illusion of choice Hello Michelle Swan

The illusion of choice in behaviour modification therapy

You can listen to “The illusion of choice in behaviour modification therapy” as part of a podcast on The Neurodivecast by Alex Kronstein. Click << here >> to open the podcast site in a new window. This article is read first. Keep listening for other excellent articles on the topic of ABA and behaviour modification therapy.

During April autistic adults take the opportunity when people are raising “awareness” to push back against some of the ideas commonly held by non autistic people about what is good for autistic people.

Autistic people don’t like ABA

This April I have read some excellent critiques of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). Autistic people have been speaking out against ABA for years and years, yet the community of “helpers”, “experts”, therapists, etc. just doesn’t want to listen. I guess they can’t see past the expectation that we should conform, and the benefit to them that is involved when we do, to actually understand how damaging behaviour modification therapy is to any persons physiological well being.

As I said, there are many wonderful articles already written about ABA by autistic people, and most of them have a more intimate knowledge of ABA than I do. I’m going to link to my favourites at the bottom of this article.

My aim in writing today is not to add anything new to the discussion. It is to ask some questions in response to some of the arguments I’ve seen for ABA in the past couple of weeks. These are questions about things that I just can’t reconcile in my own mind. To be clear, I’m not looking for anyone to answer my questions, I am simply putting them out there because I believe that there is an illusion of choice in behaviour modification therapy presented by behaviour modification therapists that needs to be challenged, and I think these questions are a critical baseline from which we should all be looking at behaviour modification therapy.

If you are new to the idea that ABA and behaviour modification therapies are harmful, you might like to scroll down and read the articles linked below before reading my questions.

The arguments for ABA that I am responding to with my questions are that:

  1. The child always has a choice
  2. The child knows they can say no
  3. The activities are child led
  4. The child is having fun

My questions are:

  1. Does the child truly know and feel they have a choice whether they comply with requests to perform tasks?
  2. Is the child actually taught how to say no?
  3. Even if the child is told they can say no, while there is still a predetermined consequence for non compliance, is it a real choice or a coerced one?
  4. If the activity was really child led, would there need to be rewards and consequences?
  5. Does the child have, or can the child realistically be expected to have, the skills available to them to make an informed choice about their consent?
  6. Is the child capable of saying no, even if they want to, or will the desire to please be too strong to allow them to do so?
  7. Even if I had felt I had a choice as a child, I still would have done what I thought the adult wanted me to do. In fact, I am still unlearning this behaviour. How can anyone be confident this is not the case for a vulnerable autistic child left in therapy designed to make them compliant?
  8. Can we acknowledge it is possible to have fun while being coerced? And that citing a childs enjoyment of parts of it as evidence they want to be there and are truly consenting to behaviour modification therapy is sneaky because it uses fun against the kid?


Click to read my follow up to this article: “Behaviour modification therapy does work

My favourite articles on ABA/ behaviour modification therapy by autistic adults
(To read, click the article title. All articles will open in a new window)

ABA, by Sparrow Rose Jones (I love this one so much it is in my book The Real Experts)

Your therapy likely IS like that, or at least your attitude is, by Neurodivergent K 

Autistic Conversion Therapy, by Amy Sequenzia

I abused children for a living, by Birdmad Girl



2 thoughts on “The illusion of choice in behaviour modification therapy

  1. The thing I hear ABA proponents say that confuses me is “My kid/client likes ABA because it’s just like play!”

    My question is, if it’s just like play, what in the world is the parent paying you for? Play is free. So what’s happening in ABA that in fact ISN’T just play?

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