ABA Horror Stories: When Help Becomes Its Own Horror Story

ABA therapy horror story

Maybe you are looking to know about some of the ABA horror stories. In this article article, I will let you know about ABA Therapy and a couple of the horror stories of the result of this therapy.

How Many Autistic Are Receiving ABA Therapy?

Approximately 64% percent of those diagnosed with autism are receiving behavior intervention therapy, such as ABA.

What Does ABA Therapy Look Like?

Once a child receives the initial diagnosis of autism, their doctor may recommend that the child receive ABA therapy. What follows is a skills assessment conducted by a trained therapist, followed by a highly individualized plan created to target specific behaviors for that child.

For example, an ABA therapist may recommend that a patient work with therapists on staying seated at certain times, or asking for help when needed.

ABA therapy involves modeling target behaviors and using positive reinforcements when the patient demonstrates these behaviors. Unwanted behaviors are met with a consequence.

Today, ABA is widely used as a go-to treatment for ASD as well as other developmental disorders, such as Down’s Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

Read more: 10 Inspiring Autism Success Stories

The Controversy Surrounding ABA

The history of ABA has hardly been free of its critics, however. In the past, one of the criticisms of ABA has been its use of aversive conditioning to produce desired behavioral results.

Aversive conditioning is a technique by which a negative stimulus becomes associated with a particular behavior. The targeted behavior is one that should be changed, such as not following directions or hitting someone, for example. Aversive conditioning would be, for example, showing the patient an image that they really don’t like, or speaking to them sternly when they display that behavior. Because the behavior is now associated with this negative stimulus, in theory, the patient would eventually stop doing that behavior.

The idea is that these aversives teach autistic children which behaviors they should not do. Dr. Lovaas was known to use aversives in his earlier work with ABA therapy. Infamously, he used a cattle prod as an aversive for children early in his career, only later admitting that its use did not produce positive long-term results.

ABA Therapy Horror Stories: When ABA Therapy Can Go Very Wrong

Bad effect of ABA therapy
Photo by Hunter Johnson on Unsplash

Misuse of Aversives: Andre’s Story

In 2002, a young man named Andre McCollins attended school at the Judge Rotenberg Center, a learning center for youth with special needs. The JRC was known to use ABA methodology in its instruction. The school admitted to using aversives. Specifically, electric shocks were used frequently to control undesirable behavior.

On one day in 2002, Andre, who is autistic, refused to take his coat off after being asked to. As a result, the staff at the school tied his arms and legs to a restraint board and shocked him a total of 31 times over the course of seven hours.

After the ordeal, Andre was left with burn marks where the electrodes had been attached to his skin. Andre’s mother sued the school, with the case reaching court in 2012.

After McCollins, JRC says it has abandoned its practice of shocking people while they are on a restraint board, though it does continue its practice of using shock “therapy”.

Masking: Alexander’s* Story

Another complaint about ABA is that its goal is to try to convert people with autism into neurotypical, or non-autistic, persons. ABA detractors claim that this therapy is sending is that there is something inherently wrong with people with autism and that their uniqueness should be disregarded, and even erased.

Autistic persons who have undergone ABA therapy often say that they resort to masking, or covering up, their own autistic traits for neurotypical ones, just so they can get through the therapy. In other words, their autistic traits are still there, but they suppress them.

For one patient of ABA therapy, the conditions that he had to endure while in therapy were almost unbearable and very nearly caused him grave injury in his efforts to escape it.

Alexander* tells of how for his court-ordered stint with ABA therapy, he was subjected to working in a room filled with the sounds of screaming children, which he likens to a horror film. Besides the unnerving sound of children screaming, what he also found disturbing was the fact that these children were blatantly not comforted by the therapists on duty.

For Alexander, his ABA therapy consisted of performing exercises that were below his skill level, and which were obviously designed to “take the autism out of him” and make him more neurotypical. For example, he was forced to learn about idioms, probably because autism is associated with overly literal thinking.

He was told that ABA therapy was something that he was stuck with doing until he turned 18. This was heartbreaking for Alexander to hear, because he was planning to “fake it until you make it” and go along with whatever the therapists asked him to do just so he could graduate from the therapy program. He was miserable and felt unheard and invalidated, as any feedback about his therapy considered negative was labelled as “scripting”, or just repeating words that someone else said.

Things came to a head when Alexander was dropped off at his ABA therapy center by his mother one day. Feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and panicked about having to go through another ABA session- Alexander ran off before entering the door to the clinic. Chased by therapists, he ran into the street to escape.

“I could not work anymore for ABA, and that was what I kept repeating to myself in my aching head as I ran into evening traffic. I tried to run back to the sidewalk, but it was too late. I was hit by a car.”

Alexander survived the car accident, but he says, “I am worried that if I’m forced into applied behavior analysis therapy because of court orders, I can’t survive.”


Based on these stories, one may be left with the impression that Applied Behavior Analysis is something to be avoided at all costs. However, there are those out there- patient and practitioner- that may be able to provide another side of the story, and for whom positive experiences have come from using this treatment.  Whether ABA is helpful or harmful is constantly up for debate, but one thing that is true is that any therapy can become a horror story in the wrong (practitioner’s) hands.

Emily Rose

Wife. Mom. Blogger. Actress. Friend. I got married to Dariek in 2009. Now I am the mother of three cute and naughty children who keep me busy always. As a lifelong learner, I find inspiration from the everyday experiences of motherhood. When I learn a new thing, I share it on my blog GlobalMomsMagazine.com.

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