Avoiding ABA Therapy Horror Stories & Controversy

Here are several ways to avoid ABA therapy horror stories + a simple explanation to the therapy’s controversy and abuse incidents.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
July 3rd, 2022

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is effective and safe for patients with autism.

But if a therapist isn’t qualified and trained, the treatment can become harmful and cause new problem behaviors.

In this guide, you’ll find several ABA therapy horror stories + how to avoid them if you choose to receive ABA therapy.

Keep reading.

Far Too Common ABA Therapy Horror Stories

1. On Hurling Myself Into Traffic to Get out of ABA Therapy

In one incident, an adolescent diagnosed with autism was made to go to ABA therapy as per the orders of a court. Their experiences were shared based on the following information.

According to the teen, he was made to feel as if his intelligence was constantly being insulted.

This includes quizzes and other tasks that were below his comprehension and grade level. One involved him taking a test with flashcards that were at the level of a third-grade class assignment.

This gave him the feeling that the courses he was made to do by no choice of his own were solely created from stereotypes that are associated with people on the spectrum.

He would do note-taking to see which questions he answered correctly. Even simple gestures from being polite were documented, such as when apologizing for bumping into someone accidentally.

Pretty soon, the teen began to question entire sessions. In his opinion, he felt like a mouse being tested in a laboratory, doubting his sanity. When asked about the purpose of everything, the answer given to him was that the goals were uncertain since they were subject to change until he turned 18.

He found it difficult to work in the same classrooms with other kids his age due to all the screaming that was constantly going on around him. As a result, he was made to work harder from not having the ability to concentrate on the assignments he was forced to do.

Oftentimes, he would be in the same room with kids much younger. Once, he shared a table with a three-year-old. When the children began to yell and scream, he never witnessed them being consoled into calming down. When he tried to speak up about the complaints of noise, he was told to deal with it.

A term known as scripting was often used as a reply. Scripting is when a phrase is repeated after someone else says it. But in the case of the adolescent, he felt that it made him feel as if he were unable to have general feelings around the behavioral therapist while in session.

Another test involved him answering questions that became even more basic than the first round, such as counting the three. For inferences on paper exams, he was told that it would help with language skills that he already knows.

Essentially, the work he did gave him the impression that most of it were taken from an ignorant viewpoint made about people with autism, nothing that corrected his problems.

It got to the point where he ran away when walking toward the entrance of the clinic. Chasing after him, his therapists told him to come back. He was injured after getting hit by a passing vehicle and taken to the emergency room. The therapist did not assist him in getting assistance after the accident.

2. The Surprising Truth About ABA Therapy, Autism, & Abuse

While in attendance at a conference regarding how to deal with different behaviors associated with spectrum-related disorders, a speaker came out with some unexpected questions for the audience to ponder.

One of them was about the use of aversives in therapy sessions, and why they were still relied upon to change behaviors. She was a keynote speaker for the event and wrote books on the subject, a firm advocate for ABA therapy.

In her keynote, the attendee noted that the woman showed evidence of how aversive treatment can lead to people with autism becoming more aggressive. She also gave compelling data regarding the anxiety of the autistic being treated in such a manner.

Questioning some of the practices of ABA therapy, the keynote led the guest to do more research, whereby they found that punishment used to get the behavior out of people they want could have the opposite effect. This could lead to variances in the household they stayed in and unsuccessful treatment of their autism.

In another scenario, the speaker noted a therapist in California who was taken to court over the way they handled a child in their care. During the session, the child ended up lasting damage to their spinal cord.

The therapist was charged with cruelty. During the trial, the therapist informed the judge that the treatment she was given was by her training. Her evidence for this was in a book about ABA therapy. In the end, she was found not guilty through evidence believed to be the standard operating procedure for ABA sessions.

3. Working at an ABA Clinic Was Abuse

Employed at an ABA clinic for about several months, a woman within the field details her experiences that occurred during that time.

Having gotten the job after graduating from university, she was autistic and decided to pursue a career to help treat those that were diagnosed with the same disorder.

She learned about ABA therapy from searching it online, typing in questions, and seeking out clinics that were close to her place of residence. She didn’t know much about ABA therapy at that time.

It took only six months for her to resign from her position at the first clinic she was employed at. After getting lots of requests for her to make public her experiences there, she decided to share.

As it is now, she continues to deal with what she witnessed on an emotional level. It was a daily occurrence where she would ponder on the authenticity of ABA therapy from the things that were witnessed.

When doubts were made known to her co-workers, she was told that the situation taking place would help the autistic child in the end, through wanted behaviors and better socialization.

In one case, a four-year-old boy with lots of energy would run throughout the room when sessions were ongoing.

Because of his young age and bouts of energy, he had problems trying to process all of it and would become easily sidetracked. Every room in the clinic had two chairs and a couple of desks. The four-year-old would go under the desk or climb on top of another one.

Taking posters off the wall, he would lick, smell, and tear at them. Her superiors ordered that she take out anything that was causing him to become distracted in the room, essentially, making it completely bare.

There was hardly anything inside. The walls were white and the carpet light brown. She ended up having to sit on the floor with the child, helping him enunciate words while trying to find a way to keep him focused.

The child would look for anything possible to distract himself from the already bare room. Playing with feet, peering in a daydream-like state at birthmarks and moles, or simply refusing to engage with her in any way was the norm.

She would end up cornering him whenever it was time to go into the sensory-deprived working area. Unwavering, she attempted to sit directly in front of him on the floor, within reach if he decided to run off.

While in this position, she would hold up to get him to announce what they were. Her supervisor forbade her to leave the room until he said something, or at least tried to sound out the word to the best of his ability.

Unable to do anything more than what was already done, both she and the boy would stay in the same room for long stretches with hardly anything inside. There was little to any contact after one enunciation was finally done.

Her thoughts about what this could mean for the boy’s time in kindergarten were less than optimistic. If he was having issues with saying simple commands in a nearly empty room with no one else around, how was he going to adjust to a classroom filled with children? The boy was only four years old.

She decided to lie in her report about his enunciations, waiting for a little less than ten minutes to leave the room to avoid suspicion. Had she admitted that he never said anything, her superiors would’ve increased her working hours with the same child.

Overall, the feeling for both her and the child she was teaching was a feeling of being institutionalized. She was agitated from having to chase him around the room and struggle with getting him to do any activity.

After quitting, her boss had no idea why she decided to leave. Not fully understanding, he insisted that she had done nothing wrong and was simply overreacting to one demanding child.

She believed that they wanted her to stay simply from her being autistic, as a way to market themselves to potential clients.

But her worry for the boy didn’t end. She thought about how well he would manage school once he began. His sessions in therapy had failed him, having completed zero behavioral goals.

4. Parental Learned Helplessness and ABA

Two parents found out that their seven-month-old couldn’t see. He was legally blind but this wasn’t the end of her surprises.

At two, he was diagnosed with autism. It was on his third birthday that the parents chose to create a program specifically for their child, educating themselves through research into all subjects related to autism.

He began his first intervention early, which lasted until he reached the age of five. From that point, the parents enrolled him in a school program known as LIfeSkills. At the time this was the only optional school program that he could attend. Things went smoothly until he turned eight.

Then after various issues concerning his ability to communicate and aggressiveness towards students, the parents put him in homeschool when he turned 11.

It was done for his safety. There was brief attendance at a school for the blind but it closed down shortly after a year had passed. Then back at public school, the meltdowns and tantrums increased to several times a day.

The parents resorted to prescription medication but the dosages were excessive. They were accused by psychiatrists of making their child believe that he was helpless, to which both disagreed.

After much insistence that therapy would change his behavior, they decided to place him in an ABA treatment program that was residential and served as a place for education.

The therapy, in their opinion, was akin to teaching their son how to comply while not properly addressing what was causing the tantrums.

Unfortunately, the only way to get him out of the program was to reimburse the state for the expenses it cost to have him there. After talking with the director of the program, it was agreed that their child was having more difficulties there than at any other location.

Because the location of the facility was out of state, both parents had to fly across the country to get their son and take him back home.

They went back to the strategy of providing their son with homeschooling and self-taught therapy, which got him to calm down and behave in a way that was noticeably better than anything attempted before, including professional ABA therapy. No more meltdowns, no tantrums, and gradually-reduced aggressiveness.

5. Becoming an ABA RBT Before Knowing I Was Autistic

While studying in a related field, a man needed to fulfill a certain amount of hours to gain a license in clinical psychology. To do this required him to work around adults with different personality disorders. Before that, his primary focus was on trauma.

His place of work was having an increase in clients looking for ABA therapy courses. He was needed to help lower the number of people just taking part in the therapy. He heard it constantly touted as the only way for autistic people to cope with their disorder.

For him to be certified for the position, he needed only 30 hours of an online course. His company wanted additional training in patient rights and HIPAA, along with HR-related information.

The entire schedule for all training exercises was less than two hours, save for one. In its totality, the training was known as therapeutic options. From the start, therapeutic options seemed pretty tame, at least on paper.

It was an eight-hour standalone course. Having problems with being touched, the training was hands-on since it taught employees how to deal with kicking, screaming, and general aggressiveness. It gave him great anxiety to a level that he began to question what real therapy sessions would be like.

6. I Was Part of the “Good ABA”

Another individual had become a registered behavior technician to help adults and children with autism. One of her workmates wanted to get to know autistic people of different backgrounds and situations. He concluded that many felt ABA was something to shy away from.

During training sessions, while pursuing an RBT career, she was inundated with research and data showing why ABA was best for autistic people. Things like self-harm, more sociability, and less aggressiveness were admittedly appealing.

The clinic she worked at was touted as having better ABA courses than other places in the region. It had environmental teaching, limited discrete trial training, and making the child’s decisions part of the courses. However, it wasn’t long before she noticed some signs that troubled her.

The first involved a child that had issues with speaking. It became clear that he was uninterested in his courses. The majority of it was teaching him things that he already understood. He was there from having problems with getting him to show the behaviors to other people.

After some time, DTT was instructed to be tried for the boy. He would become very agitated to a level that made him self-harm. The DTT was done on average three times every day for a full-time week. Some co-workers accused the boy, only seven years old, of being manipulative by pretending not to know the desired behaviors.

Another was a kid that kept asking for lunch too early, with his RBT kindly but firmly telling him that he couldn’t. Previously, another therapist had let the children eat during their lunches, but was absent.

The new RBT instead chose to let the child become agitated by not getting food when he usually expected it. He began to cry. When pressed on why the child wasn’t being allowed to eat, the new RBT said that doing so would encourage maladaptive behavior in him.

After giving the boy some food, his crying didn’t stop. This was what motivated her to say something. After going to her supervisor, they simply posted a note on the door about how lunch wasn’t set to a specific time. She asked her boss would this change be notified to parents and was told that it wouldn’t be since that would lead to too much work.

But in the worst incident there, a child was agitated for not exhibiting any maladaptive behaviors. At first, he was given paper assignments with puzzles and quizzes.

When nothing resulted from that, the therapists began shouting at each other from different corners of the room. The child was sensitive to loud noises and his therapists knew this.

They brought in a speaker to get a reaction from him by playing music he disliked. Unfazed, he continued self-regulating.

The breaking point was when he was told to leave the room, then immediately ordered to sit back down after walking close to the door. The crying that commenced was considered by her co-workers to be successful in his treatment.

The Controversy Over ABA Therapy

Why People Like ABA

People like ABA for how it strengthens a child’s ability to cope with their autism in a way that minimizes unwanted symptoms of it. People in favor of ABA therapy usually share peer-reviewed research into why it’s an effective way to treat autism.

They claim that while ABA isn’t perfect, there’s no better way to mitigate symptoms at this point since there’s no cure for the disorder. Supporters maintain that the overwhelming majority of autistic clients that have overgone treatment come out of it better off than they would have without pursuing any treatment at all.

Why People Don’t Like ABA

One major reason people dislike ABA is its early history of administering a mixture of rewards and punishments.

Today, punishment isn’t allowed but many opponents feel that ABA therapy remains too focused on making children feel like they’ve done something deserving of being punished, even when they aren’t. People that support the therapy contend that it’s fun for children when administered correctly.

Additional contentions are centered around the way that it’s prescribed. ABA therapy opponents argue that there’s too much of a focus on getting rid of unwanted behavior and not enough on compiling new skills for the child.

Some believe that the overall goal should be to concentrate on what children need to do instead of what they’re doing wrong.

What People With Autism Say About ABA

Most people with autism believe that ABA is either supportive of autism, or is completely against it.

These two observations within the autism community both retain research that adds merit to their claims. Those that are against it tend to be adults and therapists that have worked in the field for some time. Supporters are usually professionals in behavioral therapy and current providers.

Many parents that have had positive results from ABA therapy are more likely to express good opinions of the ABA and the treatment that it provides. Parents that haven’t had much success with ABA tend to hover around being unsupportive or neutral.

How To Avoid ABA Therapy Horror Stories

Here are the best ways to prevent the problems detailed earlier from happening to children and concerned parents:

  • Sitting in a course when possible – This will help parents become familiar with the therapists their child will interact with, helping to build a working relationship through communication on what’s happening throughout the course
  • Having an exit plan – There’s always the chance that ABA therapy won’t be the solution for every parent with an autistic child. Parents should know how to pull their child out of clinics that don’t provide satisfactory care during therapy sessions
  • Speaking up when issues arise – This applies to parents, therapists, and the children receiving ABA therapy. If something occurs that either disapproves of, the clinic should have a staff to help settle issues. Parents and workers should have contact information for upper management.
  • Ensuring that the clinic is certified – Most clinics operating are certified, but there do exist many that aren’t. Getting ABA therapy from certified technicians lowers the risk of a bad experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the controversy on ABA therapy?

Controversies surrounding ABA therapy are rooted in its short period of existence.

Skepticism is raised by parents and practitioners, particularly when working with small children. Critics maintain that outcomes regarding ABA therapy are unlike other related therapeutic practices for personality disorders.

They criticize it as being too focused on standardized practices that exist within the therapy that aren’t open to interpretation according to every child’s individual needs.

What are the criticisms of ABA?

Criticisms for ABA therapy can be described as an outright shunning of the therapy, but ways in which it can be improved.

Better ways should be introduced to pinpoint what kids will gain the most from the therapy, undertakings that prioritize the situation of every family and child differently. In short, critics think that the therapy should change in accord with every child that undergoes it.

Additionally, some believe that children would be more likely to have great results if parents are versed in ABA therapy and how to apply it to their child outside of a clinic.

Is ABA therapy harmful, bad, or abusive?

ABA therapy isn’t abusive or harmful but opinions may change form based on a child and their parent’s experience with it.

It has started that way, but the controversial aspects having to do with pushing children have been long eliminated from therapy. However, there is room for improvement, especially with the way that some therapists implement their courses and how they move forward with treatment.

Is ABA ethical?

ABA therapy is considered more ethical than it was when the practice was in its infancy.

Today, the therapy alone isn’t bad or abusive, though it can be interpreted by some as leading to that by the way that the behavioral goals are achieved in some kids. Poorly trained, apathetic, and dogmatic therapists could certainly make it unethical, even when they don’t intend for it to be.

Is long term ABA therapy abusive?

ABA therapy isn’t abusive over a long period, but there is evidence of the contrary.

People that have undergone ABA therapy from child to adult have mixed feelings about the therapy. Some love it and others completely disapprove of it. ABA in the long term isn’t abusive alone. But some therapists can make it that way. The circumstances of going from different clinics may also play into some viewing it as abusive.

References

  1. https://neuroclastic.com/aba-horror-stories-are-far-too-common/
  2. https://hiddentalentsaba.com/aba-therapy-horror-stories/
  3. https://www.goldencaretherapy.com/aba-therapy-horror-stories/
  4. https://theautismcafe.com/controversy-aba-therapy-autism/
  5. https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/controversy-autisms-common-therapy/
  6. https://www.thearticulateautistic.com/the-wool-hat-story-aba-torture-of-autistic-child/
  7. https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-aba-therapy/
  8. https://crossrivertherapy.com/aba-therapy-alternatives/
steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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