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applied behavior analysis (ABA)

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Norwegian American clinical psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas developed ABA therapy in the 1960s. His goal was to teach language and life skills to autistic children and reduce behaviors like hand-flapping. He used behaviorist principles, rewarding desired behaviors and punishing undesired ones, and employed techniques like electric shocks and loud noises.

Today, ABA remains one of the most common behavioral interventions of autism. However, its effectiveness is under debate. There are studies that find ABA is effective in teaching skills, but most of these studies exclude children who score under a certain IQ threshold. These children also happen to be the main population ABA is prescribed for. 

Some ABA supporters say that ABA has evolved in a positive way, since most ABA practitioners no longer use punishments. However, critics say the practice is still abusive. They liken ABA to sexual orientation change efforts for LGBTQ+ individuals (which Lovaas also practiced), forcing individuals to suppress their natural selves for the comfort of others. This can cause significant emotional harm⁠. One study found that 46 percent of autistic people who had been exposed to ABA therapy as children met the criteria for PTSD.

Many autistic people have very sensitive or underreactive senses, and they use stimming (movements like hand-flapping or rocking) to regulate their bodies. Critics of ABA say rewarding autistic children for keeping still can encourage children to hide and ignore physical pain, which often has medical implications down the road. 

Those who advise against ABA recommend teaching skills through different kinds of interventions and services, including occupational therapy (teaching kids how to dress, bathe, etc.), structured teaching, and AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices. Even concerning self-injurious behaviors like head-banging can be addressed through non-ABA approaches.

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Applied behavior analysis is a method of modifying behaviors in autistic children through behaviorist techniques (i.e., rewards and punishments). ABA remains one of the most common behavioral interventions of autism; alternatives include occupational therapy and structured teaching. The effectiveness of ABA is under debate, and some consider the practice abusive. Exploring these debates helps ensure thoughtful coverage of differing practices and viewpoints within the autism community.