My response to The New Yorker article about ABA Therapy

An article was recently published about ABA Therapy in The New Yorker, and though it attempted to be balanced, there were many issues with it.

Who am I to speak on the subject of ABA Therapy and provide feedback on The New Yorker article?

I’m an autistic mother of three children, two on the spectrum, one of whom with profound autism. I’m also a published author and a podcast host.

My oldest, Charlie, has been in ABA Therapy full-time for over nine years, since his autism diagnosis at two. His autism is best described as severe, level 3, nonverbal, and profound, and it’s come to define him more than anything else could. 

Charlie has made great progress through ABA. The structured and individualized one-on-one approach has been key in helping him develop essential skills and manage challenging and dangerous behaviors. Most notably, ABA has given him a voice, helping him, little by little, to use an AAC app to communicate, after every other type of intervention failed to help him speak. His library of words is now in the hundreds, which he uses to communicate most of his basic needs with simple sentences.

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After reading the article, I’m left with an image of ABA that more closely aligns with the misinformation-filled attacks I’ve been dealing with online for eight years, than the intimate daily experience I’ve had with it over that same time. The information seems heavily sourced from what I know to be a largely feelings-over-facts, highly vocal, and often extreme minority within the Autism world. And so, I feel impelled to share my testimony on ABA therapy and how it has immensely and measurably benefitted Charlie, and by extension, our whole family.

Regarding the puppy training comparison from using Skittles as a reinforcer, well, isn’t that something every one of us does? A sticker for the kid who listened well at the grocery store. A cookie for the toddler who used the potty successfully. A smile to the husband to make sure he knows you appreciate him cleaning up. Countless other examples, all so universal that an argument that it’s inhumane not to use positive reinforcement begins to feel more reasonable.

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There were a lot of misconceptions about ABA Therapy

Something else that stuck out to me was the misconception that “often, A.B.A. targets autistic traits that may be socially stigmatizing but are harmless unto themselves, such as fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or stereotypic behaviors commonly known as stimming—rocking, hand-flapping, and so forth.” This is not the case in 2024, and perpetuating these misconceptions is harmful. My son stims constantly. His RBTs never redirect him unless the behavior is dangerous. Eye contact is never forced, either.

“The message that A.B.A. sends is that ‘your instinctual way of being is incorrect.’” I hear this repeated in online comments by the misinformed (many with no direct experience with ABA). I hear it in the unending torrent of messages I receive from people trying to shame me for putting Charlie in ABA. No matter where it comes from, it’s false. I’m not surprised that such a statement came from ASAN, who believes, just as one example, that profound autism doesn’t exist. 

What ABA does is send the message that every human deserves to learn skills that most of us take for granted. Skills that often directly, clearly, obviously benefit that person’s life, health, or safety, or indirectly benefit them and the entire family system they’re a part of. Can you not think of a dozen instinctual or pre-socialized ways of being that we all should thank our lucky stars is socialized out of us, by our parents, peers, or society? When a child has autism, why does this universal process suddenly become offensive?

Why did I have to scroll so far to find a positive ABA Therapy experience?

I have to say, I felt like I had to get deep into the story to find any substantial positive discussion of ABA and I wish the article emphasized the benefits of ABA more and gave a voice to more autistic people who are in favor of ABA. I liked Alison Singer’s testimony and could greatly relate to it. 

We must dispel misconceptions surrounding ABA therapy and recognize its value in supporting individuals with autism. Fear-mongering articles are going to drive many people away from ABA therapy—people who would benefit from it the most. Countless studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in improving outcomes and enhancing the quality of life for individuals across the spectrum.

As a prominent voice in the autism and autistic community, I always remind parents and autistic individuals that their feedback matters. If you don’t like something that’s happening during an ABA session speak up. ABA works best with parent involvement and communication.

Make ABA better, but don’t cancel it.

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  • Reply
    Frank Sterle Jr.
    2024-02-18 at 12:26 AM

    Also, schoolteachers should receive mandatory ASD training, especially as the rate of diagnoses increases. There could also be an inclusion in standard high school curriculum of child-development science that would also teach students about the often-debilitating condition (without being overly complicated).

    If nothing else, the curriculum would offer students an idea/clue as to whether they themselves are emotionally/mentally compatible with the immense responsibility and strains of regular, non-ASD-child parenthood.

    It would explain to students how, among other aspects of the condition, people with ASD (including those with higher functioning autism) are often deemed willfully ‘difficult’ and socially incongruent, when in fact such behavior is really not a choice. Also, how “camouflaging” or “masking,” terms used to describe ASD people pretending to naturally fit into a socially ‘normal’ environment, causes their already high anxiety and depression levels to further increase.

    My autism-spectrum disordered brain is, at least for me, an obvious condition with which I greatly struggle(d) while unaware until I was a half-century old that its component dysfunctions had formal names. I’m sometimes told, “But you’re so smart!” To this I immediately agitatedly reply: “But for every ‘gift’ I have, there are a corresponding three or four deficits.” It’s crippling, and on multiple levels!

    While low-functioning autism seems to be more recognized and treated, higher-functioning ASD cases are typically left to fend for themselves, except for parents who can finance usually expensive specialized help.

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