Why I wouldn’t call ABA a ‘Therapy’

One of the most common misconception about ABA.

Many parents of children with autism call me asking for ‘ABA therapy’.

‘I provide ABA intervention’, I usually answer, and if they don’t stop using the word ‘Therapy’, I usually dedicate 3 minutes to explain why I wouldn’t use this term.

The name ‘therapy’ is commonly related to treatment of diseases or disorders whose etiology (the causes) are already known.

If you have bacterial pneumonia, you take antibiotics to kill bacteria, the cause of your disease, and your body will recover.

If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, you take proton pump inhibitors, that help your body to heal.

Can we say the same about behavioural treatment (ABA) to help people with autism?

I would say we can’t.

Autism diagnosis is behaviourally based: the doctor that emits this particular diagnosis basically completes a checklist:

  1. Does the child show any difficulties in social relationships?
    For example, does he fail to look at others when he is called by name? – Yes✓
  1. Does the child show any difficulties in communication?
    For example, does he fail to speak? – Yes✓
  1. Does the child show any repetitive and stereotypic behaviors?
    For example, does he rock hundreds of time consecutively? – Yes✓
Checklist a red pencil will tick in black squares

Ok, we could say he has autism.

That means that a diagnosis is not emitted on the basis of a search for causes, as for diseases.

To be completely clear, the scientific community has not found a cause for autism so far.

Genetical factors are heavily suspected, but there is not a clear and univocal alternation at the basis of this disorder, that in fact is more like a syndrome (a pattern of symptoms that go together).

So how can ABA be a therapy for autism?

Thoughtful little boy

ABA does not eradicate ‘the bacteria of autism’ (the primal cause), because there is no clear cause. ABA is not a cure.

ABA is the science of behaviour: on the basis of some principles of functioning of behaviour that have been discovered, tactics and procedures are applied to change the person’s behaviour: the things the person does and says.

ABA helps the person to learn to communicate, to be independent in everyday duties, to play both with others and alone, to study, to eat, to reduce unwanted behaviours.

With ABA, we can help the person to fit the environment and to have more chances to study, work and share with other people.

But are we curing autism?

Doctor giving a little boy injection in arm

No, we aren’t, because, as a scientific community, we do not really know what autism is. Paradoxically, we know much more (but very, very much more) on how to help those people.

For those reasons, I wouldn’t say ‘ABA Therapy‘.

I would also avoid ‘Behavioural Support‘, because it is too reductive: with ABA we do not just ‘support the person’.

We can really change the person’s behaviours, routines, the way the person learns, communicates, takes care of himself, shares with others.

Of course ‘ABA method‘ is completely wrong: ABA is not a method created “ad hoc” to cure autism, it is instead a scientific discipline, it is a freestanding science such as Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

ABA is a natural science.

ABA intervention‘ is more appropriate for what I do. It is short and quick, but not misleading. I suggest you use this term.

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