the likelihood that this would happen again in the future by taking the toy away after they bang it. Taking the toy away is considered a ‘punishment’ if it decreased the behavior moving forward,” explains McGillivary. “In ABA terms, the world is made up of natural reinforcement and punishment. “Our interventions are rich in reinforcement and captivating social moments,” she adds.

Myth 5: ABA therapy fundamentally changes who a child is

Very early on, the goal of ABA therapy for children with autism was to provide skills that would make children indistinguishable from their neurotypical peers. For instance, children were once forced to learn to maintain eye contact with others, but BCBAs now see how unnecessary and potentially damaging that practice can be.

“Some people with autism indicate that it’s painful or difficult to process looking at someone and talking at the same time, so we help them learn to send the message that they are engaged in a social situation in a different way,” says McGillivary. “The goal is never to fundamentally change who a child is. Our children are perfect just the way they are. The goal is to provide them with an environment rich in learning opportunities that will help them maximize their safety and potential.”

How quality ABA therapy embraces autism acceptance

This shift from forcing a child to conform to helping them be successful in their own ways is one way the practice of ABA therapy has evolved to be inclusive of the individual’s wants and needs.

“The field has changed and more providers have an appreciation for beauty and individuality and an understanding of neurodiversity,” says McGillivary.

Today, BCBAs work with children to build skills to navigate the world — and they advocate for cultural change. “Our responsibility is to change the world while we support the child, and build the understanding that each person is different and has inherent skills to contribute to the world,” she says, encouraging parents to find the best possible fit for their child and their values when seeking ABA therapy.

“There are reasons why these misconceptions exist, and parents need a skilled eye,” she says. “If they are working with a provider and something doesn’t feel right, maybe something is not right. It’s OK to use your instincts. I love when parents ask thoughtful questions because they don’t need a degree in behavior analysis to understand values, and  if something is a good fit for their child. If a provider is not the right match, we encourage parents to find another one. In the end, everyone should want what is in the best interest of the child.”

Expertise provided by Healing Haven. Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique ABA therapy programs for children and teens, ages 2-young adult. Visit thehealinghaven.net.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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