If you're following the ABA controversy at all, you're aware that the autistic community and service providers are largely at odds about the ethics of ABA. Like most privileged groups, many therapists, doctors, and parents of autistic children have dismissed the concerns of the autistic community. These kinds of dismissals usually have a slogan and this one is no different. "They're talking about 'old' ABA."
What is Old ABA?
Dates vary, but most people agree that old ABA was practiced as recently as the late 1990s. The ABA practices in that era (really from the 1970s on to the 1990s) were horrifyingly abusive. There is not a single provider or autistic person that I've met that feels otherwise. Even as recent as 25 years ago, ABA providers were using restraints, unsafe desensitization protocols, and even electroshock to correct unwanted behaviors. There is no argument to be had here unless you work at the Judge Rotenberg Center, but that's a conversation for another day.
Is New ABA Different?
To their credit, the ABA providers and therapists using ABA in other disciplines are not electroshocking kids anymore. The improvement is enormous. Behavior management methods are no longer physically violent, and that's a step in the right direction. So the current narrative, spread largely by those who benefit from the financial gains of the ABA industry, is that new ABA is fine for kids.
New ABA v. Old ABA - A False Narrative
The idea that new ABA methods are not harming children is a false narrative. New ABA methods are harming children, producing lasting psychological trauma that takes years to address. I'm not arguing methodology here, BTW. This is not a review of methodology. It's a statement of cold hard facts.
In a recent survey by Chris Bonnello, known both as the author of the Underdogs series and social media influencer Autistic Not Weird, almost 88% of autistic people do not support the use of ABA for autistic children.
The old v. new ABA false narrative would tell us that those people were basing their opinions on experiences in old ABA. But there's a problem with that logic. When that data is broken down and those ages 19 years and younger are examined, that rate is still 63%.
Let's recap that. Of autistic people who were born after the year 2000, 63% felt that it could cause psychological or physical harm. Isn't that interesting? It's an improvement, to be sure, but a marginal one. And these people could not have been exposed to old ABA, because they were born after those practices were ended. These are all survivors of the new ABA era.
Unacceptable Risk of Harm
To reframe this again, imagine a drug that could control a disease like hypertension. But, if you take it, there's a 63% chance that you could suffer psychological harm from it. That drug would never make it past the FDA. That risk of harm is unacceptable. Yet we're continuing to subject young people to a therapy that, in its most current form, is believed to be harmful by 63% of its participants. That's absolutely mind-boggling.
Regardless of your opinion on therapeutic methods, it's very clear that the old v. new ABA conversation is over. It's time to deal with the situation at hand, which is that we have a therapy that we know is harming children. And that is unacceptable.