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Misconceptions of ABA

A lot of information and opinions regarding ABA are readily available to the public.  One only has to search online to receive a barrage of “good” or “bad” reports.  Often, when we meet families, they are already armed with the research they have done, excited or disheartened by what they think “ABA” is or will “do”.  This usually pleases us, even when the information they have is incorrect.  It is always great to meet families who have done research and have opinions about what or how therapy should be done.  However, it is always important to “set the record straight” to make sure well informed decisions are made.  We’ve made a list of common “misconceptions” we’ve come across through our professional practice and our common answers to them.  We hope this page will clear up confusion on these topics.  We know this is not even close to an “exhaustive” list and we’d be happy to add more, if you like.  (Feel free to send some in!) Remember, as with the rest of the website, these answers are general, not necessarily specific to any one child.  It is always best to consult with a behavior analyst regarding ABA and your child.


  • “My Child will just be/talk like a robot.” Sometimes when a child is just beginning to talk, the focus is really on “getting the words out” in meaningful ways. When a child becomes more proficient in his/her language, the flow changes and begins to normalize.  This, of course, requires good teaching, though.  Children usually learn precisely what they are taught.  If the instruction the child receives is given in a robotic way, that is what the child will learn.  It’s important that caregivers, therapists, teachers, etc. model varied intonation and volume with their voice, but also teach/model that there is very often more than one way of answering a question, asking a question, greeting someone, and commenting on their environment, etc.  In short, this concern may be valid if the quality of therapy is low.  It is not likely if the quality of therapy is high.


  • “ABA is just kids sitting at a table memorizing all day.” Applied Behavior Analysis has many forms.  Yes, one tool in the ABA tool box is something called Discrete Trial Teaching.  This is commonly done in a very structured, 1:1 setting.  While Discrete Trial Teaching is necessary for most children, it is certainly not the “only” way a child in an ABA program should be taught.  Luckily, behavior analysts understand the nature of establishing operations, SD’s, reinforcement, shaping, etc.  This knowledge can and should be taken “on the go”.  The best thing for a child is to actually “live” in a 24-hour therapeutic environment.  That doesn’t mean that therapy is done at a table all day.  It means that “therapy” is done all day, regardless of the environment.  Teaching moments should be captured and used all day… the backyard, the pool, the grocery store, etc.  Good behavior analysts will train family and caregivers to be able to provide this environment.


  • “ABA looks like dog/animal training so it can’t be ‘right’ for a child.” Yes, Applied Behavior Analysis has been and is used to teach dolphins how to do cool flips, train monkeys to help people with severe motor impairments, teach dogs to find missing people, etc.  It has also been used to motivate workers in fortune 500 companies, to reduce drug use in addicts and increase food intake for those with eating disorders.  ABA has been used to teach a lot of things!  I’m not going to beat around the bush here: Good teaching is good teaching.


  • “ABA uses punishment to teach”. This is a “hot-button” topic for many reasons. The fact is, punishment isn’t used to teach new skills.  This is where reinforcement comes in.  Punishment is sometimes, with caution, used to decrease problem behaviors.  A well trained behavior analyst does not use punishment as a “first” treatment option but will reserve using it as a treatment option.  The option should only be used after functional assessment/analysis has been done.  Data should be used in all phases of treatment.  In every case, punishment should never be used by anyone without parent or guardian consent.


  • “ABA is only for kids under 5.” Actually, ABA has been used to increase (teach new skills) and decrease behaviors in children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities of virtually all ages.  Articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals that absolutely confirm its effectiveness.


  • “ABA should only be used to decrease problem behaviors.” No!  ABA is a fabulous tool (not to mention, “PROVEN”) for teaching NEW skills!  Do not underestimate the science behind applied behavior analysis!  Although some schools or institutions may narrow the scope of what ABA is used for, it is certainly intended to be used to increase abilities!


  • “Only therapists can/should provide therapy.  Parents don’t need to be involved.” Parental involvement is crucial to the success of treatment programs for children.  Not only are parents a child’s first teachers, they are usually already reinforcing to the child!  Granted, most parents don’t just “know” how to do ABA.  They need training in order to do it well.  Most consultants will absolutely offer, if not require, parent training.  All ABA programs should include a parent training component.


*Models depicted in pictures are for illustrative purposes.