This is a complicated, nuanced topic, as are most things. While working in advocacy, I’ve come across a (somewhat) large amount of ABA professionals that are reform-minded. Some are doing the work, some are sticking the label on themselves as some kind of “get-out-of-acknowledging-harm” card, and there are levels to how “good” they are. There are ABA therapists who are doing objectively less harm than other ABA therapists, but there are none that are doing zero harm.
Let me explain. As I’ve mentioned several times before on this blog, ABA therapy is a multi-million dollar industry based on the fear of lost parents and the compliance of autistic or otherwise marginalized people. So – the issue begins from the bottom, meaning that reform is next to impossible.
So – WHY do “good” ABA therapists stay in the field? Here’s my take.
“Good” ABA therapists usually have been in the field for a long time. Meaning, they have spent a lot of money, time, and energy at their job. The fear, refusal, or discomfort at the thought of leaving in this case can be referred to as sunken cost fallacy. It’s also often one of the reasons why parents of children in ABA therapy have a hard time taking their child out and moving on to a less harmful therapy, even once they’ve acknowledged the harm. All the thousands of dollars spent on this therapy, and knowing it was all just hurting your child is a hard pill to swallow. ABA therapists who have been in the field for years may feel similar.
Another reason I’ve observed is they see “improvement” in their clients. This could mean several things depending on the level of “good” they are doing, as talked about above. If an ABA therapist is seeing their client doing “well” through their therapy, they will be reluctant to quit and leave their client hanging. Some ABA therapists do genuinely love their clients, and to leave them is hard, especially if you’re not sure if the client you’re serving will be taken out of ABA therapy. What is the lesser of two evils? You leaving and your client staying, running the risk of having a more damaging therapist? Or you staying, continuing to contribute to a harmful industry that will continue to thrive off of your labour, but knowing that you stay with your client?
The argument for “good” ABA therapists staying is that we need change-makers. We need less harmful people in the field in order to keep the field safe(r.). Insurance covers ABA, so therefore, kids are in ABA, staying in ABA for the foreseeable future, and having every single “good” therapist leave the field will leave only the very ableist, overtly abusive therapists.
However, “good” therapists staying in the field is a dangerous choice too. “Good” ABA is touted about every day, everywhere, as a reason that ABA should still exist, and should continue to be insured. “Good” ABA is deemed the only “true” ABA, ,meaning that the harms of ABA are viewed as “not real ABA”. This separation allows for two things – the harm of overtly abusive practices to continue, and the ABA industry to fail to acknowledge the harm it has done and continues to do every day. If “good” ABA continues to exist (remember that “good” ABA refers to less-harmful ABA, not zero harm ABA), then the industry will continue to thrive, as they can shield themselves using the “good” ABA practitioners. They can continue to accomplish their number one goal – getting as much money as possible, keeping ABA the only publicly funded therapy for autistic people, and keeping the most money going into the pockets of the most prominent ABAers, which are often the most ableist and overtly harmful ones of the bunch.
If a “good” ABA therapist quits and comes out in support of ABA abolition instead, and enough individuals do that – regardless of their pride, the sunken cost fallacy, and their fears, imagine how much of a difference we would make. Imagine how we would rock the industry.
There is always time to make a different choice, and to leave when you know better.