My stories explaining the many problems with behaviourism, backed by extensive research
I have a(nother) confession to make: Once upon a time, I was a behaviourist. I was a professional dog trainer for 11 years. While I was a positive, fear free certified trainer, I was still a behaviourist.
Fast forward to 2019, when my son and I are both diagnosed with ADHD. Then follows the pandemic, giving me free time to do a heck-ton of reading and research on neurodivergence, leading me to realize I’m also autistic.
Having a background first in social work and psychology, then behaviourism, then back to psychology and neurodevelopmental disorders, I am well-versed in a variety of related and relevant fields.
So when I say that behaviourism is reductionist, out-dated, and downright harmful, I speak from extensive research and knowledge on the subject matter. I have a degree in Youth Work, a degree in Psychology, and am working on my Masters in Social Work.
Even B.F. Skinner himself, the “father” of behaviourism himself, actually warned about the fallout of using punishment and force.
To save you the time, I’ve put together my articles that best highlight the research and reasoning supporting my position.
I used to think that I had to “ease into” these conversations: That if I came on too strong, I might scare parents away, right into the office of an ABA practitioner. I didn’t want to take a strong stance because I wanted to develop relationships with families first, and then help them find better ways.
There’s one problem with this approach. If you are wishy-washy, people may not understand what’s at stake if they don’t first educate themselves. If I can’t reach them all, at least I can put as much information out there as possible, and make it accessible to families.
To any parents of autistic children who may come across this: I know you want to do what’s best for your child. I know professionals are pushing you to get your child into therapies as early as possible, so that they can “function”.
Don’t listen to them.
Listen to Actually Autistic People: Read the stories of autistic adults who have experienced the horrors of behaviourism. I’ll add some links for further reading at the end of this article for anyone interested in learning more.
Behaviour Management is Harmful
The first piece explanations why those sticker charts only work for a short period of time and then their usefulness runs its course.
More importantly, this article dives into the very serious problems with categorizing children based on their classroom behaviours.
ABA is Abuse
In case that was a little too subtle, I make my position crystal clear in this next piece. It is sarcastically named “the gold standard” because abusive practices are still ignorantly touted by some as the “gold standard” for autism.
In case it’s still not clear: Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is abuse. Listen to Autistic people, read the research. There is no grey area here: 46% of autistic people who were exposed to ABA therapy as children met the criteria for PTSD as adults.
Even the “new” ABA is abusive and harmful, full stop.
So is PTBM
The measure of success used for behavioural interventions is compliance.
Do we really want compliance and obedience to be our primary goals when it comes to supporting our children?
That’s gonna be a hard no for me.
Blind obedience is dangerous
Children are vulnerable. Autistic, disabled, and otherwise marginalized children are even more so. Autistic people can have a harder time reading body language, social cues, and inferring intent. As a result, some autistic people are more likely to be taken advantage of.
Disabled children are also at higher risk of being abused. Children with intellectual disabilities are nearly three times as likely to be victims of abuse than those without.
Research has shown that ADHD and Autistic children are also at significantly higher risk of sexual abuse when compared to neurotypical children.
Why am I bringing this up? Because disabled and neurodivergent children are also much more likely to be subjected to “behavioural interventions” and other harmful “therapies” which focus on conformity, compliance, and obedience.
These therapies are not only directly harmful, they are also indirectly harmful as they undermine children’s autonomy and self-determination:
We’re not puppies
Last, but not least: behaviourism is for the dogs. Or… maybe not even. Either way, don’t train people like puppies.
People have the right to autonomy and freedom of choice. Guess what? Children, teens, neurodivergent, and disabled people are people.
We all deserve the dignity and respect to be as weird, “normal”, magical, boring, freaky, ordinary, or peculiar as we want — whether you like it or not.
© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB
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Brendli, K. R., Broda, M. D., & Brown, R. (2021). Children With Intellectual Disability and Victimization: A Logistic Regression Analysis. Child Maltreatment. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077559521994177
Christoffersen, M. N. (2020). Sexual Crime Against Schoolchildren With Disabilities: A Nationwide Prospective Birth Cohort Study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260520934442
Sandoval-Norton, A. H., Shkedy, G., Rushby, J. A. (2019). How much compliance is too much compliance: Is long-term ABA therapy abuse? Cogent Psychology, 6:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311908.2019.1641258
Seppälä, P., Vornanen, R., & Toikko, T. (2021). Are Children With a Number of Disabilities and Long-Term Illnesses at Increased Risk of Mental Violence, Disciplinary Violence, and Serious Violence? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 36(23–24), 11409–11434. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260519898440
Skinner, B. F. (2002). Beyond freedom and dignity. Hackett Publishing.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Macmillan.
Walker, N. (2021). Neuroqueer Heresies: Notes on the neurodiversity paradigm, Autistic empowerment, and postnormal possibilities. Autonomous Press.
Wilkenfeld, D.A., & McCarthy, A.M. (2020). Ethical Concerns with Applied Behavior Analysis for Autism Spectrum “Disorder”. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 30(1), 31–69. doi:10.1353/ken.2020.0000