ABA is not a prescription for Autism.


By Clelia Sigaud, M.S.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

In an ultimately humorous yet professionally troubling anecdote, I recently came to realize that the conceptual foundations of behaviorism and verbal behavior theory are so deeply paired with autism in the minds of the public, that when an acquaintance of mine learned that there had been significant and vocal opposition to B.F. Skinner’s 1957 work Verbal Behavior, the person assumed that Noam Chomsky and others like him were arguing with Skinner over different kinds of autism therapy.

This is entirely false. In fact, how many references to autism did Skinner make in his entire 478-page tome? If you said none, you are right. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior had absolutely nothing to do with developmental disorders at all, and so naturally neither did Chomsky’s response. Their debate was about why people communicate, and how to predict and control communicative behavior.

It is quite routine to see educated and professional people within the human service field take as a matter of course that behavior analytic therapy services are not effective for individuals who have a history of trauma, who are “too smart for ABA,” or who – wait for it – don’t carry a diagnosis of autism.

The reality, of course, is that autism itself is no more synonymous with behaviorism than heart disease is synonymous with pharmacology. It is also reality that our non-behavior-analytic colleagues in the field are unlikely to encounter anything to challenge their view other than, well, us.  I have found that there are very natural, low-response-effort ways to start a conversation or introduce a new way of thinking about the distinction between autism and ABA.

We can include and support clients who do not have autism in our behavior analytic practice, and exclude individuals who do have a diagnosis of autism but whose needs do not align to our services. To a great extent, this is already happening, and such a philosophy is certainly part of the ethical bedrock of the behavior analytic profession. 

We can use language that helps create links between ABA and other areas of human study. Organizational Behavior Management, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and K-12 general education (especially response to intervention/school-wide positive behavior supports) are three such fields. I would argue that such links are lacking because the common vocabulary, while in existence, is not systematically used, thereby clouding the role that the laws of behavior (as directly influential in an “autism classroom” as they are on Wall Street) play in all of our lives, entirely irrespective of developmental level or ability – and certainly entirely without being contingent on a specific diagnosis.

We can stop using the term “autism” as an attribute to describe features of ourselves or our clients, programs, classrooms, schools, etc., when what we really mean is “behavior analytic.” (For example, “autism classrooms,” “autism in-home services,” “autism clinician,” and so on.) I am as guilty of this as anyone, if only in order to ease communication with persons unfamiliar with ABA, but we have only ourselves to thank if others remain unenlightened about the true nature of what we do after speaking with us about our work.

Last, and, in my anecdotal observation, most important – we can use behavior analytic terms in everyday contexts to describe things that do not pertain to autism! Simple? Yes. Surprisingly challenging to many who may never have thought of their own behavior in terms of response cost or negative punishment before? Also yes.

Do you think ABA is synonymous with autism?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Clelia Sigaud, M.S.

Clelia Sigaud, M.S. is a teacher to children with developmental disabilities in urban Maine (to the extent that “urban” and “Maine” can be used in the same sentence). She has several years of experience working with special needs individuals, from preschool through age 20, in a variety of settings. Outside of work, she is earning her doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Southern Maine. Her interests include functional communication training, interventions for sexualized aggression/sexually problematic behavior, treatment of self injury, paraprofessional training, and ethical practice within the field of ABA. In her spare time, she enjoys authoring her own social stories.  You can contact her at [email protected].

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  1. Excellent topic area and one that is so badly needed! We need more discussions and attention to these areas in order to push the “insurance funding envelope” to fund behavior analysis assistance to typically developing individuals and also those who happen to have mental health diagnoses (both children and adults!)

  2. After working in ABA in animal behavior modification and training for 15 years as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, I now run into fellow “autism” colleagues who often, either directly or indirectly, express doubt that what I really did with animals was ABA. My MS is in EAB and included both the theoretical/experimental foundations of behavior analysis but also ABA itself, as did my clinical practice. So your exhortation to stop aligning our common science solely with autism is much needed. Well done!

  3. As a BCBA that teaches in an EBD classroom I work daily trying to dispel the myth that ABA is only for Autism. I look forward to more articles on how we can connect with OBM, CBT, and general education classrooms. Thanks for the article!

  4. Fine, but don’t disregard your ‘core customer base’ – we parents of autistic kids (esp here in the UK) are not just paying ABA bods’ salaries out of our own pockets but also fighting for recognition of the profession at national level. Sometimes it feels like it is considered just the ‘bread and butter’ side of your profession and it is a bit galling.

  5. If only insurance companies saw it the same way. I knew my kiddo needed ABA but without the DX it wouldn’t have been obtainable.

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