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Is ABA Therapy Harmful?

Team Member
Abby Care
Is ABA therapy harmful? While it is effective, especially for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ABA may have potential drawbacks.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy is one of the most common treatments that help kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The therapy helps children learn daily living skills and improve specific behaviors while decreasing unwanted or problematic ones. But here’s a common question we get all the time: is ABA therapy harmful?

Now, some people say ABA therapy works wonders. They believe it helps children with autism thrive and reach their full potential. But others have concerns. They wonder if the therapy truly delivers on its promises.

To address this concern, Abby Care, a supportive resource for families dealing with autism, provides insights into the potential effects of ABA therapy. Find out the considerations surrounding ABA therapy and its impact on individuals with autism.

The Viewpoint of an Advocate

People who support ABA therapy say it is effective for kids with autism. Organizations like Autism Speaks, the largest autism research organization in the United States, strongly advocate for the use of this therapy, especially for children with ASD.

Advocates say ABA can make a big difference in how children learn and behave. When ABA therapists work with autistic kids, they can help them improve daily living skills and behaviors, such as:

  • Learn to communicate better
  • Improve interaction with others
  • Stick to hygiene and self-care routines
  • Improve leisure and play skills

ABA therapists help autistic children by breaking complex behaviors into smaller steps, guiding them through each step, and giving rewards for completing each one. This approach encourages progress and positive behavior.

Advocates also think it’s important to work together with families to decide what’s best for each kid. ABA therapists, who are experts like Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), create special plans for each child. These treatment plans focus on reinforcing good behaviors by giving rewards when the child behaves well.

There are lots of stories about how ABA has helped people with autism. Take Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, for example. When her son Norrin was diagnosed with autism at age 2, she and her husband decided to try ABA therapy. At first, Norrin found the therapy sessions tough. But as time went on, he got used to them. 

Thanks to ABA therapy, Norrin learned to communicate by pointing and writing. Now, at 10 years old, Norrin still gets ABA therapy at home. Quinones-Fontanez believes ABA therapy made a big difference in Norrin’s life, especially when he was younger.

Overall, ABA therapy helps kids learn safer ways to behave by finding out what makes them act badly and teaching them to do something else instead.

The Viewpoint of a Critic: ABA Therapy Controversy

Although many studies show that ABA therapy is effective, some people have concerns about using this ABA treatment for autism.

First, critics say ABA therapy focuses too much on making autistic people act like everyone else. They argue that the approach tries to make autistic people “normal” or conform to societal norms using methods that force obedience instead of letting them be themselves. They contend that an autistic person should be respected as naturally different rather than seeing them as abnormal people who need fixing.

Another significant concern is that ABA therapy could hurt autistic people emotionally, especially if therapy uses harsh techniques like punishment. Critics worry that such methods may overlook underlying emotional needs and increase stress and anxiety in autistic people.

But that’s not all.

While advocates say ABA therapy doesn’t aim to make autistic people appear neurotypical, there’s a concern that the therapy may encourage people to suppress or hide who they really are just to fit into society. This could make them feel stressed or anxious and lead to long-term psychological consequences.

Besides, having therapy for so many hours each week (usually between 20 to 40 hours) can be tiring and stressful for children. It might make them not want to do therapy anymore.

Additionally, critics think ABA therapy doesn’t treat each autistic person as an individual. Instead, it follows a standard plan that might not fit everyone’s needs. Research shows this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t consider what makes each person unique, like their strengths, interests, or sensory profiles. Critics say ABA therapy often listens more to parents or therapists than to the autistic person themselves. They believe it’s important to consider the experiences of autistic people and their families.

Alternative Approaches

There are several alternative approaches to autism besides ABA therapy. One of these is person-centered therapy, which considers each child’s strengths and preferences. This therapy helps autistic kids feel good about themselves and become more independent rather than trying to make them act like everyone else..

Here are a few examples of therapies that use the person-centered approach and neurodiversity paradigm:

  • Floortime Therapy: This therapy helps kids with autism build relationships and emotional connections by playing with them at their level.
  • Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based (DIR) Model: This way of helping kids with autism looks at what makes each kid different and how they relate to others to help them grow and learn.
  • Relationship Development Intervention (RDI): This helps parents and caregivers learn how to help kids with autism grow and learn better.
  • Social Skills Groups: These groups help kids, teens, and young adults with autism learn to communicate and interact with others, especially if they have trouble regulating their emotions or communication difficulties.
  • Play Therapy: This therapy helps kids with autism engage in interactive play with others to learn the proper ways to interact.
  • Speech Therapy: This helps kids with autism understand what people say and be better at talking with others.
  • Music Therapy: This uses music to help kids with autism communicate better, control their feelings, move better, make friends, and understand words.

To find out more ways to help, you can check out our guide on Alternatives to ABA Therapy here.

Considerations for Practice and Policy

When implementing ABA therapy, it’s important to follow ethical guidelines. This means making sure the therapy is done fairly and respectfully. Clients should be fully informed about the therapy and have the freedom to choose whether or not to participate. This is called “informed consent,” and it’s crucial for respecting each person’s rights and choices.

Additionally, it’s important to advocate for interventions that are diverse and inclusive. This means making sure that everyone, regardless of their background or differences, has access to the support they need.


To sum up, we’ve discussed the different views on ABA therapy for autism, showing both its good and not-so-good sides. Moving forward, we need to make sure we use ABA therapy in the right way, respect people’s choices, and offer diverse and inclusive help.

Abby Care is here to provide more information, help, and support for various ways to help with autism. Together, we can ensure everyone gets the help they need and can be themselves.


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