The Dangers of Behavior Therapies

by | Apr 15, 2022 | Therapy

Do we want to teach our autistic children to intentionally spot their neurodiverse behaviors and to learn how to hide them (i.e., teach them to partake in masking)?

No! Masking is a complex survival strategy that people use in desperation, and it keeps individuals away from getting the help that they need.

Masking is just one of the many dangers of popular behavior therapies, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which focus on the primary goal of changing the autistic person’s behaviors.

Adult Autistics Speaking Out: The Dangers of Behavior Therapies

Kaylene George, autistic self-advocate, coach, and author, speaks out in her blog about the top five problems that she identifies with behavior therapies:

1. Changing Behavior as a Primary Goal

“Behavior is communication, and when the primary goal is to change that behavior, there’s a lot of communication that gets missed.”

2. Compliance-Based Therapies & Issues of Consent

“Compliance-based therapy … is considered a success when autistic children comply with what the therapist says to do.”

In many cases, autistic children have their favorite toys or snacks withheld until they comply with the therapist’s demands.

Many people think that because most new (ABA) therapists aren’t actively punishing children who refuse to comply it isn’t harmful, but withholding something the autistic child’s needs or wants, whether it’s food, an object, or even attention is really problematic.

They are taught that when someone tells them to do something with their body, they need to comply.

“And what do you think happens when it isn’t a therapist telling them they need to sit at the table, but a peer pressuring them to have sex?”

3. Focusing on Positive Rewards Instead of Intrinsic Motivation

“And while most people agree … that compliance-based therapies are better than focusing on punishments, it is still actually a negative thing.”

If you stop rewarding behavior, or if you expect the child to do that behavior in a different setting than they originally were rewarded, it isn’t very effective.

This is especially true for autistic children who tend to cling to routines and rules.

It is so much better if you help the autistic child understand the reason you want to change their behavior and get them involved in creating a plan to change that behavior.

4. Extreme Hours of Therapy Limits Autistic Children’s Free Time

Most (ABA) therapists recommend between 20-40 hours of therapy a week for autistic children as young as toddlerhood.

“In an age when children are being encouraged to spend more time in unstructured play, autistic children aren’t given that same luxury.”

5. Promoting the Idea That Autistic Children Must Change to Fit In

“Even new (behavior therapies) are problematic … they promote the idea that autistic children are broken and need to change in order to fit in.”

As long as we subject autistic children to intensive therapies that train them out of their autistic behaviors, we are telling those children and society as a whole that autistic behaviors must be changed.

“I would much rather see a world where stimming and meltdowns were understood and accommodated instead of trained away and shamed.”

Ira Kraemer, autistic self-advocate, graduate student in auditory neuroscience, writer, and speaker, explains why she finds behavior therapies harmful to autistic people in her blog:

“(Behavioral therapy) does not put the child’s emotional well-being and quality of life first. (This) therapy assumes that children simply won’t do things and needs to be incentivized to do them through rewards and negative reinforcement (or, lack of rewards).

Therapists don’t assume that the autistic kids can’t do what they are asking them to do (do complex physical tasks or physically speak), or that what they’re asking them to do is painful (such as making eye contact, be it in a sensory overwhelming environment).

(This) rewards autistic children to hide their pain and distress and rewards autistic children for “fitting in” to neurotypical normal. Autistic masking, which most of us do for decades, or an entire lifetime, often leads to poor mental health and even increased suicidality.”

Masking is mentally taxing. It can be traumatic for anyone, especially individuals with autism.

“After repeated cycles in the classroom, the autistic child begins to develop PTSD because the neurotypical BCVA is focused on the function of behavior and the compliance of the child, and not what the child is communicating with their behavior.”

– Amy Grant from the Therapist Neurodiversity Collective

Behavior Therapies VS. Dynamic Intelligence

Dynamic intelligence is central to independence and quality of life, and RDI®, Relationship Development Intervention, builds on this perspective. It is not behavior therapy.

Rather than teaching the child to change behaviors, to be in compliance with the therapist’s requests, or to punish the child because they can’t comply, we help the child develop Dynamic Intelligence. This gives the autistic individual the ability to think flexibly and understand different perspectives in life, cope with change, and integrate information from multiple sources – without being told to do so, and without the need for the child to do so without their consent.

Related: To Change Behavior, Start With the Mind First

With a focus on development and growth-seeking, in a child’s natural environment, with real-life experiences, learning with the parent as the guide, the child develops and learns from ongoing intrinsic motivation. This is not forced, compliance-based, dangerous behavior therapy.

Steven E. Gutstein, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of RDIconnect®, discusses the dangers of behavior therapies:

“There’s not been a single one of these programs that has looked at whether they increase the ability for well-being for people with autism. These behavior models do nothing but whitewash the core deficits of autism and other neurological disorders, and do not ultimately lead to quality of life and independence.”

Connection and Support

With all the various autism therapies, treatments, and interventions out there, you may be wondering “How do I know what will work for my child and my family?”

Whether you are new to the world of autism or have spent years trying to find answers, we have the most up-to-date resources and information available at our RDI® Learning Community to help you and your family.

Join any of our discussion forums for help, advice, and connection. Connect with people from all around the globe: parents, professionals, and adults on the autism spectrum, as well as an RDI® consultant for long-term help (consultant fees vary).

Sign Me Up Today! 


  1. Ruihong Lian

    I really support these five ideas. The main goal of education to our autistic children should be around the feeling of happiness. So it is not a good idea to push them to comply with the trainers. In my point of view, it is much better to let an autistic child know what he can not do rather than what he must do .

  2. Rachelle Sheely

    Thank you for your comments. 🙂

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