Is ABA Therapy a Cult? – Examining ABA Through the BITE Model

Unfortunately, the question doesn’t have a simple yes or no. The BITE model (which I define later) is helpful because few organizations are cleanly “cult” or “non-cult”. The cult-like behavior exists on a continuum, highlighting aspects of unhealthy organizations.

ABA as an organization of leadership, “doctrine”, and widespread behavior shows a startling number of unhealthy, controlling behaviors.

My story of leaving ABA and Mormonism is not universal, but it is also not unique.

I hope that no one walks away from this article saying, “Yes, ABA is a cult!” or “No, it is not a cult.”

This article is intended to highlight areas that ABA needs to change to become an organization that’s healthy for its members and its clients.

My Experience

My supervisor(s) called me into her office. I had recently confronted her about an unethical situation, and we had argued about whether it was handled adequately. I argued that the way my coworkers discussed the kids as manipulative showed a much larger disregard for their humanity than just an isolated incident. She claimed she had handled the situation by posting a written protocol for feeding.

I sat quietly for an hour as she and another supervisor detailed how I was a terrible employee. They critiqued my autistic traits, complaining that I didn’t make eye contact, didn’t understand subtext, was insubordinate, and detailing how my coworkers hated me. My immediate supervisor went off about how I had “so many behavioral issues,” that I didn’t respect him and his wife, and they talked about me at home (yes, he and his wife were BOTH my supervisors) and that I “hadn’t improved my behavior.”

Ten minutes before the confrontation with my other supervisor (the BCBA above him), he praised me for how I had made significant improvements, that he was “seeing me put in the effort to ‘fix’ my behavior” (like making eye contact with him), and that he and his wife felt like I was really listening to them. I hadn’t changed any of my behavior other than staying silent. His judgment was purely perception-based, which is why it changed so quickly.

The only thing that had changed was expressing discomfort with how management handled vulnerable children. I was being punished for autistic advocacy and my superiors’ wounded egos.

The clinical director called me that evening via Zoom. Off-record she cut me a deal. She would excuse the $800 training costs if I left now, and we could “avoid some difficult conversations.” She wanted me to quit, telling me that all I had to do was walk away and “put this unpleasant situation behind us.” I declined, knowing I only had a few weeks left at the job. How bad can 3 weeks be? I thought to myself. I certainly didn’t consider myself a quitter and needed to pay rent.

That led me to the most significant situation, which gave me PTSD from the job. I was able to speak out against the situation, but at the cost of my job and wellbeing. I shook my head that I had declined the silencing deal but glad I stuck around long enough to expose the clinic.

I had left terrible jobs before. I had abusive bosses in the past, terrible working conditions, and soul-sucking dread of going to work. Somehow, leaving ABA was different. I couldn’t put my finger on it until it dawned on me.

It was just like leaving Mormonism.

A Shelf-Breaking Parallel to Leaving Mormonism

I had a similar sense of guilt and secrecy of information that went against “what the leaders said.” Ostracization from my peers for not doing things “the right way.” Others speaking for my experiences. Invasive questioning about my past to be used against me. Getting my needs met ONLY when I did things they wanted me to. The threat of losing material support for leaving. And the constant pressure to stop being autistic.

I even had a “shelf-breaking” moment in ABA. A shelf-breaking moment is referred to in ex-Mormon communities as an analogy for all the slight cognitive dissonances and questions you can’t answer placed on a mental shelf. Eventually, your shelf gets too heavy, and one thing “breaks the shelf,” exposing all the things you had been ignoring. Generally, once someone’s shelf breaks, they leave Mormonism because their entire life is thrown into upheaval.

It’s no surprise that a clinic in the heart of Utah with overwhelmingly Mormon leadership operated like a church. The same power structures enabled toxic in-group behavior and scrutiny of any perceived threats to the hierarchy.

The B.I.T.E. Model

The BITE model is a proposed theory for explaining how cults use control tactics to brainwash people into believing in an ideology and remaining part of a group.

Hassan (2020) proposes four main tactics. Organizations use behavior, information, thought, and emotional control to influence thinking.

He presents the idea on a continuum, from mind control tactics that range from healthy and constructive for the individual to destructive and unhealthy. Mind control tactics that maintain the individual’s free will and sense of self can be helpful (e.g., trying to control those areas to help a person with substance abuse abstain from substances).

Conversely, you have cults and other harmful organizations that utilize these tactics for retaining and gaining influence.

There are three levels that the BITE model examines as well. Traits of control for individuals, leaders, and organizations.

Mormonism tends to fall into the BITE model cleanly (organizationally, not necessarily individually). My experience with the organization is that it seeks homogeneity, is elitist, is deceptive (about history in particular), has an authoritarian structure, and asserts there are no legitimate reasons to leave. While this exists for the organization as a whole, it is especially pervasive in Utah, where the organization has legal control.

While the BITE criteria are too lengthy to list (you can find them here), the more criteria the organization meets, the more destructive and unhealthy it is.

Since ABA is a field, it is tricky to know what counts and whether such a broad structure of many different types of settings, practices, and ideals can be singly defined.

This is why I want to analyze this from the perspective of the ABA organization, which entails the authority groups in the field like the BACB and how they lead the field of ABA as well as widespread behaviors in the field. I will not be counting control behaviors that I experienced personally but will call attention to my experiences to highlight how dogmatic principles appear in application.

Behavior Control

Behavior control is the most obvious control tactic within the field of ABA. Since it is steeped in controlling behavior, it follows that it would exist at a structural level too.

From my experience, these were the criteria that working in ABA met. While this could exist in any hostile working environment, it is worth noting that autistic practitioners in the field have been met with similar experiences.

My ABA clinic made me financially dependent by not paying enough (which is common for RBTs). It also didn’t provide good health insurance, which I need as a disabled autistic person. I was in a terrible catch-22 because I was never making enough to have that amount of money to leave. Turnover for RBTs is common, and a widespread complaint of parents in ABA.

Since ABA is a work environment, the majority of time is spent there. That means the pro-ABA propaganda that circulates significantly influences a particular way of thinking.

Rewards and punishments are used to modify staff behavior. This seems to be almost universal. It’s unfortunately common for ABA clinics to use ABA on their employees. Many view it as good management without considering violating consent and professional boundaries.

Advocacy is often punished, encouraging group-think.

4/22 Pretty alright.

Information Control

The second criterion is how the organization restricts access to dissenting information. The way that autistic people who talk about their ABA experiences are often dismissed as radical, one-offs, or a relic of the past comes to mind.

I would argue that ABA meets the criteria for deception. A major complaint of parents, providers, and survivors is that ABA is not transparent about its outcomes. The ABA industry is not clear about the integrity of its research and hides behind jargon that effectively dismisses critiques of someone that is a novice to the field.

The ABA industry withholds information that disagrees with the field, including research indicating long-term negative effects, diminishing the scientifically dubious emergence of ABA, and rhetoric surrounding recovering from autistic behavior.

It also isn’t upfront about the current harmful practices and uses systems (like credential training) to instill a rosy view of ABA from the beginning.

The BACB does not go after individuals for social media posts, but many individuals in the field weaponize reporting dissent of the field in an attempt to de-credential practitioners. Many current practitioners are afraid to come forward about their experiences as a consequence.

Case-loads are often an issue because BCBAs tend to be overworked, and RBTs are not given adequate training to handle their clients. This creates an environment where practitioners are often too busy to think about what they’re doing or question ways that their practice may be contributing to harm in the field.

Countless sources are promoting ABA, including many official journals, newsletters, and other media. They often misrepresent positions of ABA critiques and requests from autistic people.

3/6 – This is a problem.

Thought Control

The third criterion focuses on how an organization uses rhetoric, values, and rituals to control the thoughts of its members.

ABA requires members to internalize the group’s “doctrine” as truth. It uses previously mentioned information control techniques and threatens credentials for dissenting opinions.

In this same vein, ABA encourages members to view the world phenomenologically from an applied behavioral perspective, confusing many practitioners into saying that non-ABA constructs are ABA innately.

It develops an us vs. them mentality between members and autistic individuals/dissenters of ABA. It recontextualizes ethics, encouraging an “ends justify the means” approach to therapy.

One of the most significant thought control tactics is reducing complex topics into platitudes to stop critical thinking. I’d be hard-pressed to find an ABA practitioner that hasn’t heard at least one of these phrases: “all behavior is communication!”,”quiet hands”,”what’s the ABC?” or “if a dead man can’t do it, it ain’t behavior!”.

ABA as an organization discourages reality checking, using denial of the potential (and documented) harms, rationalization, and justification of current harm.

A major autistic organization facing legal weaponization from the most unethical facility in ABA (JRC) while ABA-International continues to support the facility shows that critical questions about the organization are not looked at fondly.

And anyone with any familiarity with ABA knows of the claims that it is the only and/or most effective autism therapy, shunning other autism therapies with a considerable evidence base.

6/11, not good.

Emotional Control

The last section focuses on how an organization manipulates emotions to create loyalty.

The first criteria that ABA meets are that it often blames individual members for any faults and never holds itself or its leadership accountable. Many times when criticisms are brought up by former members, both leading organizations and current practitioners flood to talk about how those were “isolated incidents”, “individual clinics” or “the rare unethical practice.” I have never seen the head of any ABA organization acknowledge and accept current criticisms of ABA.

They promote feelings of guilt by discouraging members from affiliating with the critical autistic community or negative opinions. Social guilt is often employed to hold the group accountable, pressuring practitioners into feeling they’re doing an immense disservice to their coworkers or organization if they leave. Many practitioners also fear losing their current professional connections if they speak their critiques or decide to leave.

People that leave are often seen as less scientific or swayed by “emotional appeals” and that they couldn’t have reasoned their way out of the organization. This creates pressure that there are no good reasons to leave. Many ABA practitioners mention it’s “such a shame I’m not part of the field anymore.” They see my critiques as more helpful if I were in the field and that by leaving, I have squandered my opportunity to change the field. Part of this stems from other control methods like viewing ABA as the only way.

4/8 yikes.

So, is the ABA organization a cult?

If you are an ABA therapist brave enough to tackle this article, I encourage you to reflect on your experience with leadership and the experiences you hear from others. Why do so many autistic people disagree with ABA? Is there something there that might be worth exploring? Do you recognize any of the behavior described?

If you are not an ABA practitioner, I hope you can see where ABA needs improvements and what change should be pushed for.

I think the end goal for everyone is the utmost ethical treatment of autistic people. Let’s dismantle the unethical structures that currently exist and hold leadership accountable.

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