ABA Therapy Horror Stories
ABA therapy is one of the most efficient ways to help an autistic child modify their behavior.
However, ABA therapy can be harmful if the therapist uses outdated techniques.
Because of this, we put together this article so you can know what to look for when choosing an ABA therapy provider.
We also go over some horror stories that underline the importance of finding and working with a reliable therapist.
What are the requirements to be an ABA therapist?
Different types of professionals can conduct ABA therapy. They range from doctorate degree holders to technicians who underwent ABA training programs.
An ABA therapist’s level of education and certifications define the role that they will play in treating your autistic child.
BCBA (Board Certified Behavioral Analyst)
To become a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst, a professional must have a master’s degree in a relevant field, such as psychology. Moreover, therapists must take courses related to ABA and pass an exam in order to attain their BCBA certification.
Most BCBAs put together treatment programs and supervise other professionals who implement them.
BCaBA (Board Certified Assistant Behavioral Analyst)
In the same vein, BCaBAs are professionals who have a bachelor’s degree and are certified to practice behavior analysis. BCaBAs cannot work independently. Instead, a BCBA must supervise their activities.
CAS (Certified Autism Specialist)
Practitioners rely on behavior analysis to treat different kinds of disabilities. Because of this, CAS programs were designed to train professionals on how to use ABA to specifically treat autism.
To obtain a CAS certification, therapists must meet the following requirements:
- Have a master’s degree or a higher educational attainment (such as a doctorate).
- Have at least 2 years of experience working in behavior analysis or a related field.
- Complete 14 CEUs (continuing education units) every 2 years to keep their CAS certification active.
It is important to note that specialists from different occupational backgrounds can get a CAS. This includes those who work in speech therapy, teaching, psychology, administration, and others.
AC (Autism Certificate)
Unlike a CAS, professionals don’t need to have a master’s degree in order to get an AC. However, they still need to meet these prerequisites:
- Regularly work with autistic individuals in their place of employment.
- Complete 14 CEUs and pass the Autism Competency Certificate Exam.
- Keep their AC active by fulfilling 14 more CEUs every 2 years.
- Continue to be an AC with active status and comply with the code of ethics.
In comparison to a CAS, people from almost any field can get an AC as long as they regularly work with autistic people.
For example, teachers, school bus drivers, autism charity employees, police officers, and medical workers can all get an AC as long as they meet the above requirements.
A CAS certification is important because it educates these professionals on how to efficiently work with autistic individuals and deliver the desired ABA goals.
RBT (Registered Behavior Technician)
A Registered Behavior Technician is responsible for assisting other professionals on implementing ABA therapy techniques. An RBT’s activities are overseen by an RBT Supervisor and/or an RBT Requirements Coordinator.
Although RBTs don’t need to have a master’s degree or work with autistic people, they must still meet these requirements:
- Obtain a high-school degree or an equivalent.
- Complete 40 hours of RBT training.
- Pass the RBT competency assessment.
Just as importantly, RBTs have to be 18 years of age or older and they must pass a background check.
What to look for when choosing an ABA therapy provider
Since ABA therapy techniques require delicate and considerate implementation, you should make sure that you find a therapist who is licensed and highly trained to specifically work with autistic people.
Keep in mind that some older ABA methods are harmful to children. Therefore, you should make sure that the therapist who works with your kid uses data and relies on the most up-to-date ABA techniques.
Here are a few signs that you have a competent and good ABA therapist:
- Your child enjoys the sessions and has fun with the therapist. If your child feels intimidated or unhappy when the ABA therapist knocks on your door, it might mean that the professional is deploying wrong techniques.
- The therapist uses positive language and reinforcement strategies. Although negative reinforcement is sometimes helpful, it shouldn’t be overdone. A qualified professional would certainly know that.
- They rely on the first/then principal. For example, instead of telling the child that “if you don’t do your homework, you can’t watch TV” (which could intimidate your kid), the therapist would say “first finish your homework, then you can watch TV”.
An unqualified ABA professional, on the other hand, would resort to techniques that can negatively impact your child.
Can ABA Therapy be Harmful?
When applied the wrong way, ABA can hurt children.
Here are some of the main points that critics of ABA therapy point out:
- By using rewards to incentivize autistic kids to act a certain way, therapists turn them into robot-like individuals rather than teaching them why an action or behavior is intrinsically good.
- Children will behave well in front of the therapist because they want the reward. However, without this incentive, they go back to their undesired behavior in real-life situations.
- ABA therapy can cause autistic children to avoid talking about how they truly feel since that could prevent them from being rewarded or out of fear of punishment.
- BCBAs and BCaBAs are trained on how to use ABA techniques in general, but some of them aren’t specifically taught how to practice this therapy to manage autism symptoms.
- RBTs only undergo 40 hours of training, which isn’t enough for equipping them on how to effectively apply ABA therapy when dealing with autistic kids and individuals.
Many professionals and psychology experts believe that ABA therapy is highly effective in treating autism symptoms. However, this is not to say that the above concerns are unfounded.
To put it another way, you should carefully scrutinize a therapist’s qualifications and techniques in order to avoid running into common ABA problems.
ABA Horror Stories
There are plenty of examples that underline why it’s important to work with an accredited ABA therapist who relies on proven and up-to-date methods.
Below are a few examples of ABA horror stories that were caused by unqualified and abusive techniques.
“I still have damage that I’m working through”
An autism patient tried ABA therapy more than 20 years ago. Even though they were only seen for about a month, the Reddit user reports that they are still dealing with the negative psychological impact up to this day.
To clarify, the therapist did not respect the patient’s discomfort with being touched. Instead, she used physical force to get the child to sit still, and told the patient that she was “in charge” when they started to cry.
After that, the therapist talked to the child’s mother and suggested some abusive methods, including the following:
- Keeping the kid locked in their room until they start to obey orders.
- Forcing the child to sit still by tying them to a chair.
- Not giving the autistic patient meals unless they behaved a certain way.
Luckily, the mother decided to stop the therapy sessions right after the practitioner made these suggestions.
While the main problems that this individual faced had to do with outdated and abusive practices by the ABA practitioner who saw them, there are many similar stories that still happen today.
“It’s horrible, it’s horrible especially because you are entrusting this adult to take care of your child”
In early 2021, the parents of an autistic 4-year-old discovered that a behavioral health worker abused their child. After the parents noticed that their non-verbal daughter had an injury on her face, they contacted her preschool.
Next, the staff at S.E.E.K (Specializing in the Education of Exceptional Kids) reviewed five videos. The footage showed that the behavioral health worker, Kyle McKee, physically abused the 4-year-old. Moreover, this happened in the span of a month and half.
It is important to note that McKee was the only person responsible for caring for the non-verbal autistic child.
S.E.E.K reached out to the police and McKee turned himself in. The Arizona preschool also fired the suspect, who eventually faced four child abuse felony charges.
Above all, McKee passed a background check before the school initially hired him in 2018. This showcases why parents should always be careful when they choose an ABA therapist or practitioner, regardless of their background and who they work for.
“It made me question her ability to take on this challenge”
ABA therapy is a very delicate and demanding profession. At times, practitioners may have the child’s best interest at heart. Yet that doesn’t mean that they can’t cause unintentional harm.
This example is about a 2-and-a-half-year-old autistic girl who underwent ABA therapy for about four months.
The parents had a good relationship with the BCBA. However, they were concerned about their daughter’s RBT.
Here is a timeline how their story went after the child started in-home ABA therapy sessions:
- Weeks 1-2: According to the parents, the child “was a wreck” whenever the RBT showed up, and she barely interacted with the therapist.
- The Second/Third Week: Eventually, the RBT “broke down and started crying in the middle of a session”. The parents contacted the BCBA and paused the therapy for one week. Nonetheless, the RBT said that “she definitely wants to reset and continue” the therapy.
- Weeks 4-5: After continuing the treatment, things improved. The child’s anxiousness “subsided almost completely” and “the RBT [was] able to work and play with [the autistic girl] during every session”.
- Months 2-4: During this period, the parents had problems with the RBT’s “chronic cancellations”. To clarify, the RBT “cancelled 13 sessions” within less than 4 months. The parents found this to be “unacceptable” because “ABA needs consistency”.
In short, the lesson from this story is that an ABA therapist’s competence and consistency are just as important as their qualifications and intentions.
“In my opinion, I was trained like a dog”
This narrative is from another Reddit user who shared their experience with undergoing ABA therapy as a child. The story highlights how the wrong ABA techniques can cause long-lasting psychological damage.
The autistic individual faced the following problems as an adult:
- They felt that “every human interaction is a lie” and “who [they] are is not acceptable”.
- The ABA therapist’s methods made the patient “slowly accumulate a burden of shame and self-loathing” because they feared failing in their “effort to mimic social behaviors that are not natural for” autistic people.
- The user believed that what they were taught “denigrates” both themselves and people who aren’t autistic. The latter is due to the “assumption that [neurologically typical people] could deign to understand [autistic individuals’] disability”.
- The former ABA patient feels that they “are dying inside because [they] want someone to know who [they] are”.
- By not being allowed to “self-regulate by [stimulatory behavior]”, they had a perception that those who are not autistic wanted them “to be in pain”.
Nevertheless, the individual also believed that ABA therapy is useful “when needed”, such as in these situations:
- For passing a job interview.
- To “educate others” about autism.
- When they need to “ask for and create accommodation”.
- When the autistic patient is taught to identify scenarios in which they should “walk away and not care about passing or educating”, such as when they become highly uncomfortable.
To put it another way, a qualified and reliable ABA therapist can teach autistic children lifelong and valuable lessons. Yet an unqualified or abusive practitioner can scar them for life.
Moving Forward with an ABA Therapist
To summarize, parents should take the following steps before they choose an ABA therapist for their autistic son or daughter:
- Ask about their certifications and experience in working with children that have autism.
- Ensure that the professional’s methods are scientifically proven and up-to-date.
- Pay attention to how the child acts around the therapist. Kids usually enjoy spending time with competent practitioners.
Above all, parents must make note of how the kid acts when their therapists aren’t around.
Keep in mind that the purpose of ABA is to turn desired behaviors into habits. If the child is only interested in the reward, the practitioner isn’t doing a very good job.