An intensive training regimen consisting of an elaborate system of rewards to make children comply with external directives, to memorize and engage in very specific behaviors. An expert promises to train the child to make eye contact or point at an object on command, to stop fluttering his hands or rocking — in short, to make him act like a normal kid. ABA is the accepted, expected, even mandated system for dealing with autistic children.
He build on his prior critiques of rewards and positive reinforcement to question the intent behind behaviour modification.
like economists with their axiomatic commitment to using incentives to change people’s behavior, “behavior analysts” have set up an unfalsifiable belief system: When behavioral manipulation fails, the blame is placed on the specific reinforcement protocol being used or on the adult who implemented it or on the child — never on behaviorism itself. The underpinnings of that ideology include: a focus only on observable behaviors that can be quantified, a reduction of wholes to parts, the assumption that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement, and the creation of methods for selectively reinforcing whichever behaviors are preferred by the person with the power. Behaviorists ignore, or actively dismiss, subjective experience — the perceptions, needs, values, and complex motives of the human beings who engage in behaviors.
Kohn summarises some of the particular problems with ABA, including that it is dehumanising, ignores internal realities, undermines intrinsic motivation, about compliance, creates dependencies and communicates conditional acceptance.
For many, the underlying assumption that they have a disease that needs to be cured is misconceived and offensive. Resistance to this premise led to the founding of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and has been described in such mainstream periodicals as Salon, the Atlantic, and the New York Times. From the last of those three articles: “Autism has traditionally been seen as a shell from which a normal child might one day emerge. But some advocates contend that autism is an integral part of their identities, much more like a skin than a shell, and not one they care to shed. The effort to cure autism, they say, is not like curing cancer, but like the efforts of a previous age to cure left-handedness.” Or like curing homosexuality: In the autism community, ABA is often compared to gay conversion therapy.3 Many argue that its goal is to force these children to stop being who they are.
One of the particular defences of ABA is that it is evidence based. The problem with this is that many of the results that these claims are based upon are often dubious.
the best way to conclude with any confidence that different outcomes are due to an intervention and not to pre-existing differences between the members of the groups is to randomly assign subjects to either the treatment condition or the control group. But so few ABA studies did this that it was impossible for the reviewers to calculate an effect size for any outcome.