Is ABA Therapy Harmful?

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA therapy, has become a very popular treatment for people who have an autism spectrum disorder as well as other developmental disabilities. The practice is based around the concept that you can change someone’s behavior with a two-pronged approach that reinforces the behaviors you desire while reduces any undesirable behaviors.

While ABA therapy has been proven in many instances to effectively treat autism, especially in children, it’s not without controversy. Many people still wonder if ABA therapy works and actually even wonder if ABA therapy is harmful.

Below, we dive deeper into what ABA therapy is as well as discuss some of its pros and cons.


ABA therapy is just one approach to treating individuals with autism. The goal is to try to increase behaviors that can help individuals while decreasing those that can be harmful.

There are many ways in which the therapy has proven useful to all individuals with autism, but especially in teaching children how to communicate in a way that gets them what they need and expresses how they feel.

ABA therapy has been around for more than 50 years and has evolved a lot since it was first put into practice. It can help to teach individuals with autism the skills they need to use daily in their lives, can help to improve their social interactions and developmental skills, can enhance their social skills and communication, and can even help to decrease the instances of behaviors that are inappropriate or not desired.


ABA therapy uses three steps, known as the ABCs, to personalize treatment to each individual, since everyone’s behaviors — and why they may be exhibiting them — are different.

Therapists analyze both the antecedent — what happens before the behavior — and the consequence — what happens after it — to more fully understand how they can help the individual change or alter the behavior they’re exhibiting.

The antecedent could be something the individual is feeling or thinking, or it could even be something physical that’s happening around them, such as a touch or a sound. Then comes the behavior, or how the individual is responding to the antecedent.

Finally, the consequence is what happens after the behavior, which in many ways determines whether the individual repeats the behavior again in the future.

By understanding the antecedent and adjusting the consequence, the concept of ABA therapy is that you can change the behavior over time into one that’s helpful to the individuals themselves.

Learn more about ABA Therapy here


Like anything, there are some who don’t believe fully in ABA therapy. Some big detractors even question if ABA therapy is harmful.

The biggest critics of ABA therapy focus on the practice of not just rewarding individuals for exhibiting good behavior but punishing them for bad behavior. It is true that the original version of this therapy did include punishments, but they’re no longer used in modern versions.

Instead, therapists focus only on rewarding individuals for exhibiting positive behaviors and then not giving that reward if the behaviors aren’t the ones that they desire. In other words, punishments for “wrong” behaviors have been replaced by much more acceptable and less harsh consequences.

Some critics still believe that ABA therapy might be too harsh on children with autism, since it can be repetitive. However, modern ABA therapists are fully trained to make the learning interesting and fun for children with autism.

A final criticism is that ABA focuses too much on reducing the instances of certain behaviors rather than on building skills. Proponents of ABA therapy, though, say this criticism can be answered by helping kids with autism focus on what they should be doing, instead of things they shouldn’t be doing.


Perhaps the best way to outline just how effective ABA therapy can be is to highlight the ABA therapy pros and cons.


Some of the main ABA therapy pros include …

  • It’s Effective: The concepts behind ABA therapy were created based on years of research. The main reason why it’s so effective, in other words, is that its approach is driven by data, research and analysis. In fact, the American Psychological Association and the U.S. Surgeon General have both said that ABA therapy is the best treatment for individuals with autism.
  • It’s Easy to Teach: Any treatment for children with autism is most effective when it’s something that parents can follow outside of a classroom or therapeutic setting. ABA therapy is very easy for parents to learn and put into practice at home, which helps to reinforce its concepts.
  • It’s Flexible: ABA therapy is very flexible and can be customized specifically for the individual needs of every child. Since autism looks different with every child, this is an essential aspect of ABA therapy that helps it stand out from other approaches.


Some potential ABA therapy cons include…

  • It May be Challenging to Find Therapists: Depending on where you live, it might be challenging to find a practitioner who’s trained in ABA therapy. This is something that’s being addressed now, though, as more and more people are being trained to administer the therapy.
  • It Takes Time: One potential criticism of ABA therapy is that it can take some time to see results. That’s true of anything that takes repetition and training, though. Also, how long it will take to see results in your child may be different than the timeframe for another child with autism.
  • It’s Robotic: Some detractors say that ABA therapy feels robotic, since it’s based around encouraging positive behaviors and discouraging negative ones. However, this repetition and consistency is what makes it so effective.

Ultimately, when you analyze the ABA therapy pros and cons, it’s easy to see that the advantages far outweigh the concerns people may have. That’s why ABA therapy is growing in popularity and usage as a terrific treatment for individuals with autism.

If you think ABA Therapy might be right for your child, reach out today.