Autism & Applied Behavior Analysis: 10 ABA myths debunked

By Brenda Kosky Deskin

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has been around for years, helping people of all ages on the Autism Spectrum learn and thrive. Some, however, frown upon its use with autistic individuals but I suspect that those who don’t like ABA might not know what ABA really is and is not. I hope that by clearing up some widely held misconceptions about this evidence-based intervention for Autism, that more individuals will embrace ABA as their treatment of choice for their students and loved ones on the Autism Spectrum.

1) Myth: ABA is not effective

FACT: Of all treatments associated with Autism, ABA is the one that has the most peer-reviewed scientific research behind it to support its efficacy. If you would like to learn more about the importance of evidence-based practice with respect to Autism, The Association For Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) features an excellent article on its website about this very topic.

2) Myth: ABA is punishing and unpleasant

FACT: While it is most unfortunate that some of the pioneers of ABA back in the late ’50s used physical punishment in their teaching procedures, today’s ABA programs depend primarily on praise and preferred items as a means of rewarding a learner for a job well done. Technically speaking, a “punishment” in the world of ABA today would be considered using the word “no” or sometimes if necessary, perhaps withdrawing a preferred object. Even these punishments procedures are used rarely and only when absolutely necessary in any of the quality programs of which I am aware. Certainly any physical or verbal punishers that are abusive in nature should not be tolerated nor considered acceptable. In fact, the importance of using methodologies that focus on reinforcement rather than punishment are written right into the Code of Ethics of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB).

As I state often, a good ABA program is a fun ABA program. My son, Michael, is very fond of his ABA therapists and has a great time with them. His therapy program includes visits to the book store, walks in the forest, swimming, go-karting and countless other activities that he enjoys. A talented and knowledgeable ABA therapist takes an activity his or her learner likes and turns it into a teaching opportunity that his learner will enjoy.

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Q & A re: Quiet Mouth


Several readers emailed questions about using positive reinforcement and an event marker to teach “Quiet Mouth” behavior to my son. The questions had a similar theme:  How did I know the “function” of the behavior? Did I have any idea why my son was screaming? Was he trying to communicate?


These are all interesting and appropriate questions. I never knew the function of most of the behaviors my son displayed, including the constant screaming. I would have liked to have had this information. However, like most autism parents, I never had, and still do not have, access to sustained behavioral services and professionals who could help piece this out. Eventually I just stopped thinking about that part of the problem because there was nothing I could do about it. The continuous screaming or shrieking appeared to be a self-stimulatory behavior. I wanted him to do more productive things with his time than scream and stomp, so I taught him to walk nicely and quietly with me in the neighborhood. Once he learned this set of behaviors, we were able to go out to other places and we started to have a much better quality of life.

I want to use the clicker, but can’t get started. Part 2

young boy with stunned look on his faceA reader posed the question, “How did you feel before you took the first TAG step?

I felt nervous. But, before I took the first step I had already done the following: read about TAGteach, purchased a clicker and prepared a handful of candy treats. From an intellectual standpoint, I understood that marking and reinforcing a behavior would work in increasing that behavior. From a personal standpoint, I wasn’t sure how this was all going to work with my child in my living room.

The Tantrum

The first morning I had my clicker and treats and came downstairs, my son started to tantrum, for no apparent reason. With the clicker in my hand, I had to think about what to do. I knew I should not try to cajole him out of the tantrum. I knew I had to find something positive to mark and reinforce. But what? So, I watched him. Within a minute or two I realized the obvious: he was jumping and running around and screaming. What did I want? It flashed into my mind: Quiet Mouth and Still Feet.

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